December 2020 https://scheerpost.com/2020/12/04/thomas-frank-how-the-democratic-party-became-a-vehicle-of-aristocracy/
More than six years ago, a study by Princeton University Prof. Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof. Benjamin I Page made headlines for concluding what many Americans may have already known: the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy. While the evidence is all around us, perhaps even more clearly in a pandemic that has enriched the richest Americans while record numbers of people are left unemployed and destitute, it’s often hard to remember just how the country got to this current state. In the second part of a two-part interview for “Scheer Intelligence,” Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and, more recently, The People, No, talks to host Robert Scheer about the anti-populism that helped liberals embrace the plutocracy that is consuming American democracy daily.
“The Democratic Party has very much become a vehicle of the aristocracy, of plutocracy,” says Frank. “One of the reasons for that is because liberalism in its modern-day incarnation not only has moved away from and forgotten about its past as a working-class movement, but [provides] a rationale for plutocracy.
“By and large, the elite of America today is this kind of white-collar group that’s defined by where they went to school,” the historian continues, “And this group looks out at the rest of the world, and they say, ‘Not only are we richer than you, but we’re better than you. We’re more moral than you, we understand politics better than you, we know the jargon. We understand the issues.’ And this is highly toxic–that this sort of progressive tradition has now come together with and melded with extreme wealth [and] rationalizes their place in the hierarchy.”
Frank, calling on his experiences in his home state of Kansas as well as his extensive historical research, points to the many ways that populist language and messaging was also de-radicalized, dusted off and reused by corporations and political parties to gain the trust of the working class, all the while finding new ways to disadvantage and oppress them. The historian also examines how segregation stemmed from an elite-run wave of anti-populism that Martin Luther King, Jr. identified in his “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,” although it is often left out of civil rights movement narratives.
Listen to the second part of the conversation between Frank and Scheer as the two discuss what this anti-populist scourge has meant for contemporary American politics and where that leaves progressives as Joe Biden prepares to take office. You can also listen to the first part of the interview, in which the two thinkers explore the history of American populism, here.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: No, that–let me interrupt you, by the way. Your book gives a different answer, a more profound answer, OK? Let me just–I don’t want to leave this interview without getting you to talk about that.
RS: Because at first–we’re talking about class consciousness, we’re talking about how a ruling elite, a capitalist elite maintains power. And at first, the response of this capitalist elite to the populist message was to just smash it–as alien, as–
RS: –bad, blah blah blah, OK. And they failed. They failed electorally, as you pointed out, and so forth, in certain places. And then they adopted, particularly around Roosevelt, they adopted a new strategy. Right?
RS: Because you pointed out–
TF: To out-populist the populists, yes. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, but you now point out that–and actually, you established that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal was attacked viciously by the elite, including the academic elite, including the major newspapers. And that’s a very important thing, because the Democratic Party would like to say, well, we’ve always been on the side of workers, we’ve always been on the side of people of color, and of women, and so forth. But the fact is, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was–and certainly a lot of credit, I don’t think your book gives enough credit to Eleanor Roosevelt, but I think she certainly was instrumental in that–but mainly because he needed labor. He needed that organized power. And he was derided, and by, you know, professional economists and professional thinkers in the university, and the leading newspapers. My God, you quote–I worked for the L.A. Times for 20 years–
TF: Yes! [Laughs]
RS: –your quotes from the L.A. Times show it to be a despicable rag of the ruling class–
TF: Oh my God, Bob, you know, I just scratched the surface there. You know that. [Laughs] I could fill chapter after chapter with that stuff.
RS: Well, it was a deliberately anti-labor paper. And not just because they got bombed at one point, but you know. And the New York Times was just vicious–and by the way, which also supported Clinton on the deregulation of Wall Street quite vociferously. But back in the thirties–everybody forgets this bit of history; yes, this was the heyday, I think, of the Democratic Party, but not of the elite, not of the establishment, not of people of wealth. And then in your book you bring up an idea which, since I teach communications theory and everything, is very important, that I had overlooked. That when the strategy of a frontal attack on Roosevelt failed–and after all, Roosevelt won four elections–the big industry under the influence of PR, advertising and everything decided, you know, basically, let’s coopt their language. And you bring up the case of DuPont, a much-reviled company and a horrible employer and everything, but no, let’s make this as American as apple pie again, and let’s use language and manipulation coming out of the war to make it sound–you know, they coopted the whole progressive–yes–
TF: Yes, they most–[Laughs] Yes, they did. And this went on–this is, you know, another subject I’ve written about at great length, is the way these corporations then began to present themselves: as your best buddy. You know, your friend. They’re right with you there in the patriotic struggle, and the voice of the people, and they could out-populist anybody. And that’s really the tradition that someone like Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan comes out of. You know, Ronald Reagan sort of learned all his tricks at General Electric. He learned this kind of fake populism from these guys. But yeah, the corporations–
RS: Let me give you a little footnote on that, because I actually talked to Ronald Reagan. I interviewed him before he was governor of California, and I interviewed him when he was running for president, and I got to know him quite well, and spent a lot of time. And what you’re referring to, in case listeners don’t know because they don’t remember, he became a spokesperson for General Electric. But he had come out of–as he talks about in his own writing, and I talked to him about it–he did not disrespect the New Deal, and he was raised in a home where, as I say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was revered, as I was. And Ronald Reagan–what happened was when he became the spokesperson for General Electric, they took him around to every plant. And Ronald Reagan, after all, had been head of the Screen Actors Guild, and he claimed to be on the side of labor unions. He was–his beef was not with labor unions originally. And he would talk to people. And in these GE plants, they would tell Ronald Reagan, no, we have a great health system, we have great working conditions, and we have a very strong union. It was the united electrical workers, originally a progressive union that got redbaited out of existence by McCarthyism, and then the international united electric workers took over, but they were also a pretty good union.
And so Ronald Reagan, when he was celebrating GE, was celebrating what used to be considered an enlightened capitalist company that paid good wages for American workers. But when Ronald Reagan was president [Laughs] and you had the savings and loan scandal, by the end of his presidency, he became disenchanted with the idea that just big business would always do the right thing. And what happened with General Electric, they ended up getting into banking. GE Capital became the major source of income. They got involved very much in the housing scams, and all that. And two out of three jobs, by the time the housing crisis came along, they had shifted abroad. They were not this great American employer, company. So I don’t want to defend Reagan excessively, but the fact of the matter is, he wasn’t able to pull off the major deregulation of Wall Street. That remained for Bill Clinton–
TF: Exactly, exactly.
RS: –who united the Republicans in Congress to do what maybe Reagan fantasized. But I must say that in terms of his experience with GE, because I did quiz him quite extensively on all that, you know, he was talking about a different GE than the one that participated in the housing meltdown, and that has sent all those jobs abroad. Which by the way was so close to not only Clinton, but to the Obama administration.
TF: Yeah. But I guess what I was getting at is this kind of pseudo-populism that these people do, and Reagan was very good at it. You know, at making people think he was their friend, he was on their side, he was all about helping them be against snobbery and against the elites. And this all comes out of the Roosevelt days, when the kind of upper-class attack on Roosevelt in 1936 so completely and utterly fails. And everybody realizes that if they’re ever going to rebuild conservatism, they’re going to have to do it in this completely different way. And so fast-forward to a few years ago, you know, Donald Trump speaking at the Republican Convention–and I heard this with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes–and he gave a shoutout to “the forgotten man.” [Laughs] I love it. It’s, like, right out of Roosevelt. I mean, they’re still doing this, they’re still stealing lines from Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has decided–they’ve sort of changed positions. The Democratic Party decided that it wants to be the party of making people respect science and respect authority and respect credentialed, you know, expertise.
You know, the other thing you raised that we didn’t really, I didn’t get to is the Civil Rights Movement, which is the last sort of heroic part of the book. And there have been very few really great populist heroes since those days, since the 1960s. But Martin Luther King is actually a much more interesting guy than what is the modern-day image of him, where he’s only about getting the Civil Rights Movement going, and that sort of thing. He was actually, you know, had a lot to do with organized labor, spoke at union gatherings all the time, you know, understood what he was doing as being part of this long tradition of helping working-class people. It wasn’t a class-neutral program, what he was doing. And in fact, towards the end of his life, he and Bayard Rustin and some others came up with this plan that they called the Freedom Budget. And it was basically reviving one of Roosevelt’s old ideas of a second Bill of Rights. The idea was for a massive expansion of the New Deal, or of Johnson’s Great Society, and to make good housing available to everyone, make a good education available to everyone, and of course make health care available to everyone. They had it all figured out; it could have been done. And then unfortunately, you know, he was murdered, the Vietnam War interceded and sort of sucked all the air out of the room, and you know what happened next. And we basically never–we’ve never been able to get back to that moment.
