The most salient divide in American life is between an increasingly powerful “managerial elite” and a vast underclass that remains alienated from its cultural values—according, at least, to Michael Lind, the author of a new book called The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, which explores a class-based culture war between two competing governing philosophies. While “technocratic neoliberalism” seeks to impose the culturally liberal, market-friendly ethos of the managerial elite without cross-class support, a disproportionately—but not exclusively—white working class has sought recourse in “demagogic populists,” who channel popular grievances, but do little more than define themselves in opposition to elite excesses. Although these leaders voice their voters’ underrepresented concerns, which, broadly speaking, combine social conservatism with economic leftism—a combination that lacks support among society’s managers—they fail to offer a positive vision of their own, and, Lind fears, their demagoguery makes them ill-equipped to govern.
Lacking faith in a populist resolution of the class war, Lind looks elsewhere to neutralize the managerial elite’s technocratic neoliberalism. But what exactly is technocratic neoliberalism and why has it fomented a populist backlash? As Lind tells it, in the 1970s, a “revolution from above” ended a fleeting period of class peace, which prevailed after the New Deal and World War II. Ever since then, the labor union and the mass membership political party—the vehicles through which the working classes exercised economic and political power—have been in decline, giving way to an entrenched technocracy, which combines a commitment to market capitalism with an increasingly individualistic cultural liberalism. According to Lind’s retelling of history, the left- and right-wing variants of this new governing philosophy were united in their opposition to both the inefficiencies of mid-twentieth-century unionism and the corruption that was endemic to the powerful political machines that grew out of mass membership parties. As a consequence, power was concentrated in a credentialed overclass, which thought it could do a better job of managing the country, by virtue of its “merit.”
Released in January 2020, Lind’s book is the most recent installment in a growing genre, which casts a socially distant, culturally liberal elite as a threat to American democracy. Unlike some of his more conservative counterparts, Lind does not regard the mere existence of this elite, with its particular strand of upscale liberalism, as a threat to the social fabric. Instead, as an ardent pluralist, his core concern is the disproportionate amount of power that the managerial class has amassed in the country’s political, cultural and economic institutions. Those three realms make up what Lind calls “social power,” and he proposes to redistribute this power through both a regeneration of civil society institutions, such as unions and mass membership organizations, while the “managerial elite” would strategically cede power out of fear.
However, neither aspect of that redistribution of power—a solution Lind terms “democratic pluralism”—is likely to be successful in a society that is experiencing both deepening cultural divisions and precipitous declines in social capital. Essentially a measure of the health and vibrancy of civil society, social capital in America has been declining precipitously since the middle of the twentieth century, according to political scientists like Robert Putnam. This decline has doomed labor unions—which represent a steadily shrinking share of the workforce—in addition to the mass membership organizations that Lind sees as indispensable sources of social power for the working classes.
A more fundamental reason for democratic pluralism’s weak prospects of success is the hyperpolarized nature of our political divisions, which makes it unlikely that either side in the class war will cede power to an opposition it holds in contempt. According to a study by Nathan Kalmoe and Liliana Mason, around 42% of the people in each political party view the opposing side as “downright evil.” This is just one of many indications that norms of mutual tolerance that sustain liberal democracy are eroding in contemporary American society. Lind thinks this enmity could dissipate in the face of an external geopolitical threat, which would motivate the most “patriotic” members of the overclass to share power for the sake of national solidarity. But even in a return to Cold War-like great power competition, according to Lind’s understanding, the sizeable chunk of the managerial class that scores low on measures of patriotism would remain embroiled in the class-based culture war.
By today’s standards, the post-war period that Lind heralds as a model for class peace was a homogeneously conservative, religious milieu, in which the contemporary managerial class’s social liberalism was relegated to a bohemian counterculture and a narrow slice of the intelligentsia. American society was divided in other profound ways—the oppressive caste system of Jim Crow still reigned supreme across the South and wide swaths of white America were fighting to defend it—but some of our most polarizing contemporary social issues—abortion and LGBT rights—were overshadowed by the fight for black civil rights and the Cold War. It’s not just a wider secular–religious divide that drives today’s hyperpolarized politics. Lind’s class-based culture war also involves immigration, attitudes towards which he considers to be “the most important of the many divisions” between the managerial and working classes. While Lind devotes less attention to newer ideas about social justice, they also polarize the culture in ways that map onto his class war, since recognition of white privilege and support for transgender rights is correlated with higher levels of education.
Indeed, Lind posits education as the salient fault line in a class-based culture war between a credentialed overclass and everyone else. Which credentials qualify someone for managerial status is a little unclear—Lind thinks that graduate-level education is the best marker, but he suggests that many of the 30% of Americans with bachelor’s degrees are also members of the managerial class. Regardless of the precise boundaries of the term, recent political trends lend support to this understanding that the managerial elite, defined by levels of college education as opposed to income or wealth, is the core constituency of liberal cultural movements. In both the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, high-income, high-education areas trended sharply towards the Democrats, who now represent the nation’s ten wealthiest congressional districts. While income and education are highly correlated, Nate Silver’s analysis of the 2016 results underscores the salience of education whenever that correlation is less clear. Silver found that in higher-income but less educated places—such as Staten Island, New York—there was a strong shift from support for Obama in 2012 to support for Trump in 2016. Meanwhile, high-education and lower-income counties showed a similar shift in support for Clinton.
The most common objection to Lind’s view that our deepest political divide is between a college-educated overclass and a less educated working class is that his analysis downplays the importance of race. According to Anand Giridharadas’ scathing review of The New Class War, Lind is guilty of equating the working class—whose values diverge from those of the managerial elite—with the “white working class.” After all, black Americans of all classes still overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, and show no sign of voting in significant numbers for the right-wing populists, whose rise Lind sees as an underclass revolt.
