Is First Things promoting its own form of identity politics? A friend wrote recently, wondering exactly that. In my writing about our populist moment, I’ve emphasized the role of middle class whites. The relative success of Trump and Sanders shows that they’re rebelling against both left-leaning and right-leaning political establishments. That’s not because of identity politics. It’s because they’re in the best position to see the new character of our leadership class.
The experience of black Americans conditions them to expect to be outsiders. Immigrants experience a different kind of exclusion, but they’re also used to being on the margins. This is not true for most white Americans. They see themselves as integral to the American project. A white middle class voter in suburban St. Louis expects to be in the middle of whatever is declared to be good and promising about our country.
That’s no longer true. Today’s leadership class often thinks of white middle class voters as being in the middle . . . of our national problems. For some on the Left, this cohort is “angry” and “xenophobic,” sowing division in our society. For some on the Right, they’re “takers” who are lazy and incapable of competing in the new global economy. At best, they’re “left behind” by changing economic conditions.
Historically, our nearly all-white leadership class has carefully cultivated white middle class voters. Why the shift toward a more critical, even antagonistic attitude?
One reason is the slide of the lower-middle class toward underclass social dysfunction. This has an upward ripple effect, making white middle class voters of higher social status anxious about the possibility that their children might be dragged down by a general trend of moral decline.
Another important reason is the meritocratic reinvention of elite America, which now includes and socializes non-whites into its once all-white ranks. Talented, ambitious young people tend to move up and out, encouraged by an inclusive elite that is eager to draw into itself those whom, two generations ago, would have been kept out of the establishment. This has decapitated most communities, depriving a great deal of Americans of their natural leaders.
This is especially evident in minority communities. Today, the African-American leadership class functions as an utterly reliable pillar of the Democratic Party establishment. Very few have come out in support of Bernie Sanders, whose policies would in all likelihood benefit poor and working class blacks. (Cornel West is a notable exception.) The same is true for Latino spokesmen. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio combined to get half the Republican votes in Iowa. Yet there were no celebrations of this political milestone for Latinos.
What white middle class voters are waking up to is that their natural leaders are being co-opted by the meritocratic system as well. Hillary Clinton may have lived in Arkansas for decades, but she’s a creature of elite education and Goldman Sachs. People talk about the Clinton Machine. But it’s not at all like the machines of ward bosses and patronage jobs as sidewalk inspectors. The Clinton Machine is an interlocking network of very rich donors, high-placed journalists, and political elites. It operates at Davos, not in gritty ethnic urban neighborhoods.
To a greater or lesser extent, that’s true for most of our leaders, especially among the rising generation. This isn’t their fault. Bill and Hillary didn’t set out to create a Goldman Sachs-New York Times-Hollywood mafia. Ambitious, energetic people rightly gravitate toward institutions where they will be rewarded and empowered. The point is that over the last few decades those institutions and contexts have become more open to talent—and more removed from the social median.
Commentators fix on income inequality. The elite seems richer today (which is true), and that’s supposed to explain the political gap. I don’t think so. What's more important is the changing nature of wealth production in America.
Globalization has altered the reward structures and incentives for the top ten percent of Americans, with a trickle-down effect that also influences the next ten percent. Finance is a thoroughly globalized industry. The same goes for hi-tech. The red-hot economy in the Bay Area has become independent of the rest of California. Tech executives push hard for the expansion of the H-1B visa program to bring in more foreign software engineers. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry makes more money through international than domestic sales. Even a middle American company like Caterpillar is thoroughly globalized.
The upshot: Today the top end of society is deeply invested in globalization. Some take different positions in public, but one is very hard pressed to find any establishment leader who will say, in private, that we can retreat from economic globalization, much less that we should.
One can make an argument that over the long haul economic globalization will be good for all Americans. Perhaps, but in the meantime the gap grows. The top end of society is thoroughly committed. This leads to the following problem for politicians: The Democratic establishment must lie about its economic commitments, while promising to take care of the middle class, and Republicans can be frank about their free-market commitments, while having very little to offer middle class voters.
This gap isn’t just economic; it’s cultural as well. Our establishment is moving toward a post-national vision of the common good, while middle America seems eager for gestures and rhetoric that promises renewed national solidarity.
To a great extent, multiculturalism and other forms of “global consciousness” serve as companions to economic globalization. They promise to teach us how to navigate cultural differences in ways that defuse conflict, promote cooperation, and thus ease the way toward a global marketplace overseen by well-trained, benevolent technocrats from the Kennedy School of Government.
This approach need not be overtly ideological. It’s enough for us to downplay our local loyalties and to adopt a spirit of detachment from our histories. This can be done with plain vanilla relativism. The point is to strip away potentially divisive commitments, allowing us to focus on universal interests we share in common—the universal human desire to get richer, be healthier, and to satisfy individual preferences. This has led to a leadership class that is technocratic in its outlook but has trouble speaking about patriotic loyalties that unify us all.
Thus our volatile political moment. To a greater and greater degree, our establishment has economic interests and cultural commitments that are different—sometimes quite different—from those of many ordinary citizens. For some, that’s not new. But for the white middle class, it’s coming as a shock. They’re not used to being abandoned. Which is why they’re driving the populist rebellion.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.