RS: Well, let me talk about that moment just for one second, and then we’ll wrap this up, but I have one last question aside from this. But you know, the fact is, under a Democratic administration–and I’m just trying to be objective here–you know, under Lyndon Johnson, the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI engineered a scheme to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide. To destroy him. And they smeared him–under surveillance; if they’d had the modern means of surveillance they would have succeeded. But even with the primitive means of listening to conversations through hotel rooms and tapping the old-fashioned phone and everything, they set out to destroy him. And they wrote a letter, De Loach and Sullivan in the FBI, the number two and three guys under Hoover, very deliberate, calculated plan to get King to kill himself, and to alienate people from King, and concocting evidence and smearing him in the most vicious way.
And this was all–why were they doing that? Because they claimed that King had leftists and communists around him who’d come out of the history you’re describing. And they claimed that he was not just a civil rights person, but that he was really interested in the betterment of working people. That was really the argument, that he was actually a leftist. And what they were using against him was the fact that he was doing the poor people’s campaign. And in your book you have a poignant description of the tent city that Martin Luther King wanted to set up in Washington, going far beyond the March on Washington, demanding proper working conditions, demanding economic change. And really, Martin Luther King was, in the way you define it in your book, a populist. And he understood–he anticipated the Black Lives Matter moment we’ve had in the middle of this pandemic. That in fact, you can put things down on paper about civil rights, but if you don’t have a reality in the workplace, in the living conditions, in the educational system–all the things the populists would have talked about, did talk about a hundred years before–Martin Luther King understood very well that it wasn’t going to work. And that’s why we have a Black Lives Matter movement, raising issues that you would have thought had been resolved a long time ago.
TF: Yeah, you’re exactly right. And so by the time that King was, you know, was on the national stage, it was unusual for people to call themselves populists. But I’m going to tell you one last sort of ironic story–there’s so many ironic stories in this book, but–
RS: Hey, given that you’ve been blocked out of the media elsewhere–
TF: [Laughs] I know, I know.
RS: Why not take advantage here–
TF: Let’s do it, let’s do it. So King, one of his sort of great moments, one of his great oratorical moments is when he’s giving a speech on the steps of the Alabama Capitol building. It’s at the very end of his Selma to Montgomery march, in 1965. And it’s a great, triumphant moment; Congress has just passed the Voting Rights Act, which is the triumphant thing. Because the South, ever since populism, the South has been denying–oh, we didn’t tell that story! So they, to put populism down permanently, a lot of these Southern states disenfranchised Black people, and disenfranchised a whole lot of poor whites, to make sure that something like populism could never happen again. Anyhow, so King is standing on the steps of the Montgomery–
RS: Let me just interrupt you for a minute, because again, it’s something I learned from your book. You raise the question, where did segregation, in its sort of legal formation, come from?
TF: Yeah. That’s what King was asking that day. That’s what his speech was about.
RS: Yeah, well, I just want to set that for people listening to this, because we just assume that somehow the South had slavery and then it had segregation. But segregation, as a structured legal system, and a refined legal system, really came in response to this threat of populism–of uniting white and Black workers in the South, who were living in conditions of misery. If you could have gotten them united, and they would have thrown the leadership of what was still, was then the Democratic Party–that would have changed the politics of the whole country.
TF: Oh my goodness, yeah. It would have been massive. If populism had succeeded? It would have been extraordinary. But so King is–
RS: So let’s set the stage. Let’s set the stage, because people don’t have that much of a sense of history. So put us–
TF: Yeah. So it’s funny, this has never been a well-known chapter of American history. And I mean, we’re in this period now where we are, you know, we are smashing icons and we’re overturning past heroes, but there’s still very little curiosity among the mass media about where this system came from. Where did Jim Crow come from? Because like you said, it didn’t just–they didn’t just do it right after the Civil War. It took a while to set this system up. Where did it come from, how did they–when did they decide to disenfranchise Black voters? How did they go about it? Et cetera, et cetera. And when you dig into it, a lot of it, it happened in a lot of places as a response to populism–as a way of making sure that a radical threat like this could never happen again.
And Martin Luther King actually knew this history. The reason he knew it–it’s not, you know, hard to figure out–there was a famous historian of the South back in those days, his name was C. Vann Woodward, who wrote about this. You know, he wrote book after book after book about this story. C. Vann Woodward was a classic Southern liberal, and for him populism was the only bright spot in Southern history between the end of the Civil War–or I should say the end of Reconstruction, and then the present day in the 1960s, when he was writing populism. Was the only moment when there was even a glimmer of hope that Blacks and whites could get together in some kind of common action.
And Martin Luther King knew this history pretty well. And so he’s at this triumphant moment in Montgomery, Alabama, and he’s giving this speech. And he does this amazing shoutout to the populist movement of the 1890s. And he talks about how it threatened the Bourbon Democrats of the South, and how they instituted Jim Crow as a response to populism. So, to reinforce this idea of white solidarity, so that they could go to the, you know, to the poor white farmer who had nothing–you know, who was basically starving, almost–and say to this guy, well, you know, at least you’re a white person. So you’re better than these other people. And it’s one of King’s great moments. You can watch the speech on YouTube. But he says–I don’t want to spoil it, but you should go and watch the speech, because it’s absolutely fantastic. And he says, you know, the poor white farmer, when his stomach growled and his family called out for food, “he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was,” he was still better than these other people. It’s one of his beautiful moments.
But here’s the ironic message: so King is giving this speech in Montgomery, Alabama; this is a few days or whatever it is, a week after his friends had been beaten bloody on the bridge at Selma by the Alabama State Troopers. King’s arch-rival is a man called George Wallace, who’s the governor of Alabama, who sent those state troopers to beat up those protesters, and who is sitting on the governor’s chair at the very moment that King is giving this speech and giving this shoutout to populism. OK–that’s 1965. In 1968, King gets murdered, and George Wallace decides to run for president. And the National Press Corp is horrified by Wallace; he’s this sort of proto-Trumpian figure, he goes around the country–you know, he’s this arch-segregationist going around the country pretending that he cares about ordinary working-class people and this kind of thing. What’s the word that the Press Corp uses, that they decide they’re going to use this word to describe George Wallace? It’s “populist.” [Laughs] This is the word that they apply to George Wallace. And ever since then, we have decided, we have determined that people who mine the same vein, this kind of resentful pseudo-workerist anti-elitism, with heavy overtones of bigotry, that that’s what they are, is populists.
It’s a fantastic irony. And it’s an irony that’s nevertheless–it’s extremely toxic; it’s been extremely poisonous for progressive, you know, mass movements of working-class people. But it’s been extremely flattering to a different demographic, to the kind of suburban liberals who, you know, with good educations who think they know better. And this is the story of anti-populism in America. Anti-populism has gone from in the 1890s being the province of the most reactionary forces in America–and I go into this in some detail, as you know, Bob. If you go on my website, TCFrank.com, I’ve got a whole lot of their political cartoons and stuff. The anti-populists, and how they despised ordinary Americans, ordinary working-class Americans. This was a right-wing phenomenon–to today, when it’s a phenomenon of the highly educated liberal elite. And that’s the–that’s the whole story of this book, and I’m so sorry to say, Bob, that is the whole story of our time in this country.
RS: Well, on that note–but let me say, the concluding chapter of your book is a Tom Paine-like statement. And it’s one that’s going to make a lot of people–the book is The People, No, I’m sorry, Metropolitan [Books]. Please read it; it’s not a slim–I mean, it’s 300 pages or so, but it’s a fast read, it’s accessible, well documented. But it will make people uncomfortable. And what you basically talk about–it’s interesting, you know, one area I have a very serious disagreement with you about. You’re a younger person; I was quite active in the sixties. [Laughs] And I think you’re a little bit harsh on the sixties Left, and so forth, and the Port Huron statement, and people like Tom Hayden–
TF: Well, you might be right about that; I was not there.
RS: [Laughs] I know. And you’re right, though, that it was limited in all sorts of ways. But the fact of the matter is, the people who went South in the Civil Rights Movement–I personally was in the South in 1960 with some people who insisted on integrating bathrooms and so forth. You know, and I was involved. But the people who did get involved, and a lot of the people who did get involved in the Civil Rights Movement–and the connection, by the way, between the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar movement, I happen to have been the editor of Ramparts, where Martin Luther King first read the article that moved him to speak out at All Saints Church, when he came out against the war–there was a lot more energy coming from the sixties. So I don’t want to get into that whole discussion, and there are other things I might take issue with in your book.
