Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2016 Thomas Frank
All rights reserved.
Theory of the Liberal Class
Let us put the question bluntly. What ails the Democrats? So bravely forthright on cultural issues, their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy. Why? What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question is beyond their control?
The standard explanation is money and the way it runs through politics, adjusting incentives and distorting priorities wherever it flows. The country's leaders, this theory goes, are the products of a corrupt campaign finance system, their values whacked by the revolving door between Congress and K Street, between the Treasury Department and the banks. While parts of the oligarchy that rules this land and funds our politicians might not really object to something like gay marriage, when it comes to putting big banks into receivership — oh, no. In the land of money, that kind of thing is verboten.
There is plenty of evidence for this theory, and I will present quite a bit of it in the pages that follow. But the Democrats' problems go deeper than this. To diagnose their particular malady we must understand that there are different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them — the hierarchy of money — many of the Democrats' failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning, and status.
Money and merit: sometimes these two systems of power overlap and sometimes they are separate. Occasionally they are in conflict, but more frequently they are allies — contented partners in power.
We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase "the One Percent"; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative, however, what we need to scrutinize is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country's hierarchy of professional status.
PARTY OF THE PEOPLE
Let us start with the institution of the political party itself. There are countless reasons why voters come together in factions and why they register for this party instead of that one: race, ethnicity, region, religion, generation, and gender, to name a few of the categories we like to talk about nowadays. There is another criterion, however, that we sometimes have trouble acknowledging: social class.
Once you start thinking about it, though, the role of class in political parties is obvious, and it goes back to America's very beginning. In Federalist Paper No. 10, published in 1787, James Madison famously identified "unequal distribution of property" as the main cause of political "faction." Madison deplored these factions, but he also made them seem, well, natural:
Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.
"Classes" were thus observed to be the very stuff of faction and parties, and it is a surprisingly short walk from the anti-partisanship of the Federalist Papers to the fulminating, class-based factionalism of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a fiery Democrat in the Jacksonian tradition. "There are but two parties, there never has been but two parties," Benton thundered in 1835, "founded in the radical question, whether PEOPLE, or PROPERTY, shall govern? Democracy implies a government by the people. ... Aristocracy implies a government of the rich ... and in these words are contained the sum of party distinction."
Benton's exact phrases may not be familiar these days, but his sentiment certainly is. Democrats have fancied themselves as the "Party of the People" since the beginning, squaring off against what they love to caricature as the party of the highborn. This populist brand-positioning has served them well on many occasions, as Mitt Romney can no doubt attest. On other occasions it has had about as much to do with reality as the theory that the moon is made of green Play-Doh. After all, the Party of the People was also, once, the Party of Slavery and the Party of the Klan.
But the idea of two great parties corresponding to two great economic groups has been accurate enough often enough for the idea to stick. Whatever the class conflict happens to be at a given time — creditors versus debtors, bankers versus farmers, owners versus workers — the Democrats have usually sided with the weak and the downtrodden. For a few reminders of what this sounds like, here is William Jennings Bryan, in his "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896:
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.
And here is Franklin Roosevelt, deploring the rise of "economic royalists" in 1936:
The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor — these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. ... Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities. Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly.
Lastly, here is Harry Truman, speaking to farmers at a plowing competition in Iowa in 1948:
The Democratic Party represents the people. It is pledged to work for agriculture. It is pledged to work for labor. It is pledged to work for the small businessman and the white-collar worker. The Democratic Party puts human rights and human welfare first. But the attitude of the Republican gluttons of privilege is very different. The bigmoney Republican looks on agriculture and labor merely as expense items in a business venture. He tries to push their share of the national income down as low as possible and increase his own profits. And he looks upon the Government as a tool to accomplish this purpose.
This was rhetoric, of course, but there was also something real behind it. Working people, or rather, their organizations, once carried enormous clout within the Democratic Party. Thanks to its solid identification with the common folk, Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives from the early 1930s all the way to the mid-1990s, with two short GOP interludes. "It was a proletarian House of Lords," is how one political journalist has described that body in the late 1960s.
Today, the American class divide is starker than at any time in my memory, and yet Congress doesn't seem to know it. Today, the House of Representatives is dedicated obsessively to the concerns of the rich — to cutting their taxes, to chastising their foes, to holding the tissue box as they cry about the mean names people call them.
How is this possible? Just about everyone not among the top tier of the income distribution these days expresses a kind of bitter cynicism about our financial overlords. Regardless of party, everyone is furious about the Wall Street bailouts. Books about the disappearing middle class have gone from the fringe to the mainstream. Our economy has been reliving the 1930s; why hasn't our politics?
The answer is staring us in the face, if we care to see it. Yes, social class is still all-important in politics, just like Madison, Benton, Bryan, and Truman thought it was. And yes, the Democrats are still a class party. In fact, they show admirable concern for the interests of the social class they represent.
It's just that the class they care about the most doesn't happen to be the same one Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.
THE HIGH-BORN AND THE WELL-GRADUATED
In his syndicated New York Times column for November 21, 2008, David Brooks saluted president-elect Obama for the savvy personnel choices he was then announcing. This was before Brooks had become one of the president's favorite columnists; before the fabled "bromance" between the two men burst into the raging blaze of mutual admiration it would one day become. But the spark was there already.
It was the educational pedigree of the then-forming Team Obama that won the columnist's esteem. Nearly every person Brooks mentioned — the new president's economic advisers, his foreign policy advisers, even the first lady — had collected a degree from an Ivy League institution, more than one in most cases. The new administration would be a "valedictocracy," Brooks joked: "rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes."
