Can Republicans Win the New Class War?

Delegates at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
Michael Lind’s new book points the way toward a more populist, politically dominant GOP. But will party leaders get the message?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T his year, like every year, the best and brightest young conservatives will win prestigious fellowships, gather in seminars, and read Alexander de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The classic work has long been a favorite of the American Right for its description of a decentralized, pluralist civil society animated by the “spirit of association,” a patchwork of church meetings and debating societies that trained ordinary citizens in the art of democracy.

That vision of America has been on life support for decades. Today, young conservatives looking for a more relevant lesson would do better to pick up The Old Regime, Tocqueville’s lesser-known book on the causes of the French Revolution. There, Tocqueville sought to explain why France’s middle class violently rebelled against its aristocratic ruling elite. His thesis was elegant and eternal: The French elite fell because it abandoned its duties while hoarding its privileges. Nobles had always enjoyed “rights that weighed heavily on the commoner,” but they also “kept order, administered justice, saw to the execution of the laws, came to the rescue of the oppressed, and watched over the interests of all.” When they decided instead to leave their peasants and decamp to enclaves of urban luxury, “the more uncalled-for did their privileges appear,” and the result was a paroxysm of violence.

Appropriately, Michael Lind begins his new book about American anti-elite strife, The New Class War, with a scene from the French Revolution. But instead of hereditary nobles, or even capitalists, Lind’s antagonists are the members of the “managerial elite,” a new caste that controls the bureaucratic levers of American government, business, and culture by virtue of its credentials rather than hereditary rank or capital ownership. Though the managerial elite don’t necessarily own anything, their professional training as lawyers, business strategists, financiers, professors, journalists, and nonprofit directors allows them to master the complexity of American institutional life and re-order it to their own class advantage.

That re-ordering has proceeded according to what Lind terms “technocratic neoliberalism,” the bespoke ideology of the managerial elite. It combines faith in free markets with social progressivism. Voters largely despise it — Lind cites the work of his colleague Lee Drutman, who finds that a mere 6 percent of American voters are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” — but it has become the governing ideology of the Western world anyway.

How? According to Lind, the managerial elite overcame the unpopularity of technocratic neoliberalism by dismantling the mass organizations built during the New Deal to distribute power to American workers. Unions in economic life, ward-level party machines in political life, and churches and civic associations in cultural life once allowed workers to exercise “countervailing power” against elite interests. The union boss, the neighborhood alderman’s operation, and the Lady’s Society for the Suppression of Vice may have been corrupt and parochial, but they also allowed ordinary people to access political power by capitalizing on their only negotiating advantage: numbers.

The managerial elite preferred not to share power with the working class. It effected “a revolution from above that promoted the material interests and intangible values of the college-educated minority of managers and professionals.” Industry was de-unionized, borders were opened, and offshoring was encouraged to bid down the price of American labor. American businesses were directed to hunt around the globe for favorable tax regimes instead of productivity-boosting innovations. Political parties were converted from mass-membership organizations with well-developed local branches to donor-driven brands that billionaires could rent. Lawmaking was moved from legislatures, where working Americans had a voice, to administrative agencies and courts, where they didn’t. Churches and civic watchdogs were stripped of their role in shaping media and education. And mass-based civil-society organizations that mobilized citizens were abandoned in favor of powerful nonprofit foundations that solicit checks from fellow elites.

This massive dereliction of duty resulted in higher growth and corporate profits, but working people no longer had a seat at the table to determine how those gains would be spent, so for millions of Americans, they might as well not have happened at all. Ordinary people technically had more freedom, but somehow less control than ever before. The managerial elite had replaced the society Tocqueville described in Democracy in America with the one he described in The Old Regime.

