Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

The Return of Class Conflict

At a rally for President Donald Trump in Toledo, Ohio, January 9, 2020 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, by Michael Lind (Portfolio, 224 pp., $25)

Michael Lind’s career has finally come full circle. Once a rising conservative intellectual, Lind broke with the Republican party in 1992 over what he considered its enabling relationship with Pat Buchanan and the reactionary Right. He then spent decades warning that the neoliberal era, typified by a zeal from elites in both major parties for deregulation, free trade, and open immigration, would lead to the very sort of populist counterrevolution that could bring a reactionary like Buchanan to power.

Today, however, Lind’s views are more likely to be described as “what a smarter Trumpism sounds like,” as the title of his recent interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein put it. Yet Lind is no Trumpist, much less a Buchananite. In his new book, The New Class War, he takes the grievances of Trump’s base seriously while treating its support for a demagogic populist as a symptom of a much deeper disease — one that, to his credit, Lind diagnosed long before the 2016 election.

Many of Lind’s most prescient insights about the vulnerability of American politics to someone like Trump were already present in his 1995 book, The Next American Nation. Lind portrayed U.S. history as a series of regime changes driven by shifting political settlements between powerful social classes, from the Civil War to the New Deal era and beyond. In each case, cross-class compromise brought a level of stability to the republic before eventually breaking down, a turning point Lind thought would next occur in the early 2000s.

The post-war era, for example, combined broad social-insurance programs with a form of managerial capitalism in a way that was conducive to the growth of a robust middle class. Nonetheless, as a compromise between northern industrialists and southern Democrats, the era’s political equilibrium depended on protecting the dominance of white America through low levels of non-European immigration and the tacit exclusion of African Americans from the full benefits of programs such as Social Security (which excluded domestic and agricultural workers). This settlement eventually became untenable owing to the political realignment caused by the civil-rights movement, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and 1970s stagflation, which, at the time, seemed connected to the excessive power of trade unions.

The post-1970s era combined heightened racial consciousness with the steady erosion of the working class’s power over politics, culture, and the economy. Union-membership rates declined, and coalitional party politics was disrupted by open primaries, legal constraints on patronage, and the rise of special-interest groups. The voice of workers in society was replaced by the technocratic wisdom of a college-educated “overclass,” just in time for the end of the Bretton Woods system and the wave of trade and financial liberalization that followed.

As family-based immigration increased America’s foreign-born and nonwhite population, Lind foresaw elites on both the left and the right embracing their own versions of identity politics to distract from their shared overclass agenda. If this trend was left unchecked, Lind predicted, America would undergo “Brazilification,” a term coined by Douglas Coupland to describe a regime in which the middle class withers away, leaving a multiethnic underclass ruled by a high-minded urban elite.

The only hope for American democracy, Lind argued, was a liberal nationalism that united workers across cultural divides and forced the overclass to the negotiating table. This vision of a “New America” (the name of the think tank Lind co-founded in 1999) would draw support from the socially conservative and economically progressive “radical center” of American politics, which — despite representing a plurality of the voting public — remained largely disenfranchised by the two-party system. But if elites in the Democratic and Republican establishment refused to compromise on working-class issues such as trade and immigration, Lind warned, they risked leaving an open lane for an anti-establishment outsider who would address them.

That Lind saw all this circa 1995 is no doubt a major reason his writing has become essential reading for today’s Trump-adjacent Right. The New Class War, which picks up the story in the present, is no exception. Based on a 2017 essay by the same name, Lind’s book continues the overtly class-based analysis of American politics that has earned him a following in the offices of Republican lawmakers trying to lay the groundwork for what comes after Trump. This group includes Florida senator Marco Rubio, whose critique of shareholder capitalism and call for a pro-worker industrial policy are influenced by Lind’s work; Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who has rejected economic libertarianism as an “upper class” assault on the “great American middle”; and Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, whose RAISE Act proposes to settle the immigration debate by lowering overall immigration rates while shifting to a skills-based system.

Not long ago, Lind’s restrictionist stance on unskilled immigration and his egalitarian critique of identity politics had a natural home in the labor wing of the Democratic party. But with the labor movement in shambles and progressivism increasingly defined by the interests of college-educated urbanites, Lind’s mix of policy views is now anathema to Democrats. After leaving New America in 2017, he receded from public life, taking a professorship in public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Yet despite his ostracism by the Left, and the obvious chip it left on his shoulder, Lind’s quiet influence on American politics has somehow only increased since he left the D.C. bubble.

One might think that Lind’s fandom among populist conservatives is evidence that he has changed, but in reality the world changed around him. The New Class War is remarkably consistent with Lind’s work from decades prior, beyond some minor evolutions in vocabulary. Instead of warning of “Brazilification,” for example, Lind describes the risk of America’s becoming a permanent “oligarchy.” Instead of “liberal nationalism,” Lind advocates a new cross-class settlement based on “democratic pluralism,” presumably to avoid confusion with today’s anti-pluralist strain of nationalism. And instead of the “overclass,” Lind primarily refers to the “managerial elite” — a homage to James Burnham’s 1941 best-seller, The Managerial Revolution, which predicted the older bourgeoisie’s displacement by a pseudo-meritocratic class of public and private bureaucrats.