Lind admits from the outset that his book centers the transatlantic white working class, but, even in light of that admission, his class analysis is less reductive than Giridharadas realizes. While, in the Trump era, college-educated whites represent a rapidly growing share of the Democratic base, the Center for American Progress estimates that black voters shifted a net eight points to Trump from 2012. Despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about immigration—including multiple racist comments about Mexican Americans, which drove several news cycles—Lind also notes that he performed better than Romney among Latinos (CAP estimates a 2.8% net shift from Romney to Trump). These are real, albeit small, shifts, which suggest that college-educated white liberals and voters of color are trending in different political directions.
Contra Giridharadas, who laments that Lind’s definition of the college-educated overclass would include a black public school teacher “in a permanent state of terror” over Trump’s election, it is educated white liberals who are most likely to view Trump’s demagoguery with a unique sense of horror. Though repulsed by his racial rhetoric, African-American voters, many of whom have lived through decades of fraught racial politics, are less likely than white Democrats to experience Trump’s demagoguery as a historical aberration. As of the last half-decade or so, black voters are also likely to hold more moderate views than their white liberal counterparts on the emergent social justice issues of our time. Matt Yglesias of Vox describes this trend—wherein white progressives have moved to the left of black Americans on measures of enthusiasm for diversity and beliefs about the enduring effects of racial prejudice—as a “Great Awokening,” which occurred after a series of high-profile, police-involved shootings of unarmed black men. While these differences might simply be a function of education, that would hardly disprove Lind’s thesis that educational credentials constitute the salient fault line on these cultural issues. That highly educated white liberals—the core of the managerial elite—now register more left-wing views about racial justice than black Americans and Hispanics exonerates Lind from Giridharadas’ fire and brimstone, which appears to be raining down in the service of the managerial elite’s “awokening” racial views, and his disappointment that they have not filtered down as pervasively to working class minorities.
Unlike the managerial elite, a disproportionate share of non-college-educated, working class voters of all races are what political scientist Lee Drutman calls “traditionalist egalitarians,” who are relatively conservative on social issues and cultural identity, but strongly support the modern welfare state. This brings Lind to another crucial aspect of the class-based culture war—neither the Republican Party’s doctrinaire fiscal conservatism and strident Christian traditionalism, nor the Democratic Party’s center left ideology represent the traditionalist-egalitarian center of gravity for the country’s working class majority. According to Lind, this systematic exclusion of a culturally conservative but economically left mix of policy preferences is the result of a managerial overclass that controls the political system and does not count many traditionalist egalitarians among its ranks. Without an external force that can reapportion power and enfranchise the working class, the class war will continue to rage.
Lind argues that his conception of “democratic pluralism” is up to the task of seizing power for the working class, but America’s deepest political divides are inhospitable to pluralism of any kind. Immigration, the secular–religious divide and newer divides over racial justice inflame the class-based culture war in different ways, but they are all hyperpolarized disagreements over mutually exclusive cultural visions, which can also feature unbridgeable disagreements about human dignity and identity. Unlike differences of opinion about single-payer health care versus market-based alternatives—in which the most vigorous disagreements take place over the most effective means by which to improve the health care system, and not over the principle of whether or not to offer people healthcare—a supporter of abortion rights cannot compromise her principles to appease someone who considers abortion tantamount to homicide. Lind is attuned to all of this, but his suggestion that there might be a pluralist resolution to these divides simply does not follow, given the nature of the class-based culture war as he sees it.
Ultimately, any pluralist resolution to the culture war will struggle to succeed because its hyperpolarized nature presupposes an absence of pluralism. Instead of democratic pluralism, Lind’s prognosis that “demagogic populism” is a symptom of liberal democracy’s “technocratic neoliberal” disease points to the need for a more responsible populism, which challenges ruling class dogmas without resorting to the rank bigotry and demagoguery of someone like Trump. If the managerial elite is unlikely to preemptively cede social power, and if countervailing membership organizations are too impotent to make a difference, then the working class must seek recourse in the voting booth. Whatever their downsides, the value of populist movements—indeed, the reason they emerge in the first place—is that they supply a political program that lacks adequate representation in mainstream political parties.
Though populist movements challenge elites in ways that ostensibly comport with Lind’s mission to redistribute class power, he has zero faith in their prospects of success, because they tend to represent a “counterculture” instead of a “counterestablishment.” Lind is not wrong about this. He persuasively argues that staggering incompetence and systematic corruption are not coincidental byproducts of many populist regimes throughout Latin America in particular (Trump’s nepotism and failure to staff his administration also comes to mind). Given the dim prospects for a pluralist resolution to the class-based culture war, however, Lind might be more successful at redistributing class power if he thought about what a more responsible populism would look like on both the left and the right. To address his core concern—that populist movements are uniquely ill-equipped to govern—would require building up that elusive counterestablishment of think tanks and political organizations, which could develop a substantive alternative to the politics of the managerial class. From Shadi Hamid on the left to Ross Douthat on the right, many contemporary writers have been thinking through what these movements would look like, and Lind’s pessimism about their efforts seems premature.
Dubious as democratic pluralism might be as a resolution to the class war, Lind’s book does offer a keen understanding of the deepening divide between a credentialed overclass and the working class majority. If it does nothing else, The New Class War will draw much needed attention to the undemocratic excesses of a socially distant managerial class and the perilous consequences for our social fabric.
“Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about immigration—including multiple racist comments about Mexican Americans, which drove several news cycles”. That is what the culture war is about (I believe): “us” in “our country” and “them” in “their country”. That isn’t racist. There can be no “us” without “them”. Elevating migrants as sacred has diminished citizenship and a sense of belonging because it only accepts two arguments: 1. economic 2. resistance is racist?
Thanks for a fine essay.