The result, Lind claims, is the current rise of populism. Managerial elites convinced themselves that their revolution would work because it could compensate working Americans for their loss of control with more economic growth. Most punditry on the subject of neoliberal economics has focused on the unequal distribution of this growth, but Lind is unique in focusing on the loss of working-class power and control as sufficient by itself to justify a rejection of the neoliberal consensus. People sooner tolerate material privation than a loss of agency, something the technocrat’s statistical models regard as irrational, but human psychology confirms as eternal. Ask any Brexit voter.

Lind, however, is not a populist. He regards the rise of Trump as a symptom of a disease that needs to be cured by a better elite, one that is willing to sacrifice a measure of economic efficiency in order to achieve class peace. He writes:

Populist demagogues can channel the legitimate grievances of many working class voters, but they cannot create a stable, institutionalized alternative to overclass dominated neoliberalism. Only a new democratic pluralism that compels managerial elites to share power with the multiracial, religiously pluralistic working class in the economy, politics and the culture can end the cycle of oscillation between oppressive technocracy and destructive populism.

A party that is willing to govern according to these pluralist values — what Lind calls “the guild in the realm of the economy, the ward in the realm of government, and the congregation in the realm of culture” — will win. Which raises a tantalizing question: Could the GOP become that party?

Over the past two election cycles, the Democrats have become the party of the rich, winning 41 of the 50 wealthiest congressional districts. Their platform now reflects this, embracing positions on trade, immigration, environmental regulation, education, and family formation that advantage the managerial elite and harm the working class. As Democrats transform into a coalition of educated professionals and the poor, the GOP increasingly represents the working middle. That means that the GOP platform must also change to reflect the interests of those voters, a trend already visible in Trump’s populist economic policies and his nationalist, pro-religion cultural message — roughly the formulation that Lind desires.

The electoral advantage of this ideological position is clear. Most voters are conservative or liberal on both fiscal and social issues, making up the bases of the two American parties. The voters that can go either way are those that split — either fiscally liberal and socially conservative (usually termed “populists”), or fiscally conservative and socially liberal (usually termed “libertarians”). Only a tiny percentage of voters are libertarian, but the populists are both numerous and homeless. A party that appealed to populist voters could also get crossover voters from both fiscally liberal Democrats and socially conservative Republicans, while forcing its opponent to occupy the empty ground of libertarianism. (Trump won in 2016 by carrying populist voters three-to-one over Hillary Clinton, whereas Mitt Romney carried them two-to-one over Barack Obama in 2012.)

Unfortunately, the Republicans have a managerial-elite problem of their own that prevents them from seizing this opportunity. Voters may thrill to Trump’s populist message, but his managerial incompetence has permitted the party to continue advancing the agenda of its libertarian donors — an agenda for which voters will never do more than hold their noses. Those libertarian donors decisively shape the next generation of conservative leaders, who incubate in a think-tank culture divorced from the natural populism of conservative voters. The young conservatives reading Tocqueville in their fellowship seminars are taught that being a conservative means dismantling the administrative state instead of using it for better ends, that efficiency trumps dignity, that the voter upset over his transition from steelworker to Walmart greeter has in fact been fairly compensated by lower prices at the dollar store.

This creates an opening for Democrats. While plenty of their leaders can’t get past the deckchairs-on-the-Titanic formula of free markets plus redistribution — what we might term “woke capitalism” — others are effectively channeling working-class anger. Elizabeth Warren introduced an agenda of “economic patriotism” that was openly praised by Tucker Carlson. Trump himself has paid grudging respect to Bernie Sanders’s trade protectionism and China hawkishness. Last week, the president expressed anger that Democrats earn more voter trust than Republicans on health care, the policy area where the GOP’s libertarian think tankers are most dominant. Republicans flatter themselves if they think they have a monopoly on the working-class vote.

Lind’s book has been embraced by important thinkers on the right. Plenty of conservatives radicalized by culture war are newly curious about class war, noting that the people who share their social values don’t seem particularly intent on corporate-tax cuts. But whether the message gets through to the party leadership depends on what it prioritizes: its own class interests, or winning elections.

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