But what I cannot dismiss–not just dismiss, what I have to really say, I got taken to school on this–was, I’ve been of the mind to excuse the elite. I wouldn’t say excuse them, but at least assume that they’re not in the driver’s seat of the corruption of America of the Democratic Party. In particular, I never expected the Republican Party to be a center of enlightenment. But you really nail the cop-out–that’s why I brought up the sixties; the whole sixties was about “don’t sell out,” “have some integrity.” I remember I was there watching the FSM and participating in the Free Speech Movement, when Seymour Martin Lipset was standing next to me, actually; I was chatting with him–and he said, wow, this is of great concern, this is not a good thing, and so forth. So you know, I was a graduate student and he was a big professor, but I did feel the need to take issue with him.
But what you nail in this book in your conclusion–and let’s end by talking about it–you present the elite as not just the handmaiden to corruption, servicing it, the court jesters. But you identify the elite produced by this meritocracy as the engine that’s driving the current corruption, certainly of the Democratic Party. And that’s a serious charge. And we’ve kind of–we’re aware there’s this meritocracy elite and so forth, and we’re aware what it does. But you actually describe it as a menace to the democratic experiment. And I think that would be a good–and maybe that’s why you’re not being asked to be on all of these television and radio shows. You’re calling out the people who are on MSNBC, are on PBS and NPR and so forth, routinely. And so let’s end on that, because it’s a pretty serious question to raise.
TF: Yeah. And you know, maybe–
RS: I don’t have the book in front of me, but you could almost begin by reading the first few paragraphs, or the first two pages of your conclusion. But you can give it to us, I think you know it by heart.
TF: Liberals have become comfortable with plutocracy. And not just comfortable with it; we think it’s, we think it’s correct.
RS: It’s the saving grace!
TF: We think it’s right. Because the whole idea of meritocracy is that there is a hierarchy. There is a moral hierarchy, there is a hierarchy of learning, there is a hierarchy of goodness. And there’s this sense now that you get from liberals; it’s not, you know–remember earlier in the conversation we were talking about all of these wealthy parts of America flipping–did we talk about this? These wealthy parts of America flipping from Republican to Democratic, which happened in Orange County, happened–
RS: No, no, we could talk–it’s not too late to talk about.
TF: Well, you know it happened in Orange County and it happened in my, just this year in the county that I grew up in, Johnson County, Kansas, which is a wealthy suburb of Kansas City, and highly educated. And when I wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas, I thought of it as the most Republican place in America. And that was objectively true at the time. Well, it went for Biden this year. First time they’ve gone for a Democrat since Woodrow Wilson. That long they were Republican, and now they’ve flipped. And you see this everywhere that people are rich and highly educated together, is that they are flipping to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has very much become a vehicle of the aristocracy, of plutocracy. And one of the things, one of the reasons for that–there’s a lot of different reasons for that. And you can look at, by the way, look at Biden’s fundraising; he dramatically outraised the billionaire Trump. He was supported by every important institution in American life, with the exception of big oil. Every single one. And one of the reasons for that is because liberalism in its modern-day incarnation not only has moved away, has forgotten about its past as a working-class movement, but has a way of rationalizing–liberalism provides a rationale for plutocracy. And it says–you know, we were talking about those yard signs earlier that mention all the liberal causes. And what it does, what liberalism does is it not only says–you know, we’re not only richer than you, we’re better than you.
So you’ve got this ruling elite in this country that is largely defined nowadays by where they went to college and where they went to graduate school, and what they studied and how well they did in school, that is really what defines the ruling elite of this country nowadays. You still have a sort of older elite here and there who inherited their money or who were entrepreneurs or whatever. But by and large, the elite of America today is this kind of white-collar group that’s defined by where they went to school. And this group looks out at the rest of the world, and they say, you know, not only are we richer than you, but we’re better than you. We’re more moral than you, we understand politics better than you, we know the jargon. You know, we understand the issues. And this is highly toxic. That this sort of progressive tradition has now come together with and melded with extreme wealth, and even provides a rationale for a plutocracy. But that is–I’m quite serious, Bob; that’s where we are today. That is what liberalism does. That is one of the services that it provides to its constituents, is that it rationalizes their place in the hierarchy.
RS: Well, but we can–you know, it’s interesting, because Chris Hedges has written, you know, attacking what he called the liberal class, and he grew up in it; his father was a minister, but in a community where he went to some of their private schools, and Harvard Divinity School and so forth. And he has shocked people by calling attention to this as really a serious menace in this society. And there’s very little room–I’ve discovered this personally in my own household, my own circle of friends. You’re somehow trapped in this middle, between you’ve got this menace of Trump, and this straight-out defense of wealth and power–by the way, not the way he campaigned; I thought your book was really quite interesting on the faux populism of Bannon and Pat Buchanan that informed the Trump campaign at first, and allowed him to wipe the floor of the Republican Party leadership. And even to this day I believe Kansas went 15% or something for Trump.
TF: Oh yeah, he won the state handily, it was just that one county that I was–
RS: Yeah, and so the irony here is that you have, you know, on the one hand you have Trump taking out half of the air in the room with a reinterpretation of the Republican Party, that goes DuPont and those old corporations one up, and says we’re on the side of the ordinary person who’s being screwed by trade agreements and everything else. And then you have this liberal class that Hedges has written about so effectively, that no longer stands for blue-collar workers, for working people, for ordinary people, be they schoolteachers, be whatever. You know, certainly not people working for Apple in China or anywhere. So where is the room? You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You know, the lesser evil and the greater evil aren’t that far apart. And we’re going to have a test of that now.
TF: Yes, we are.
RS: And maybe that’s a good point–so, be kind of a guide for people to look now that Biden has won. Now they’ll say, oh, but we don’t control the Senate; you know, we have to even do more to get control. But that game has been played a long time, of lesser-evilism. The fact is, what will they do about trade? What will they do about serious policy on immigration, so you don’t pit immigrants against workers, but you have a realistic quota of how many people. Maybe a country like Mexico that has historic–or after all, as Dolores Huerta points out, her family didn’t cross the border, the border crossed her family six generations ago. So maybe we need to have a legal quota for Mexico of a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand a year, not the 25,000 that we used to have for Iceland, and for Mexico at the same time. You know, maybe serious policies addressing trade so that maybe, OK, you want to ship jobs to China, you should have to pay a living wage in China, or at least not have the U.S. cooperate with the Chinese government in cracking down on labor unions and so forth. So there are things to be done. And basically, the message of your book is they will only come from the bottom up. They will not come from the leadership.
TF: Well, we’re in a very difficult situation right now in this country. Trump has been defeated, but as you have mentioned, Trumpism remains strong. His base is still united, they’re still with him. There’s going to be another Trump in four years. This is just going to keep getting worse unless the Democratic Party finally takes steps. I don’t–you know, it’s obvious to me what has to happen. That the Democratic–if they want to stop Trumpism, they have to understand that it’s their own movement toward this meritocratic elite that made Trump possible. They have to reverse that somehow. There’s all sorts of obvious ways that they could go about reversing that, but I don’t–I strongly doubt that they will. You know, we’re in a very dangerous situation, and I’m just–you know, it’s going to be a lot of, it’s going to be real interesting the next four years, watching how this unfolds before the next Trump comes along.
RS: So let me end with one little positive–well, not positive. But you’re the only expert I know on–well, that’s not true, I have some friends who grew up in Kansas and so forth. But when you say the Democratic Party enabled the rise of Trump, how could the Democratic Party legitimately win back–because they’re not deplorables, you know–how could they win back that population of Kansas that still voted overwhelmingly–
TF: For Trump.
RS: After all, Kansas was where populism [unclear] and others came from, progressive ideas came from. That’s the whole message of your famous writing, even now that you’re being excluded, is that you understood something about that heartland of America. And how would you win back Kansas now?
TF: Well, the first step is to actually listen to those people rather than just decide that they need to be punished. Which is overwhelmingly the attitude among the sort of liberal commentariat. You know, that these people are bad people who there’s something dark and wrong with their souls, and we should not offer them anything; that’s obviously, you know, an enormous blunder. What you have to do is– [Laughs] win some of those people back. The way you do it is, you know, you were talking about, by and large, working-class people; this is the famous white working class, and my emphasis is on the working-class side of that.