Lind has always straddled the horseshoe of American political ideology. Neither left nor right, and most certainly not some third-way “moderate,” he manages to defy classification by focusing on the deeper structural forces in American politics. Nevertheless, reading The New Class War promises to be an often infuriating experience for those on “the Resistance” left and small-government right alike.

“The actual antecedents of contemporary populist politicians like Trump are to be found not in interwar Central European totalitarian states,” Lind argues, after rejecting the theory that Trump is a crypto-fascist, “but in state and local politics, particularly urban politics.” Before becoming Britain’s pro-Brexit prime minister, for example, Boris Johnson was the mayor of London. Likewise, Matteo Salvini, a key leader of Italy’s neo-nationalist movement, entered national politics only after nearly two decades on Milan’s city council.

These sorts of provocative, narrative-busting insights are scattered throughout The New Class War, always in a way that reinforces Lind’s core thesis. Donald Trump, for instance, fits the American archetype of a populist, somewhat corrupt big-city mayor who combines “appeals to working-class grievances and resentments with folksy language and feuds with the metropolitan press.” Examples from history include old-school Democrats such as Frank Rizzo, mayor of Philadelphia, and Ed Koch, mayor of New York City, but arguably also the former Republican mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. This pattern, Lind notes, emerged in the late 20th century following the working-class Irish-, German-, Italian-, and Polish-American backlash against the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elite — an elite who had, after all, until recently “imposed quotas on Jews and Catholics in their Ivy League universities.” The correct way to understand Donald Trump, a Scots-German from Queens, is therefore less as “Der Führer” and more as “Da Mayor of America,” Lind wryly concludes.

Given arguments such as the one above, some will no doubt try to frame The New Class War as an apologia for the Trump administration. Yet Lind not only repudiates the president, he insists that reactionary populism of Trump’s sort will always be a dead end. “No single charismatic individual or party can substitute for institutionalized representation of a pluralistic society in all its variety,” Lind writes. “Today’s populism is a counterculture, not a counterestablishment. A counterculture defines itself in opposition to the establishment. A counterestablishment wants to be the establishment.”

But as dangerous as populism is, “the establishment response to populism threatens democracy more than populism itself” does. The managerial elite faces a choice between “co-optation and repression,” and repression is usually the cheaper option. Building a viable alternative to Trump’s expedient politics of negation will instead require creating institutions of “countervailing power” (a term Lind borrows from economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1952 book American Capitalism).

In the previous era, that meant elite deference to “trade unions, participatory political parties, and religious and civic organizations.” In the coming era, it may mean “organized labor and business in wage-setting sectoral bodies, or representatives of religious and secular creeds in bodies charged with oversight of education and the media.” Whatever form the next settlement takes, palliative handouts to the aggrieved won’t suffice. True democratic pluralism must embody what the social theorist Philip Selznick once called the “fundamental principle of social life,” namely the recognition that “only power can check power.”

If Lind’s “wage-setting sectoral bodies” sound like something from Elizabeth Warren’s presidential platform, it’s no accident. They see the world in a fundamentally similar way. Indeed, The Great Democracy, a new book from Warren’s former policy director, Ganesh Sitaraman, is almost a mirror image of The New Class War. While they differ on some specifics (Sitaraman wants stronger antitrust policy, Lind is skeptical), both put forward a cyclical theory of politics, both critique the neoliberal era through the lens of class, and both call for a pro-labor industrial policy. The core difference is that Sitaraman and Warren are firmly rooted in the elite, intellectual Left, with all the reputational baggage that brings. Lind, in contrast, is free to challenge conservative economic orthodoxies and progressive cultural politics simultaneously, going so far as to argue that they enable each other.

The goal of technocratic neoliberalism, Lind writes, “is to ensure that there is a proper racial and gender balance within the overclass, the balance that presumably would result from a perfect meritocracy.” The new California law requiring publicly traded companies to include a “representative number” of women on their boards of directors comes to mind. While he thinks greater gender and racial inclusion are important, Lind sees these kinds of diversity initiatives as merely reinforcing “the assumption that contemporary North America and Europe already have near-classless societies, to be made perfectly classless by a few low-cost policy interventions.”

Agree or disagree with this analysis, it clearly won’t be expressed by a Democratic politician any time soon. And that, in so many words, explains the impasse threatening American democracy: A country deeply divided by race, religion, geography, and — yes — class has political leaders who are all, in their own way, prevented from speaking truth to their respective power. For Michael Lind, a working-class hero is something to be, but who can be that hero today is not so easy to see.

This article appears as “Working-Class Backlash” in the February 24, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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