Rod Dreher recently posted excerpts of a letter from one of his readers. It was an extended, largely negative assessment of my analysis of our political moment, “An Abandoned White Middle Class.” There I argued that the changing nature of our leadership class explains the populist rebellion, at least in part. My critic, who remains anonymous, thinks I’m off-base.
As I read his criticism, I find myself reassured.
I hold that the meritocratic aspect of our current elite has the consequence (not entirely unintended) of decapitating most communities. Take the talented, ambitious son of an Irish immigrant who, in 1946, after coming home from the war, would have gone to Fordham, perhaps, and then to Fordham Law School. His uncle might have gotten him a job as a lawyer for the longshoreman’s union. By 1960, he could well have become the union boss, a major player in New York Democratic Party politics, and something of a macher in the convention that nominated John Kennedy.
By the end of the last century, that kid ends up at Penn, goes to Columbia Law School. If he has political ambitions, he works on Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign in New York, and ends up living in suburban Washington, working as a lobbyist. Or he ends up at Cravath and becomes a go-to bundler in the always important scramble for campaign cash. Or he chucks the law degree, moves to Silicon Valley and joins a start-up team.
My critic admits this difference, claiming that young people (like him?) who end up part of our new, rootless establishment aren’t to blame. Given economic and cultural changes, the opportunities are ever more concentrated on the East and West coasts.
Moreover, I wasn’t blaming anybody. I want to understand our political moment, not to moralize about it.
Basically, with Sanders and Trump we’re witnessing something that we’ve been told is impossible. Sanders calls into question the neo-liberal economic consensus. This consensus is all-powerful among our leadership class. Trump calls into question our elite cultural consensus, which requires a carefully calibrated, therapeutic rhetoric that never offends—or at least never offends people designated as those never to be offended. He also calls into question our political consensus, which is that getting the right policies (always within the neo-liberal consensus) is what makes or breaks a candidate.
When the “impossible” happens, we should step back and ask ourselves why.
What is the establishment’s explanation? The standard narrative is that we’re seeing significant disruption in this primary season because of economic changes. The middle class is being hammered by economic globalization and technological changes. They’re hurting economically, and that’s driving the populist rebellion against establishment candidates.
That’s true. But I find it an insufficient explanation. Trump and Sanders seem to tap into a greater sense of disempowerment. They speak to feelings of political impotence, not economic anxiety. Sanders says, “Let’s make a revolution!” Trump promises to bang heads together and “make American great again.” Theirs is a politics of meaning, not a politics of policies.
In both cases, they’re filling a vacuum that has been developing for quite a while. Our establishment has remade itself in many different ways, some of which I’ve tried to outline. The upshot is a McKinsey approach to leadership that, quite frankly, fails to inspire, because it’s deracinated, remote, and all too often smugly superior.
It gets worse. Dreher’s friend finds my account of the growing gap between the leaders and the led “problematic.” He sees the hi-tech push for more foreign workers as justified because “American workers cannot do the work (I have experienced this firsthand).” I don’t doubt that’s true. But Joe Sixpack has gotten the message from those “in the know” who claim to have “real knowledge” of how things work: You’re not up to the job of doing what needs to be done for the future that we, the leadership class, will dominate.
In a democratic culture, that sort of message is about as sure a guarantee of political rebellion as any I can imagine.
I don’t say that because I want a rebellion. (I too am an establishment person.) Nor do I say that to condemn Silicon Valley execs who want to make their companies as competitive as possible. But we need to grasp reality, which is that the interests, mentality, rhetoric, and conditions of life for our establishment have gotten out of alignment with the median voter, and this underlies—and to a great degree explains—today’s populism.
Look at the editorial page of the New York Times. The editors there seem incapable of hearing the derision in their voices as they explain that Trump’s appeal is based on “fear” and “hate.” Over at the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of Sanders gets explained away as driven by naïve young people who have had no experience of the failures of socialism.
There’s an element of truth in these assessments. But they mask a deeper truth: voters are frustrated with our establishment, which increasingly offers them political, economic, and cultural leaders they find dissatisfying. These establishment leaders promise to manage us, diagnose us, medicate us, and otherwise minister to us from above. That’s not inspiring. In a democratic culture, ordinary people want to hear the following: “Let’s do something important, together.” Trump and Sanders are saying exactly that in their own ways. In my analysis, this failure of establishment leadership is happening because, for all sorts of political, economic, and cultural reasons, our establishment is becoming disconnected from the society it dominates.Every society needs a responsible, effective leadership class, and that includes our own. That requires a degree of self-awareness that, quite frankly, seems in short supply today.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.