And what’s funny is watching all these sort of liberals here in Washington, D.C. spin their wheels and say, well, what could a party of the Left offer working-class people? They can’t even imagine. You know, and it’s like, dude, look at history. Parties of the Left are supposed to be about working-class people. It’s incredibly easy to come up with things that a party of the Left would do for working-class people. For one thing, universal health care. For another thing–I mean, this one just seems like a no-brainer–make it easy for them to form labor unions again. Once you do that, it’ll start to, you know, people start to think differently, they start to bargain. It changes people’s attitudes about their whole life. I mean, I think of making school good and accessible and cheap again. You know, all of those things. You go right down the list of, you know, Martin Luther King and the Freedom Budget; you know, make sure [that] the housing is affordable. These are all no-brainers, in my opinion, that the Democratic Party could do.
Now, it’s going to be difficult; it’s going to be hard, but at least they can make a stand. A guy like Joe Biden is–at least he’s, he’s not Hillary Clinton, calling people “deplorables.” This is a guy that likes to speak to blue-collar audiences. You know, he likes to hang around in union halls and stuff like that. It’s not that hard for him to make the case to these people. But he’s got to understand the strategy of it, and the long-term direction that his party has been going in, if he wants to turn it around. And with that, Bob, I–you’ve drained me. [Laughs]
RS: Well, you’ve got to bite the hand that feeds you. And you know, he outraised Trump two to one in that home stretch by getting money from the fat cats, let’s face it, and the very people the populists warned us about.
Well, we’ve certainly done–now, I don’t want anybody to have the idea that we got the whole book, because this guy’s a great writer, it’s well documented, and I want people, I want to encourage people to get this book. It’s, you know, it’s really–you know what, I scratch my head and think, why haven’t more of us written about this. Why were we so–maybe this was a big failing of the sixties Left, maybe you caught us there. Maybe we abandoned labor. Maybe we were elitist ourselves. You know, one of the charges of your book, maybe we were that baby boom generation, also–I’m a little older than that, but maybe they sold out, ultimately, and abandoned working people in America.
TF: Yeah, Bill Clinton is the great political embodiment of that generation, and I don’t think we can describe his career in any other way.
RS: Except there are a whole lot of people I run into as a journalist, all over the years, who are doing the right thing, working in schools, all over. And why are they there? Because they were touched by the sixties. So let me just throw that in there, my own little editorial comment. I want to thank you, Thomas Frank. The book is The People, No. But it really is “The People, Yes,” the old Carl Sandburg–it’s called The People, No, because it’s about the people who are attacking the whole American history of populism, which is in the best sense as American as apple pie.
I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for putting these shows up. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata for the introduction, Lucy Berbeo for the transcription. And I want to thank, a shout-out to Jean Stein, the great American writer and force. And she would have agreed, I think, with every word that Thomas Frank says in this book and has said today, and the JWK Foundation, which is keeping her memory alive and has given us some support for these shows. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week.
Christopher Lasch 1994: THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES: Have they cancelled their allegiance to America?
Christopher Lasch, who died in February, was a distinguished critic of American society. He is best known for his books The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and The True and Only Heaven (1991). This essay is adapted from his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
When Ortega Y’Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses in 1930, he could not have foreseen a time when it would be more appropriate to speak of a revolt of the elites. Writing in the era of the Bolshev ik revolution and the rise of fascism, in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war that had torn Europe apart, Ortega attributed the crisis of Westem culture to the “political domination of the masses.”
In our time, however, the chief threat seems to come not from the masses but from those at the cop of the social hierarchy, the elites who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production, and thus set the terms of public debate. Members of the elite have lost faith in values, or what remains of them, of the West. For many people, the very term “Western civilization” now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois (neoliberal) values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression- women, children, homosexuals, people of color- in a permanent state of subjection. In a remarkable tum of events that confounds our expectations about the course of history, something that Ortega never dreamed of has occurred–the revolt of the elites.
From Ortega’s point of view, one that was widely shared at the time, the value of cultural elites lay in their willingness to assume responsibility for the exacting standards without which civilization is impossible. They lived in the service of demanding ideals. “Nobility,” Ortega wrote, “is defined by the demands it makes on us–by obligations, not by rights.” The mass man, on the other hand, had no use for obligations and no understanding of what they implied, “no feeling for [the] great historical duties.” (but for neighbors and community?) Instead, he asserted the “rights of the commonplace.” At once resentful and self-satisfied, he rejected “everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.” Lacking any comprehension of the fragility of civilization or the tragic character of history, he was concerned only with his own well-being and looked forward to a future of “ limitless possibilities” and “complete freedom.” His many failings included a “lack of romance in his dealings with women.” Erotic love, a demanding ideal in its own right, had no attraction for him. His attitude toward the body was severely practical: he made a cult of physical fitness and submitted to hygienic regimens that promised to keep it in good repair and to extend its longevity.
Above all, however, it was the “deadly hatred of all that is not itself’ that characterized the mass mind, as Ortega described it. Incapable of wonder or respect, the mass man was the “spoiled child of human history.” The mass man, according to Ortega, took for granted the benefits conferred by civilization and demanded them “peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.” Though he enjoyed advantages brought about by the general “rise of the historic level,” he felt no obligation either to his progenitors or to his progeny. His “incredible ignorance of history” made it possible for him to think of the present moment as far superior to the civilizations of the past and to forget, moreover, that contemporary civilizatio n was itself the product of centuries of historical development, not the unique achievement of an age that had discovered the secret of progress by turning its back on the past.
All the habits of mind that Ortega attributed to the masses are now, I submit, more characteristic of the upper levels of society than of the lower or middle levels. It can hardly be said that ordinary people today look forward to a world of “limitless possibility.” Any sense that the masses are riding the wave of history has long since departed. The radical movements that disturbed the peace of the twentieth century have failed one by one, and no successors have appeared on the horizon. The industrial working class, once the mainstay of the socialist movement, has become a pitiful remnant of itself. The hope that “new social movements” would take its place in the struggle against capitalism, which briefly sustained the left in the late Seventies and early Eighties, has come to nothing. Not only do the new social movements- feminism, gay rights, welfare rights, agitation against racial discrimination- have nothing in common; their only coherent demand aims at inclusion in the dominant structures rather than at a revolutionary transformation of social relations.
The masses today (early 90s) have lost interest in revolution. Indeed, their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self-appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators. It is the working and lower middle classes, after all, who favor limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family as a source of stability in a turbulent world, resist experiments with “alternative lifestyles,” and harbor deep reservations about affirmative action and other ventures in large-scale social engineering. Today, it is the masses, not the elites, who possess the highly developed sense of limits that Ortega identified with civilization. Members of the working and lower middle classes understand, as their betters do not, that there are inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history. While young professionals subject themselves to an arduous schedule of physical exercise and dietary controls designed to keep death at bay–to maintain themselves in a state of permanent youthfulness, eternally attractive and remarriageable–ordinary people, on the other hand, accept the body’s decay as something against which it is more or less useless to struggle. Upper-middle-class liberals have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society- to create a “smoke-free environment,” to censor everything from pornography to “hate speech,” and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need for solid moral guidelines.
When confronted with resistance to these initiatives, members of todays’ elite betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. They find it hard to understand why their hygienic conception of life fails to command universal enthusiasm. In the United States, “Middle America”- a term that has both geographical and social implications–has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: “family values,” mind less patriot ism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly dowdy, unfashionable, and provincial. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing–not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses itself, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality chat occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity. Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.
The revolt of the elites against older conceptions of prudence and constraint is occurring at a time when the general course of history no longer favors the levelling of social distinctions but runs more and more in the direction of a two-class society in which the favored few monopolize the advantages of money, education, and power. It is undeniable, of course, that the comforts of modem life are still distributed far more widely than they were before the Industrial Revolution. It was this democratization of comfort that Onega had in mind when he spoke of the “rise of the historic level.” Like many others, Ortega was struck by the unheard-of abundance generated by the modern division of labor, by the transformation of luxuries into necessities, and by the popularization of standards of comfort and convenience formerly confined to the rich. These facts–the material fruits of modernization– are not in question. In our time, however, the democratization of abundance- the expectation that each generation would enjoy a standard of living beyond the reach of its predecessors– has given way to a ‘reversal in which age-old inequalities are beginning to reestablish themselves, sometimes at a frightening rate, sometimes so gradually as to escape notice.
