Politics & Policy

A Divided America

A prominent demographer warns that our divisions threaten our national future.

What do government-induced spikes in energy prices, ideological purges at major American universities and companies, and the “Life of Julia” slideshow from the 2012 Obama reelection campaign have in common? According to demographer Joel Kotkin, aspects of class politics in the contemporary United States explain these three things — and many more. In his latest book, The New Class Conflict, Kotkin turns his demographer’s eye to the crisis of the middle class in the 21st-century United States. Kotkin argues that the hollowing out of the middle class is a central political, economic, and social issue of our time, and the disruption brought about by the crisis of the middle class could scramble the political coalitions of both Republicans and Democrats.

In the past, Kotkin has advanced the thesis that the United States is at risk of degenerating into a condition of neofeudalism, and The New Class Conflict offers a series of sustained reflections on the qualities of this neofeudalism. According to Kotkin, American society sees itself dividing into four neofeudal classes: the Oligarchs (the super-wealthy, especially in technical fields), the Clerisy (the opinion-makers and enforcers of consensus in the media, academy, and government regulatory bodies), the Yeomanry (the middle class), and a serf class with minimal economic assets and perhaps even less economic hope. Kotkin argues that, over the past few decades, power has increasingly shifted to the Oligarchs and their allies in the Clerisy, thereby weakening the middle class and swelling the masses of the poor. Throughout The New Class Conflict, Kotkin uses California as exemplifying a broader national trend; once a citadel of the dynamic middle class, the Golden State now witnesses broad (and growing) economic and cultural divides.

Much of The New Class Conflict explores the alliance between the Oligarchs and the Clerisy. For instance, Kotkin argues that both Silicon Valley elites and their friends in the Clerisy support regulatory policies to make energy more expensive. The super-wealthy are able to shrug off any spikes in energy prices and various connected organizations may be able to receive government subsidies to defray these increased costs, but the middle class might not be so lucky. Throughout The New Class Conflict, Kotkin draws attention to the ways that some government regulations have been used to protect major players from competitive upstarts.

Kotkin suggests that contemporary society witnesses both an increasing concentration of power and widening social divisions. He argues that, even as financial power is increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few, members of the Clerisy increasingly attempt to strengthen their own hands, too. So government regulators become ever more expansive in their rulings, and ideological crusades to purge dissenters from public life escalate. A key part of this dynamic is that certain connected players gain the ability to use government power to twist the market to suit their own objectives. For example, many of the lords of Wall Street were bailed out in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, and Kotkin argues that many tech titans have worked in anti-market ways to protect their own interests. Kotkin implies that the veneer of pseudo-capitalism can often be used to camouflage many anti-market policies.

Though it does offer, at the end, some possible solutions to the current challenges facing the middle class, much of The New Class Conflict focuses on diagnosis. Nor is this book a partisan tract for either Republicans or Democrats. However, in its exploration of these topics, Kotkin does point to some tendencies and solutions that conservatives may benefit from exploring.

Many of the trends outlined by Kotkin might trouble both right and left. A society where a narrow elite captures all economic gains and ruthlessly imposes its monolithic cultural dictates on a nation of over 300 million seems counter to the aims of a conservatism that celebrates limited government and a diffusion of power. Even if one does not believe in the moral case against extreme inequality in a society (that it is unjust for some to have so much when others have so little), there is certainly a practical case against such extremes: They may foment further cultural divisions, cause elements of both the “top” and the “bottom” to lose faith in markets and the rule of law, and potentially undermine the foundations of republican governance. Kotkin argues that the middle class broadly speaking has been central to the development of the United States. Implicitly, then, the fate of the middle class, with its relative economic autonomy, has a significant bearing on the growth of realized political liberty and of the discourse of government in the United States. The realized wealth of the yeomanry combined with a sense of opportunity has helped stabilize the American republic.

