Workers aren't on agenda of today's `gentry liberals'

December 09, 2007|By Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel

After decades on the political sidelines, liberalism is making a comeback. Polls show plunging support for Republicans and their brand of conservatism among young, independent voters and Latinos. But what kind of liberalism is emerging as the dominant voice in the Democratic Party?

Well, it isn't the ideology that defended the interests and values of the middle and working classes. The old liberalism had its flaws, but it also inspired increased social and economic mobility, strong protections for unions, the funding of a national highway system and a network of public parks, and the development of viable public schools. It also invented Social Security and favored a strong foreign policy.

Today's ascendant liberalism isn't driven by the lunch-pail concerns of those workers struggling to make it in an increasingly high-tech, information-based, outsourcing U.S. economy - though it does pay lip service to them.

Rather, such "gentry liberalism" reflects the interests and values of the affluent winners in the era of globalization and the beneficiaries of the "financialization" of the economy. Just as the number of industrial workers and traditional middle-class households has declined, the ranks of the affluent class have grown. And although many of the newly affluent are - as is traditional - politically conservative, a rising number of them are turning left. Surveys by the Pew Research Center indicate that an increasing number of households with annual incomes greater than $135,000 are moving toward the Democrats.

The political upshot is that Democrats now control the majority of the nation's wealthiest congressional districts, according to Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Perhaps the best indicator of the growing political power of gentry liberals is their ability to generate campaign contributions. Chiefly drawing on Wall Street, Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, this year's Democratic presidential candidates have raised 70 percent more money than their GOP counterparts, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Gentry liberalism's intellectual roots can be traced to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s 1949 book, The Vital Center. Mr. Schlesinger dismissed the then-largely Republican business class as well as mainstream Democratic politicians such as President Harry Truman because he thought they were too craven in their appeals to middle- and working-class interests. He believed that government should be in the hands of an "intelligent aristocracy" - essentially men like himself - whose governance would be guided by what it considered enlightened policy rather than class interests.

Since the 1960s, the intellectual class epitomized by Mr. Schlesinger has grown many times over. Academic liberals have become something of a political power in their own right. Professors are among the highly compensated and pampered professional cadres of the knowledge economy - which also includes lawyers, engineers, doctors, wealth managers, investors and other educated professionals - that make up the ranks of gentry liberalism and flatter the politicians who advocate its positions.

Gentry liberalism has established a strong presence on the Internet, where such Web sites as MoveOn.org and The Huffington Post are lavishly funded by well-heeled liberals. These and other sites generally focus on foreign policy, gay rights, abortion and other social issues, as well as the environment. Traditional middle-class concerns such as the unavailability of affordable housing, escalating college tuitions and the shrinking number of manufacturing jobs usually don't rank as top concerns.

Leading gentry liberals justifiably excoriate the Bush administration for its overall environmental record, but some of them - movie stars, investment bankers, dot-com billionaires - are quick to insulate themselves from charges that their private jets or 20,000-square-foot vacation homes in Nantucket spew prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide.

The gentry liberal crusade to tighten U.S. environmental regulations to slow global warming could end up hurting middle- and working-class interests. U.S. industry needs time and incentives to develop new technologies to replace carbon-based energy. If it doesn't get them, and an overly aggressive anti-carbon regime is instituted, the shift of manufacturing, energy and shipping jobs to developing countries with weak environmental laws and regulations could accelerate.

The ascent of gentry liberalism remains largely unchallenged, in part because of the abject failure of the Republicans to address middle-class aspirations in a serious way and in part because of the absence of a strong pro-middle-class voice among Democratic presidential contenders, with the exception of former Sen. John Edwards. As a result, Democrats are unlikely to stop, let alone reverse, the current economic trend that dispenses major benefits to gentry-favored sectors such as private equity firms, dot-com giants and entertainment media.

Over the last half-century, liberals have moved from strong support for basic middle-class concerns - epitomized by the New Deal and the GI Bill - to policies that reflect the concerns and prejudices of ever-more-elite interests. As a result, neither party speaks for broad middle-class concerns.

The nation deserves better than that.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University in California, and Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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