People in the upper 20 percent of the income structure now control half the country’s wealth. In the last twenty years, only they have experienced a net gain in family income. In the brief years of the Reagan Administration alone, their share of the national in come rose from 41.5 percent to 44 percent. The middle class, generously defined as those with incomes ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 a year, declined from 61 percent of the population in 1970 to 52 percent in 1985. These figures convey only a partial, imperfect impression of momentous changes that have taken place in a remarkably short period of time. The steady growth of unemployment, now expanded to include white-collar workers, is more revealing. So is the growth of the “contingent labor force.” The number of part-time jobs has doubled since 1980 and now amounts to a quarter of all available jobs. No doubt this massive growth of part-time employment helps to explain why the number of workers covered by retirement plans, which rose from 22 percent to 45 percent between 1950 and 1980, slipped back to 42.6 percent by 1986. It also helps to explain the decline in union membership and the steady erosion of union in fluence. All these developments, in tum, reflect the loss of manufacturing jobs and the shift to an economy increasingly based on information and services.
The upper middle class, the heart of the new professional and managerial elites, is defined, apart from its rapidly rising income, not so much by its ideology as by a way of life that distinguishes it, more and more unmistakably, from the rest of the population. Th is way of life is glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish. The prosperity enjoyed by the professional and managerial classes, which make up most of the upper 20 percent of the income structure, derives in large part from the emerging marital pattern inelegantly known as “assortative mating”-the tendency of men to marry women who can be relied on to bring in income more or less equivalent to their own. Doctors used to marry nurses; lawyers and executives, their secretaries. Now upper-middle-class men tend to marry women of their own class, business or professional associates with lucrative careers of their own. “What if
the $60,000 lawyermarries another $60,000 lawyer,” Mickey Kaus asks in his book The End of Equality,” and the $20,000 clerk marries a $20,000 clerk? Then the difference between their incomes suddenly becomes the difference between $120,000 and $40,000” and although the trend is still masked in the income statistics by the low average wages of women,” Kaus adds,” it’s obvious to practically everyone, even the experts, that something like this is in fact happening.” It is unnecessary to seek further for an explanation of feminism’s appeal to the professional and managerial class.
How should this new social elite bed escribed? Their investment in education and information, as opposed to property, distinguishes them from the rich bourgeoisie, the ascendancy of which characterized an earlier stage of capitalism, and from the old proprietary class- the middle class, in the strict sense of the term- that once made up the bulk of the population. These groups constitute a “new class” only in the sense that their livelihood rests not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise. They embrace too wide a variety of occupations– brokers, bankers, real estate promoters and developers, engineers, consultants of all kinds, systems analysts, scientists, doctors, publicists, publishers, editors, advertising executives, art directors, moviemakers, entertainers, journalists, television producers and directors, artists, writers, university professors–to be described as a “new class” or a “new ruling class.” Furthermore, they lack a common political outlook.
In Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the new American elite has found its philosopher. Reich’s category of “symbolic analysts” in his book The Work of Nations serves as a clumsy but useful, empirical, and rather unpretentious description of the new elite. These are people, as Reich describes them, who live in a world of abstract concepts and symbols, ranging from stock-market quotations to the visual images produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and who specialize in the interpretation and deployment of symbolic information. Reich contrasts them with the two other principal categories of labor– “routine producers,” who perform repetitive tasks and exercise little control over the design of production, and “in person servers,” whose work also consists of the routine, for the most part, but “must be provided person-to-person” and therefore cannot be “sold worldwide.” If we allow for the highly schematic and necessarily imprecise character of these categories, they correspond closely enough to everyday observation to give us a fairly accurate impression not only of the occupational structure but of the class structure of American society today. The “symbolic analysts” are clearly rising in wealth and status while the other categories, which make up 80 percent of the population, are declining.
Reich’s portrait of the “symbolic analysts” is extravagantly flattering. In his eyes, they represent the best and brightest in American life. Educated at “elite private schools” and “high-quality suburban public schools, where they are tracked through advanced courses,” they en joy every advantage their doting parents can provide.
Their teachers and professors are attentive to their academic needs. They have access to state-of-the-art science laboratories, interactive computers and video systems in the classroom, language laboratories, and high-tech school libraries. Their classes are relatively small; their peers are intellectually stimulating. Their parents take them to museums and cultural events, expose them to foreign travel, and give them music lessons. At home are educational books, educational toys, educational videotapes, microscopes, telescopes, and personal computers replete with the latest educational software.
These privileged young people acquire advanced degrees at the “best [universities] in the world,” the superiority o f which is proved by their ability to attract foreign students in great numbers. ln this cosmopolitan atmosphere, they overcome the provincial folkways that impede creative thought, according to Reich. “Skeptical, curious, and creative,” they become problem solvers par excellence, equal to any challenge. Unlike those who engage in min d-numb ing routines, they love their work, which engages them in lifelong learning and endless experimentat ion.
O ld-fashio ned intellectuals tend to work by them selvesand to be jealous and possessive abou t their ideas. By con trast, the new brain workers-pro ducers of high-quality “ins ights” in a variety of fields ranging from market in g and finance to art and enterta inment —operate best in teams. Their “capacity to collaborate” promotes “system chinking”-the ability to see problems in their totality, to absorb the fruitsof collective experimentation, and to “discern larger causes, consequences, and relationships.”Since their work depends so heavily on “ne tworking,” they settle in “specialized geographic pockets”populated by people like themselves. These privileged communities- Cambridge,Silicon Valley, Hollywood- become”wondrously resilient” cen ters of artis tic, techn ica l, and promotional enterprise. Th ese new workers represent the epitome of intellectual achievement, in Reich’s admiring view, and of th e good life conceived as the excha nge of “insights,” “information,” and professional gossip.
T he geographical conce nt ration of knowledge producers, once it reaches a crit ical mass, incidenta lly provides a market for the growing class of “in person servers” who cater to their needs. “It is no accident,” says Reich,
that Hollywood is home to a conspicuously large number of voice coaches, fenc ing trainers, dancing instructors, performers’ agents, and suppliers of photograph ic, acoustic and lighting equipment. Also found in close proximity are restaurants with precisely the right ambience favored by producers wooing directors anddirectors wooing screenwriters, and everyone in Hollywoodwooing everyone else.
Universa l admission to the class of “creative” people would best meet Reich’s ideal of a democraticsociety, but since th is goal isclearly unattai nable, the next best thing, presumably, is a society composed of”symbolic analysts” and their hangers-on. The latter are themselves consumed with dreams of star dom but are content , in the meantime, to live in the shadow of the stars, wait ing to be discovered. They are symb iotically united with their betters in the continuous search for marketable talent that can be compared, as Reich’s imagery makes clear, only to t h e rites of cou rtship. One might add the more jaundiced observation that the circlesof power-finance, government , art, en tertainment—overlap and become increasingly interchangeab le.
T hough Re ich t urn s to Hollywood for a particularly compellin g example of the “wondrously resilien t” communities chat sprin g up whereve r there is a concentrati on of “creative” people, his description of the new kind of elite community fit s the n a t ion ‘s capita l as well. Washingto n becomes a parody of T in sel to wn; executives take to the airw aves, creating overnight the semblance of political movements; movie stars become political pundits, even presidents; reality and the simulat ion
of reality become more and more difficult to distinguis h. Ross Perot launches his presidential campaign from Larry King Live. Hollywood stars take a prominent part in the Clinton campaig n and flock to C linton’s inaugural, investin g it with the glamour of a Hollywood open ing. T V anchormen and int e rviewersbecome celeb ritie s; celebrities in the world of entertainment take on the role of social critics. The boxer Mike Tyson issues ath ree-page open letter from the Indi ana prison where he is serving a six-year term for rape condemning the President’s “crucifixion” of Lani Guinier. The star-struck Rhodes scholar Robert Reich, prophet of the new worl d of “abstraction, system ch in king, experimentation, and collaborat ion,” joins the Clinton Administration in the incongruous capacity of secretary of labor-administrator, in other words, of the one category of employment (“routine production”) that has no future at all (according to his own account ) in a society composed of “symbolic analysts” and “in-person servers.” Only in a world in which words and images bear ever less resemblance to the things they appear to describe would it be possible for a man like Reich to refer to himself, without irony, as secretary of labor or to write so glowingly of a society governed by “the best and the brightest.” (The last time the best and th e brightest got control of the country, they dragged it in to a protracted, demoralizing war in Southeast Asia, from which the country still has not fully recovered.)