It is perhaps not entirely surprising, then, that the past decade or so has witnessed the simultaneous hollowing out of the middle class and the escalation of class-warfare rhetoric. The New Class Conflict offers President Obama’s administration as exemplifying some of the tendencies of the neofeudal era. Kotkin finds the president to be a major ally of the Clerisy’s cultural agenda even as he is in many ways supportive of the Oligarchs. For all the president’s rhetorical attacks on the super-wealthy, his policy choices have often benefited a select cadre of the economic elite and undermined the economic position of the middle. Kotkin argues that the Obama reelection campaign’s narrative of “The Life of Julia” embodies some of the traits of the modern serfdom: Atomized individuals are cut off from economic opportunity and dependent on government subsidies (the largesse of the new lord of the manor) to get by. The Obama 2012 campaign’s focus on the purported evils of the 1 percent could possibly be topped by some future Democratic contenders for the presidency waiting in the wings. The deeper the crisis of the middle class, the more likely we are to see demagogues anointing themselves as the tribunes of the suffering masses — even if the policies of such supposed tribunes serve to deepen the misery of these masses.

It would be a mistake, though, to throw out the baby with the bathwater and suggest that all those who call attention to the crisis of the middle class are rabble-rousing demagogues. The right set of forward-looking policies could help create that rising tide that lifts all boats. Rather than endorsing crude, centralized redistributionism as a solution to U.S. economic problems, Kotkin argues that broad-based economic growth would be key to restoring the fortunes of the middle class. A pro-growth, pro-middle-class economic fusionism may have increasing policy and electoral viability for the GOP. Even as a few may have profited over the slump of recent years, overall U.S. economic growth has slowed significantly. Restoring the vitality of the economic middle could go a long way toward energizing the economy as a whole, and a more vigorous economy would in turn present more opportunities for Americans of all stripes. Over the past decade at least, economic sclerosis has gone hand in hand with a diminished middle class. Furthermore, for those conservatives concerned about the stability of the federal government’s finances, Kotkin suggests that, without sufficient growth, even the most draconian austerity is not likely to put the American fiscal house in order.

In his exploration of the yeomanry, Kotkin also brings up another point congenial to many conservative writers (such as Yuval Levin): the importance to the middle class of broader nongovernmental institutions such as families, churches, and so forth. One of the things that Kotkin finds so bleak about the Life of Julia is how deracinated it is. Edmund Burke celebrated the importance of the various “little platoons” in which we participate, and Kotkin implies that institutions that build such platoons (he uses marriage and various religious organizations as examples) in turn support and buttress the middle class.

The importance of those “platoons” connects to another possible solution raised by The New Class Conflict, which is the importance of diffusing power. Countering tendencies toward centralization, a shift to the local could encourage more policy experimentation and lessen a number of social tensions. A less centralized governing order might also be one less susceptible to capture by elite interests; when power is concentrated in a few federal regulatory bodies, it is often far easier for connected players to enrich themselves.

Kotkin finds that elements of both the Republican and the Democratic coalitions have contributed to these neofeudal tendencies, but he also suggests that there are elements of both coalitions that could resist these tendencies. On the conservative side, at least, it seems as though some of the efforts of both “libertarian populism” and “reform conservatism” seek to challenge the neofeudal consensus. Two important caveats should be mentioned: Neither “reform conservatism” nor “libertarian populism” speaks with a single voice, and there are also tensions between the two movements. Whether it is through a more pro-family tax policy (preferred by a number of reform conservatives) or cutting crony-capitalist regulations (which might be popular in both camps), libertarian populists and conservative reformers alike seem to be working from an awareness about the way that current policies may undercut economic opportunity and prosperity for the average American. In its very early years, with Abraham Lincoln at its head, the Republican party defended the cause of economic opportunity for the average American and saw this opportunity as a complement to and ally of sustainable self-government. Though this legacy has never been entirely forgotten (for instance, Eisenhower and Reagan drew from this tradition), many on the right are now turning to it with a renewed interest.

The New Class Conflict takes issue with the vision of the future offered by Tyler Cowen in Average Is Over, in which America will become divided between a tiny elite, a servant class for this elite, and a vast underclass. Kotkin argues that such a future is not inevitable and suggests that this future, were it realized, could endanger the conventions of republican governance in the United States. He says that the young have perhaps the most to lose should neofeudalism continue to grow. Diminished opportunity, economic disappointment, and escalating social divisions would hit America’s youth particularly hard, though all ages would feel their effects. The point of attempting to redress some of these trends would not be to be to punish the rich but instead to work so that realized opportunity is available to all. This expansion of opportunity and prosperity could help reaffirm the public’s faith in the operations of the market. It could also reinforce the civic foundations of the republic.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.


The Latest