Brooks has been obsessed with the tastes and habits of the East Coast meritocracy for as long as I've been reading him, and though he sometimes mocks, he always comes back to his essential conviction, the article of faith that makes a writer like him fit so comfortably at the Times: the well-graduated are truly great people. And on that day in 2008 when Brooks beheld the incoming Obama crew, with their Harvard-certified talent — Lord! — he just about swooned. "I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition," he wrote. Why? Because "they are picking the best of the Washington insiders": "open-minded individuals" who are "not ideological" and who exhibit lots of "practical creativity." They were "admired professionals," the very best their respective disciplines had to offer.
Brooks did not point out that choosing so many people from the same class background — every single one of them, as he said, was a professional — might by itself guarantee closed minds and ideological uniformity. Nobody else pointed this out, either. We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a "class" in the first place; like David Brooks, we think of them merely as "the best." They are where they are because they are so smart, not because they've been born to an earldom or something.
Truth be told, lots of Americans were relieved to see people of talent replace George W. Bush's administration of hacks and cronies back in 2008. Those were frightening times. Still, if we want to understand what's wrong with liberalism, what keeps this movement from doing something about inequality or about our reversion to a nineteenth-century social pattern, this is where we're going to have to look: at the assumptions and collective interests of professionals, the Democratic Party's favorite constituency.
The historian Christopher Lasch — a kind of cosmic opposite of David Brooks — wrote in 1965 that "modern radicalism or liberalism can best be understood as a phase of the social history of the intellectuals." My goal in this book is to bring Lasch's dictum up to date: the deeds and positions of the modern Democratic Party, I will argue, can best be understood as a phase in the social history of the professionals.
Who are professionals? To begin with, they are not the same thing as Lasch's "intellectuals." His category is made up mainly of writers and academics; it is defined by the critical stance they take toward the workings of society. There aren't really enough intellectuals to make up a distinct social class, in the way that term is traditionally used.
"Professionals," on the other hand, are an enormous and prosperous group, the people with the jobs that every parent wants their child to grow up and get. In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers — the core professional groups — the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one.
Professionals are a high-status group, but what gives them their lofty position is learning, not income. They rule because they are talented, because they are smart. A good sociological definition of professionalism is "a second hierarchy" — second to the main hierarchy of money, that is — "based on credentialed expertise." Which is to say, a social order supported by test scores and advanced degrees and defended by the many professional associations that have been set up over the years to define correct practice, enforce professional ethics, and wage war on the unlicensed.
Another distinguishing mark of the professions is their social authority. Ivan Illich, a critic prominent in the 1970s, once defined professionals by noting their "power to prescribe." Professionals are the people who know what ails us and who dispense valuable diagnoses. Professionals predict the weather. They organize our financial deals and determine the rules of engagement. They design our cities and draw the traffic patterns through which the rest of us travel. Professionals know when someone is guilty of a moral or criminal misdeed and they also know precisely what form of retribution that culpability should take.
Teachers know what we must learn; architects know what our buildings must look like; economists know what the Federal Reserve's discount rate should be; art critics know what is in good taste and what is in bad. Although we are the subjects of all these diagnoses and prescriptions, the group to which professionals ultimately answer is not the public but their peers (and, of course, their clients). They listen mainly to one another. The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise.
In this way the professions build and maintain monopolies over their designated fields. Now, "monopoly" is admittedly a tough word, but it is not really a controversial one among sociologists who write about the professions. "Monopolizing knowledge," according to one group of sociologists, is a baseline description of what professions do; this is why they restrict entry to their fields. Professions certify the expertise of insiders while negating and dismissing the knowledge-claims of outsiders.
Specialized knowledge is, of course, a necessity in this complicated world of ours. From ship captains to neurosurgeons, modern society depends heavily on people with technical expertise. And so nations grant professionals their elevated status, the sociological theory continues, in exchange for a promise of public service. The professions are supposed to be disinterested occupations or even "social trustees"; unlike other elements of society, they are not supposed to be motivated by profit or greed. This is why we still find advertising by lawyers and doctors somewhat off-putting, and why Americans were once shocked to learn that radio personalities took money to play records they didn't genuinely like: because professionals are supposed to answer to a spirit more noble than personal gain.
With the rise of the postindustrial economy in the last few decades, the range of professionals has exploded. To use the voguish term, these are "knowledge workers," and many of them don't fit easily into the old framework. They are often employees rather than independent practitioners, taking orders from some corporate manager instead of spending their lives in private practice. These modern professionals aren't workers per se, and they aren't capitalists either, strictly speaking. Some professions share certain features with these other groups, however. The accountants at your neighborhood tax preparation chain, for example, are sometimes just scraping by. And teachers are often union members, just like blue-collar workers. At the other end of the scale, certain lucky professionals in Silicon Valley happen to be our leading capitalists. And the gulf between professional hedge fund managers and the rich folks whose money they invest is small indeed.
As these last two examples suggest, the top ranks of the professions are made up of highly affluent people. They are not the billionaire Wal-Mart clan, but they have a claim to leadership nevertheless. These two power structures, one of ownership and the other of knowledge, live side by side, sometimes in conflict with one another but usually in comity.
The concern of this book is not investigating the particular expertise of any given profession, but rather the politics of professionalism in a larger sense. As the political scientist Frank Fischer writes in Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise, professionalism is more than an occupational category; it is "a postindustrial ideology." For many, it provides an entire framework for understanding our modern world.
As a political ideology, professionalism carries enormous potential for mischief. For starters, it is obviously and inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public. That is tolerable to a certain degree — no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as "social trustees"? What happens when they abuse their monopoly power? What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank. Copyright © 2016 Thomas Frank. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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