S o c 1AL MOBILIT Y SU PPO RTS T HE ILLUSION THAT THE NEW ELITES OWE T HEIR POSIT IO NS
SOLELY T O MERIT
The arrogance of the elite , in its revolt against civilizing limits, should not be confused with the pride, characteristic of aristocratic classes, that rests on the inheritance of an ancient lineage and on the obligation to defend its honor. Neither valor and chivalry nor the code of courtly, romantic love, with which these values are closely associated, has any place in the worldview of the best and the brightest. A meritocracy has no more use for chivalry and valor than a hereditary aristocracy has for brains. Although hereditary advantages play an important part in the attainment of professional or managerial status, the new class has to maintain the fiction that its power rests on intelligence alone. Hence it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past. It thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts. Even the concept of a republic of letters, which might be expected to appeal to elites with such a large stake in higher education, is almost entirely absent from their frame of reference.
Meritocratic elites find it difficult to imagine a community, even a community of the intellect, that reaches into both the past and the future and is constituted by an awareness of intergenerational obligation. The “zones” and “net works” admir ed by Reich bear little resemblance to communities in any traditional sense of the term. Populated by transients, they lack the continuity that derives from a sense of place and from standards of conduct self-consciously cultivated and handed down from generation to generation. The “community” of the best and the brightest is a community of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.
The identification and promotion of “the best and the brightest” is the meritocratic ideal. Meritocracy, however, is a parody of democracy. It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, to anyone with the talent to seize them; but “opportunities to rise,” as R. H. Tawney pointed out in Equality, “are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization,” of the “dignity and culture” that are needed by all “whether they rise or not.” Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. Furthering upward mobility merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead. Their lack of gratitude disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership, and, in any case, they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot— the very definition of meritocratic success.
The inner logic of meritocracy has seldom been more rigorously ex posed than in the British writer Michael Young’s dystopian novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033 (1959), a work written in the tradition of Tawney, G.D. H. Cole, George Orwell, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams. Young’s narrator, a historian writing in the fourth decade of the twenty-first century, approvingly chronicles the “fundamental change” of the century and a half beginning around 1987 the redistribution of intelligence “between the classes.” “By imperceptible degrees an aristocracy of birth has turned into an aristocracy of talent.” Thanks to industry’s adoption of intelligence testing, the abandonment of the principle of seniority, and the growing influence of the school at the expense of the family,” the talented have been given the opportunity to rise to the level which accords with their capacities, and the lower classes consequently reserved for those who are also lower in ability.” In Young’s world, a doctrinaire belief in equality collapsed in the face of the practical advantages of an educational system that “no longer required the clever to mingle with the stupid.”
Young’s imaginative projection sheds a great deal of light on trends in the United States, where a seemingly democratic system of elite recruitment leads to results that are far from democratic–segregation of social classes, contempt for manual labor, collapse of the common schools, loss of a common culture. As Young describes it, meritocracy has the effect of making elites more secure than ever in their privileges(which can now be seen as the appropriate reward of diligence and brainpower) while nullifying working-class opposition. “Th e best way to defeat opposition,” Young’s historian observes, “is . . . appropriating and educating the best children of the lower classes while they are still young.” Liberals and conservatives alike ignore the real objection to meritocracy–that it drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership– and content themselves with dubious arguments to the effect that education does not live up to its promise of fostering social mobility. If it did, they seem to imply, no one would presumably have any reason to complain. Those who are left behind, knowing that “they have had every chance,” cannot legitimately comp lain about their lot.” For the first time in human history the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.” It should not surprise us, then, that meritocracy also generates an obsessive concern with “self-esteem.” The new therapies (sometimes known collectively as the recovery movement) seek to counter the oppressive sense of failure in those who fail to climb the educational ladder even while they leave intact the existing structure of elite recruitment—the acquisition of educational credentials.
An aristocracy of talent is superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege. Meritocracy, however, turns out to be a contradiction in terms: the talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues. Their snobbery lacks any acknowledgment of reciprocal obligations between the favored few and the multitude. Although they are full of “compassion” for the poor, they cannot be said to subscribe to a theory of noblesse oblige, which would imply a willingness to make a direct and personal contribution to the public good. Obligation, like everything else, has been depersonalized; exercised through the agency of the state, the burden of supporting it falls not on the professional and managerial class but, disproportionately, on the lower middle and working classes. The policies advanced by new-class liberals on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed-racial integration of the public schools, for example– require sacrifices from the ethnic minorities who share the inner cities with the poor, seldom from the suburban liberals who design and support those policies.
To an alarming extent, the privileged classes– by an expansive definition, the top 20 percent have made themselves independent not only of crumbling industrial cities but of public services in general. They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies by enrolling in company-supported plans, and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence. It is not just that they see no point in paying for public services they no longer use; many of them have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, implicated in America’s destiny for better or worse. Their ties to an international culture of work and leisure–of business, entertainment, information, and “information retrieval”- make many members of the elite deeply indifferent to the prospect of national decline. The market in which the new elites operate is now international in scope. Their fortunes are tied to enterprises that operate across national boundaries. They are more concerned with the smooth functioning of the system as a whole (for themselves) than with any of its parts. Their loyalties — if the term is not itself anachronistic in this context– are international rather than regional, national, or local.
They have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged in to the network of global communications.
In the borderless global economy, money has lost its links to nationality. David Rieff, who spent several months in Los Angeles collecting material for his book Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World , reports that “at least two or thr ee tim es a week … I could depend on hearing someone say that the future ‘belonged’ to the Pacific Rim.” The movement of money and population across national borders has transformed the “whole idea of place,” according to Rieff. The privileged classes in Los Angeles feel more kinship with their counterparts in Japan, Singapore, and Korea than with most of their own countrymen.
The changing class structure of the United States mirrors changes that are taking place all over the industrial world. In Europe, referenda on unification have revealed a deep and widening gap between the political classes and the more humble members of society, who fear that the European Economic Community will be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity or allegiance. Even in Japan, the very model of successful industrialization in the last two or three decades, public-opinion polls conducted in 1987 revealed a growing belief that the country could no longer be described as middle-class, ordinary people having failed to share in the vast fortunes accumulated in real estate, finance, and manufacturing.
Outside of the industrial democracies, with their increasing social polarization, the global disparity between wealth and poverty has become so glaring that it is hardly necessary to review the evidence of growing inequality. In Latin America, Africa, and large parts of Asia, the sheer growth in numbers, together with the displacement of rural populations by the commercialization of agriculture, has subjected civic life to unprecedented strains. Vast urban agglomerations- they can scarcely be called cities have taken shape, overflowing with poverty, wretchedness, disease, and despair. Paul Kennedy projects twenty of these “megacities” by 2025, each with a population of 11 million or more. Mexico City will already have more than 24 million inhabitants by the year 2000; Sao Paulo, more than 23 million; Calcutta, 16 million; Bombay, 15.5 million. As the collapse of civic life in these swollen cities continues, not only the poor but also the middle classes will experience conditions unimaginable a few years ago. Middle-class standards of living can be expected to decline through out what is all too hopefully referred to as the developing world. In a country like Peru, once a prosperous nation with reasonable prospects of evolving parliamentary institutions, the middle class for all practical purposes has ceased to exist.
A middle class, as Walter Russell Mead reminds us in his study of the declining American empire, Mortal Splendor, “does not appear out of thin air.” Its power and numbers “depend on the overall wealth of the domestic economy”; and in countries, accordingly, where “wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny oligarchy and the rest of the population is desperately poor, the middle class can grow to only a limited extent [It) never escapes its primary role as a servant class to the oligarchy.” Unfortunately, this description now app lies to a growing list of nations that have prematurely reached the limits of economic development, countries in which a rising “share of their own national product goes to foreign investors or creditors.” Such a fate may well await even industrial nations like the United States. (and 25 years later we can see this is the case)
The world of the late twentieth century thus presents a curious spectacle. On the one hand it is now united, through the agency of the market, as it never was before. Capital and labor flow freely across political boundaries that seem increasingly artificial and unenforceable. Popular culture follows in their wake. On the other hand, tribal loyalties have seldom been so aggressively promoted. Religious and ethnic warfare breaks out in one country after another: in India and Sri Lank a, in large parts of Africa, in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
It is the weakening of the nation-state that underlies both these developments- the movement toward unification and the seemingly contradictory movement toward fragmentation. The state can no longer contain ethnic conflicts; nor can it contain the forces leading to globalization. Ideologically, nationalism comes under attack from both sides: from advocates of ethnic and racial particularism and also from those who argue that the only hope of peace lies in the internationalization of everything from weights and measures to the artistic imagination.
