Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Other Class War

Clouds gather over the skyline of San Francisco, 2014. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
The Democratic party is going from being the party of formal entitlements for the poor to the party of the informal entitlement of the affluent.

There is a class war going on inside the Democratic party.

Consider these two cris de couer: Writing in the New York Times under the headline “America’s Cities Are Unlivable — Blame Wealthy Liberals,” Farhad Manjoo argues that rich progressives have, through their political domination of cities such as San Francisco, built an invisible wall by artificially constricting the supply of housing to keep prices up and the riff-raff down; writing in The Atlantic, Rahm Emanuel, the feckless former mayor of one of those unlivable cities, puts into prose a campaign rally speech in which he holds ragingly forth on “what may be the most important, least understood, and underappreciated political dynamic of our era: a full-on middle-class revolt against the elites and the privileges they hoard.”

Republicans should happily sit this one out.

There is a deathless myth about the two major political parties “trading places” on race following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Goldwater campaign. That’s a comforting bedtime story Democrats tell themselves (in reality, the migration of affluent white suburban voters in the South to the Republican party and the migration of black voters to the Democratic party began a generation before that, at the same time in response to the same stimulus: the New Deal) but the reality is that the parties have traded places in a different way: The Republican party, once the political home of business elites and educated suburbanites, has become the party of farmers and rural communities, and the party of less educated whites; the Democratic party, some of whose affiliates still formally call themselves the “Farmer-Labor party,” are today what the Republicans once were: The party of Big Business, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, the party of moneyed elites, and the party of educated white professionals, particularly those in the most affluent communities.

Hence the new Democratic focus on “the middle class,” by which Democrats do not mean the middle class, exactly — the terminology mainly serves to communicate to upwardly mobile voters that the Democrats no longer see themselves as the party of the poor, as the welfare party, though they’ll take those votes, too, where they can get them. When the Democrats talk about the “middle class,” they talk about things that are mainly of concern at the high end of what might plausibly be described as the middle. For example, Democrats are very interested in what public-school employees are paid, even though teachers make well above the average income, and administrators routinely earn the same six-figure sums that comparable corporate managers might command: The superintendent of schools in Cypress-Fairbanks, in the suburbs of Houston, was paid a salary of $444,117 in 2018, plus benefits the generosity of which far outstrips what is typical of the private sector.

Is that half-million a year or so in compensation what Rahm Emanuel means by hoarded privileges?

Similarly, concerns about college loans are mainly (though not exclusively, of course) of interest to those at the higher end of the income distribution. Most people are not college graduates. In fact, if you are worried about “inequality,’ consider that the gap between the incomes of college graduates and non-graduates has in fact never been higher. But the Democratic focus is on relieving college graduates of the modest financial burdens (loan payments are less than 5 percent of income for most borrowers) that helped them move up from the median. Recall the unseemly spectacle of Michelle Obama’s complaining that she was obliged to repay institutions that had done her the favor of lending her money at a subsidized rate to pursue the education that helped to make her a rich woman.

The Democrats of course say that they do not mean households with only $400,000 a year in income when they denounce those wicked elites. They mean malefactors such as: Walmart, where Hillary Rodham Clinton served on the board of directors; or Goldman Sachs, which supplied so much manpower to the Clinton and Obama administrations; or cash-hoarding Apple, where Al Gore sits on the board of directors; or that venture-capital firm Nancy Pelosi’s husband owns; or Netflix, which named Barack Obama’s UN ambassador to its board before negotiating a deal (value undisclosed) with the former president and his wife.

Obviously.

What this means for traditional Democratic party constituencies should be obvious, too. Manjoo’s column on San Francisco lamented the “plague of garbage and needles and feces” on the city’s streets and sidewalks, but made no mention at all of the city’s significant new absence: about two-thirds of its African-American population has disappeared, having been pushed out of the city by progressive policies enacted by progressive elected offices and executed by progressive-led agencies. Emanuel oversaw what the New York Times described as a “cover-up in Chicago” relating to the murder of a black teen-ager by a Chicago police officer. What happens in poor black neighborhoods is, almost inevitably, going to be a relatively low priority for a party of white suburbanites.

That’s the dilemma for the Democrats as it goes from being the party of formal entitlements for the poor to the party of the informal entitlement of the affluent. The party’s leaders, donors, and most influential figures are largely white and well-off, but its dominance in American cities was built on the votes of people who are neither — and its future depends, at least in part, on the continued support of those communities. (The Democrats are fortunate in their opposition: The Republican party evinces minimal interest in speaking to these voters and their concerns.) The emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — a callow social-media performer and a Jew-hating weirdo, respectively — is one indication that there are many Democrats who are not willing to see the party of little old liberal white ladies evolve into the party of rich and respectable middle-aged white men in nine or ten spendy ZIP codes, the Nancy Pelosi and Randi Weingarten party morphing into the Beto O’Rourke and Jack Dorsey party.

For the Democrats, class war is going to be a civil war.

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