“Effete snobs” was a phrase used by Vice President Spiro Agnew to denounce anti-war protesters, and young intellectuals in general, during the Vietnam era. The phrase quickly caught on and was adopted as a slogan by the anti-war movement.
Agnew had a reputation as a no-nonsense, law and order politician and a dramatic orator. His law and order reputation was badly dented later when he was forced to resign as vice president amid charges of tax evasion and bribery. But in 1969, Agnew was at the height of his power.
His famous “effete snobs” speech called out not only leftist protesters, but a whole group of pseudo-intellectuals who Agnew believed were brainwashing young students:
Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim, rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated, and a contemporary antagonism known as “The Generation Gap.” A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.
Agnew was responding to the so-called Peace Moratorium, a national day of protest in which an estimated two million people across the United States took part in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. A quarter of a million people gathered in Washington DC, singing songs and holding a late-night vigil. The police clashed with activists outside the White House and elsewhere in the country. In DC, the child development expert Dr Benjamin Spock told the crowd that the war was a “total abomination” that was crippling America and must be stopped.
Agnew delivered his “effete snobs” remarks about a week after the demonstration, at a fundraiser in New Orleans. The vice president asserted that “hardcore dissidents and professional anarchists” were inciting the protests, and that the demonstrators didn’t reflect the true views of most Americans. Nixon had already pledged that he would not be moved in any way by the protests.
Agnew made a series of speeches over the years, criticizing leftist student protesters; in 1970, the New York Times put together a collection of some of his most memorable quotes. The vice president said, for example:
Most of these young people who depend upon the ideology of ‘the movement’ for moral and mental sustenance will in time . . . return to the enduring values, just as every generation before them has done. But unfortunately, there is a much smaller group of students who are committed to radical change through violent means. . . . This is the criminal left that belongs not in a dormitory but in a penitentiary…
One of Agnew’s more memorable descriptions was of the media, when he called them “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Agnew’s “effete snobs” speech, though, quickly became notorious and was co-opted by the left for their own purposes. Political buttons soon appeared, reading, for example, “snob for peace” or “I’m an effete snob for peace.”
The Baltimore Sun has pointed out that ever since Agnew’s speech, politicians have tried to make political capital by attacking out of touch “snobs” and “elitists” at America’s colleges. Ironically, the Sun notes, these anti-elitist politicians are all highly educated themselves.