Fears that the international language of money will speak more loudly than local dialects inspire the reassertion of ethnic particularism in Europe, while the decline of the nation-state weakens the only authority capable of holding ethnic rivalries in check. The revival of tribalism, in turn, reinforces a reactive cosmopolitanism among elites. Curiously enough, it is Robert Reich, notwithstanding his admiration for the new elite of “symbolic analysts,” who provides one of the most penetrating accounts of the “darker side of cosmopolitanism.” Without national attachments, he reminds us, people have little inclination to make sacrifices or to accept responsibility for their actions. “We learn to feel responsible for others because we sha re with them a common history … a common culture . . .a common fate.” The denationalization of business enterprise tends to produce a class of cosmopolitans who see themselves as “world citizens, but without accepting … any of the obligations that citizenship in a polity normally implies.” But the cosmopolitanism of the favored few, because it is uninformed by the practice of citizenship, turns out to be a higher form of parochialism. Instead of supporting public services, the new elites put their money into the improvement of their own self-enclosed enclaves. They gladly pay for private and suburban schools, private police, and private systems of garbage collection; but they have managed to relieve themselves, to a remarkable extent, of the obligation to contribute to the national treasury. Their acknowledgment of civic obligations does not extend beyond their own immediate neighborhoods. The “secession of the symbolic analysts,” as Reich calls it, provides us with a particularly striking instance of the revolt of elites against the constraint s of time and place.
The decline of nations is closely linked to the global decline of the middle class. It is the crisis of the middle class, and not simply the growing chasm between wealth and poverty, that nee ds to be emphasized in a sober analysis of our prospects. Ever since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the fortunes of the nation-state have been bound up with those of the trading and manufacturing classes. The founders of modern nations, whet her they were exponents of royal privilege like Louis XIV or republicans like Washington and Lafayette, turned to this class for support in their struggle against the feudal nobility. A large part of the appeal of nationalism lay in the state’s ability to establish a common market within its boundaries, to enforce a uniform system of justice, and to extend citizenship both to petty proprietors and to rich merchants, alike excluded from power under the old regime. The middle class understandably became the most patriotic, not to say jingoistic and militaristic element in society. But the unattractive features of middle-class nationalism should not obscure its positive contributions in the form of a highly developed sense of place and a respect for historical continuity- hallmarks of the middle-class sensibility that can be appreciated more fully now that middle-classculture is everywhere in retreat.
Whatever its faults, middle-class nationalism provided a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference without which society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions, as the founding fathers of America understood so well. The revolt of the masses that Ortega feared is no longer a plausible threat. But the revolt of the elites against time-honored traditions of locality, obligation, and restraint may yet unleash a war of all against all. ■
America’s hollow middle class
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Delia did everything right. She went to college, she got a teaching degree, she found a reliable job, and she got married. She and her husband had two kids. “We followed the traditional path to middle class and economic security,” she told me. “Or so I thought.”
As a teacher in New Jersey, Delia, age 41, makes around $115,000 a year; her husband, who works as a carpenter, makes $45,000. Their $160,000 combined family salary places them firmly in the American middle class, the boundaries of which are considered to be two-thirds of the US median household income on the lowest end and double that same median on the highest, and adjusted for location. (According to the Pew Middle Class Calculator, Delia’s household income places her family in the “middle tier” along with 49 percent of households in the greater tri-state area.)
To most people, $160,000 sounds like a lot of money. “Middle tier” sounds pretty solid. So why does Delia feel so desperate? She’s able to put $150 a month into a retirement account, but the family’s emergency savings account hovers at just $400. Going on vacation has meant juggling costs on several credit cards. “I don’t feel like I’ll ever have a day that I won’t be worried about money,” she said. “I’m resentful of my partner for not making more money, but more resentful of his crappy employer for not paying him more.”
Delia is part of an expanding group of people whose income technically places them within the middle class of American earners but whose expenses — whether for housing, medical costs, debt payments, child care, elder care, or the dozens of other expectations that attend supposed middle-class living — leave them living month to month, with little savings for emergencies or retirement.
Pre-pandemic, middle-class Americans modeled the belief that everything was fine. Unemployment was low; consumer confidence was high; the housing market had “recovered.” In 2019, 95 percent of people in households making over $100,000 a year reported they were “doing okay” financially, a 13 percent increase from 2013. But those positive economic indicators obscured a larger reality.
Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.
It’s difficult to tell if someone’s part of the hollow middle class because they’re still performing all the external markers of middle-classness. Before the pandemic, they were (and largely still are, absent a layoff) buying and leasing cars, purchasing homes, going on vacation, covering their kids’ education and activities. They’re just taking on massive loads of debt to do so.
As journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, it’s very expensive to be poor. It’s also increasingly expensive to be middle class, in part because wages for all but the wealthy have remained stagnant for the past four decades. Most middle-class Americans seem to be making more — getting raises, however small, sometimes billed as “cost of living” increases. Yet these increases largely just keep pace with inflation, not the actual cost of living.
AT THE HEART OF THIS QUESTION IS THE HEAVY, CONFOUNDING ISSUE OF AMERICAN MIDDLE-CLASS IDENTITY AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL WRECKAGE THAT COMES WITH LOSING IT
Basic costs are taking up bigger chunks of the monthly middle-class paycheck. In 2019, the middle class was spending about $4,900 a year on out-of-pocket health care costs. More middle- and high-income people than ever are renting, and 27 percent are considered “cost burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, particularly in expensive metro areas. Then there’s the truly astronomical price of child care. In Washington state, for example, which ranks ninth in the US for child care costs, care for an infant and a 4-year-old averages $25,605 a year, or 35.5 percent of the median family income; you can find costs in your state here.
Many middle-class households try to figure out what expenses they have to cover immediately with cash and what can be put on a credit card, financed, or delayed in some fashion. In March 2020, household debt hit $14.3 trillion — the highest it’s been since the 2008 financial crisis, when it reached $12.7 trillion. In the first quarter of 2020, the average loan for a new car was a record-breaking $33,738, with an average monthly payment of $569 (the average payment for a used car is $397).
And then there’s student loan debt, which, for Americans, currently totals $1.56 trillion. Not everyone has student loan debt, but among those who do — many with degrees and jobs that seemingly place them in the middle class — the average debt load is $32,731. The average monthly (pre-pandemic) payment is $393.
Some of these costs have shifted slightly since the beginning of the pandemic; federal student loan payments, for example, have been paused since February. But in January, just under 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 of back rent and utilities. And some costs, like child care, are poised to escalate even more once the pandemic is over.
So why don’t middle-class people just curb their spending? At the heart of this question is the heavy, confounding issue of American middle-class identity and the psychological and social wreckage that comes with losing it. “I don’t know that I could shake this identity regardless of how much money I do or don’t have,” Leigh, who makes $80,000 a year and spends all her take-home pay on rent and credit card bills, told me. “It’s ingrained within me.” If you’ve grown up poor and become middle class, there’s great bitterness in rescinding that status; if your parents worked years to enter the middle class, falling from it is often accompanied by great shame.
There’s also the difficulty of significantly shifting your family’s consumption patterns. Once set, many find it impossible to change their own expectations for vacations, activities, and schooling — let alone those of their partners or children. Why? Because the middle class is spectacularly bad at talking honestly about money. Readily available credit facilitates our worst habits, our most convenient lies, our most cowardly selves.
Some say Americans writ large are bad at talking about money, but truly rich people talk about money all the time, as do truly poor people. Kids who grow up poor learn the refrain “we can’t afford it” at an early age; as Aja Romano pointed out in this Vox discussion of all that Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong, “when you’re poor, you know every cent you have in the bank, down to the last penny, and you have already calculated exactly how much gas you can put in your car and how far that gas will get you before you get out of money.”
It’s middle-class people, or people who still cling to middle-class identity even if they’ve risen above it or fallen out of it, who don’t know how to talk about money. They don’t know how to talk about it with their peers or their parents or their children, and oftentimes not even with their partners. Instead, so many of us allow ourselves to default to the vast middle, the typical, the median, the democratic “we” that shows up in television commercials — a place in the American imaginary that’s venerated by politicians and overwritten with narratives of bootstrapping, hard work, and meritocracy.
In truth, the American middle class has become less of an economic classification and more of a mode: a way of feeling, a posture toward the rest of the world, predicated on privilege of place. Which is why it’s so untoward to talk about the economic realities; the rising panic over medical bills exists on a different plane than the ineffable feeling of “normal.”
Normal is defined less by what it is than by what it is not. Put differently, no matter how precarious your middle-class existence might be, it feels essential to distance from or disidentify with the precarity of the poor or working class. You maintain your middle-class identity by defining yourself as not poor, notworking class, regardless of your debt load or the ease with which you could descend into financial ruin. So many are so obsessed with defining themselves as not poor that they can’t grapple with the changes in spending habits that would actually prevent them from becoming so.
Solidarity — especially solidarity across classes — has been declining for decades. When the middle class first began to expand in the United States in the mid-20th century, it did so in large part through the work of unions, which advocated for salaries and benefits that allowed millions of workers to afford a down payment and save for the future. There are still hundreds of thousands of union workers in the middle class (teachers, nurses, tradespeople), but much of the solidarity with workers outside your profession, or even your specific workplace, has evaporated.
THE AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS HAS BECOME LESS OF AN ECONOMIC CLASSIFICATION AND MORE OF A MODE: A WAY OF FEELING, A POSTURE TOWARD THE REST OF THE WORLD
What’s more, most politicians have done a spectacularly poor job of framing policy that speaks frankly about class realities. They talk vaguely about expanding the middle class, and single out specific high costs like medical premiums, but when was the last time you heard a politician talk about credit card debt? The less these kinds of problems are talked about, the more individual they feel, as opposed to a reality for millions of Americans.
Delia, for example, is a real person, but Delia’s not her real name; she doesn’t want others knowing her family’s business. She also thinks all her friends and neighbors are in a better financial situation than she is. They don’t ever talk about it, but she thinks they have better rates on their mortgages, more equity in their homes — how else could they drive $60,000 SUVs and put pools in over the summer? But someone on the outside might look at Delia’s life and think something very similar.
That’s how you get the hollow middle: when a bunch of people are terrified of being poor, have no idea how to talk with others about money, and have no political will to advocate for changes that would alter their position.
When I first attempted to describe the condition of much of the middle class today — moderately high income, but with bills and debt that make it difficult to weave a safety net for their families — I wanted a word for it, an evocative term. The term “hollow middle” eventually came, via Twitter, from Carina Wytiaz, but the vast majority of people who responded said that what I was explaining was just, well, being middle class. Tons of debt, tons of bills, very little leftover.
However, the middle class only really started to hollow out over the past 20 years. Back in 1960, the personal savings rate (the percentage of income households were saving after taxes) was 11 percent. In 1990, it was 8.8 percent. By 2000, it had dropped to 4.2 percent, before eventually hitting a nadir of 3.6 percent in 2007. That number grew in the aftermath of the Great Recession, peaking at 12 percent in 2012 before falling again as consumers gained more “confidence” in spending. This is because consumer confidence doesn’t mean more savings; it means more people with access to credit are confident about using it, and low interest rates disincentivize savings.
ONE IRONY OF THE HOLLOW MIDDLE IS THAT ATTEMPTS TO SECURE YOUR CHILDREN’S CLASS STABILITY OFTEN REPRODUCE DEBT PATTERNS FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
We’ve been normalizing low savings rates at the same time that we’ve become more and more comfortable taking on consumer debt — a symptom, as financial analyst Karen Petrou put it, of “deep economic malaise.” In the early ’80s, the income-to-debt ratio hovered between 0.55 and 0.65, which meant that a household’s overall debt level amounted to between 55 percent and 65 percent of their income after taxes.
The ratio first hit 1.0 in 2003, and rose all the way to 1.24 before the 2007 crash. Now it’s stabilized at just under 1, so a middle-class family making $80,000 has somewhere around $80,000 in debt. Until relatively recently, the majority of that debt would have been mortgage debt. Over the past decade, the proportion has begun to shift toward student loans, auto loans, credit card debt, and medical debt: so-called “bad” debt.
More people are retiring with debt, too — or unable to retire, or coming out of retirement to service debt. In 2016, the median debt for a household headed by someone 65 or older was $31,300, more than four and a half times what it was in 1989. These debts come from mortgages, but also student loans taken out for their children or for themselves when they went back to school, mid-career, during one of the recessions of the 2000s, or credit card debt trying to cover costs when they were out of work.
“The jobs came back after the recession of 2001,” economist Christian Weller, whose research focuses on middle-class savings and retirement, told me. “But the wages never really grew. Benefits were cut, and then people were hit with yet another massive recession in late 2007, and job growth doesn’t really come back until 2010. That’s a long period of a lot of economic pain for a lot of people.”
When the jobs did come back, a lot of them weren’t great. People became employed as gig workers or independent contractors, precarious roles with few benefits and little stability. Those who had gone into debt to get through the Great Recession were now accumulating more debt in order to stay middle class, or to try and provide a middle-class future for their children. More than a decade later, only the top 20 percent of earners have actually recovered from the Great Recession, in part because the percentage of the middle class with appreciating assets — whether in the form of a home or stocks — has continued to decline.
Here, Delia’s story is instructive. Back in 2005, she had her teacher’s job, and her husband had a promising construction company. They were on solid economic footing for the first time and decided to do what a lot of people in that position do: buy a house. The problem with their strategy revealed itself only in hindsight; they bought at the height of the mid-2000s housing bubble. They hung on to their house as long as they could, but by 2012, they were drowning. They ended up shutting down her husband’s business and short-selling the house, leaving them with no equity.
Their home hadn’t been foreclosed on and their credit was still intact, but they suddenly felt seven years behind. They moved in with Delia’s parents, only to discover that they, too, had for years been struggling to pay their mortgage and had taken a bad modification in order to stay in their house. Delia and her husband started covering the mortgage payment, which is now $3,300 a month, and most monthly costs. Eight years later, they’re still there.
Though Delia’s teaching job is steady, her husband is making less than he did when he ran his own company. They’re also paying private school tuition for their two daughters, which takes up a “huge chunk” of their income. They could pull their kids from private school and put them in public, but the kids have made their friends, and Delia’s intent on giving them the opportunity to get out of the same claustrophobic town where she grew up.
“If the girls want to come back and live here, that’s fine,” Delia explained. “But I want them to be able to write their own story and invent themselves as they see fit. Private school might give them access to better colleges, by which I mean better job opportunities or travel opportunities or meeting-different-people opportunities.”
One irony of the hollow middle is that attempts to secure your children’s class stability often reproduce debt patterns for the next generation. Delia’s middle-class in-laws are living in a paid-off house in Texas, but Delia’s parents, in her words, “have never made a good financial decision.”
That’s how they found themselves years behind on their mortgage, and that’s why Delia and her husband have been forced to take it on. Her parents have no savings, and Delia and her husband will continue to provide and pay for care for them as they age. If nothing about their financial situation or America’s exorbitant higher education costs changes over the next decade, either Delia and her husband or their children will likely take on large amounts of student debt to pay for college.
For the top earners in our society, wealth and assets reproduce wealth and assets. For the hollow middle class, debt reproduces debt. The major difference between the ostensibly middle class and the poor is that one group began life with access to credit and had just enough support and funds to keep accessing it.
Over the months to come, I’ll be focusing on different aspects of the hollow middle class for this column: people who’ve been unable to uphold the performance of middle-class status in the shadow of Covid-19; whose education places them in the “cultural” middle class but whose wages place them barely above the poverty line; whose parents immigrated to the US to obtain and pass down middle-class stability but now struggle to sustain what they worked so hard to provide.
I’ll be talking to those who feel ambivalent about, shut out from, or trapped in homeownership; those who are struggling to pay for elder care and child care at the same time; and others who are now supporting members of their extended family after reaching the middle class. There are so many intersecting and complicated ways to be part of the hollow middle today, and I want to go deep into the economic shifts, governmental policies, and lived experiences that inform them.
The suffering of the housed, the fed, and the employed is not to be equated with the suffering of those facing eviction, hunger, and chronic unemployment. But if the middle class is the backbone of America, what does it communicate about the state of the nation — psychologically, politically, sociologically — that the backbone is too weak to support its own weight? If savings are shorthand for promise and potential, what does it mean that we have so little of it? At what point do we abandon the farce of the stable, secure American middle class and start talking about ways to make life more secure for everyone, up and down the actual income scale?
The more we insist on obscuring the economic realities of middle-class existence, the harder it is to muster the political and social might to actually confront income inequality. We continue to think of our struggles as personal, and shameful, and our responsibility alone, instead of as symptoms of systemic failure, the result of broken ideals of the past jury-rigged to the present.
“The walls are closing in,” Nicole, who lives in South Carolina on $65,000 a year with no savings and no support system, told me. “The chasm between income and expenses just grows. I don’t know where the system will break. But it will, if we don’t do something about it.”