Red v. Blue

The political and cultural war between red and blue America may not be settled in our lifetimes, but it’s clear which side is gaining ground in economic and demographic terms. In everything from new jobs—including new technology employment—fertility rates, population growth, and migration, it’s the red states that increasingly hold the advantage. Read more

The Democratic Civil War

The Democratic Party may be united in their righteous detestation of Donald Trump, but the spirit of comity ends with that.

Rather than a party united to depose a presidential tyrant, it is increasingly riven by disputes both personal and policy-driven, and, more importantly, exposing an increasingly clear division between party interest groups.

For generations the Democratic Party has survived as an amalgam of competing factions: the labor-oriented party Middle American mainstream, the assorted billionaires and grandees from the coasts and the rising “clerisy “ of educated, credentialed professionals.

This coalition has shattered as the old unionized working-class base, at least among whites, has all but disappeared, replaced by the less settled precariat of unorganized, often temporary and increasingly non-white workers.

To date no candidate has expressed a unifying vision for these constituencies. The race’s two progressive stars, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have been sniping at each other, with Warren and her media allies seeking to paint Sanders as a misogynistic old codger insufficiently woke on immigration, gender and other issues that drive the progressive clerisy. Sanders has responded by accusing Warren of being the candidates of the entitled “elite” who cannot win over the alienated blue-collar voters who put Trump over the top.

The “center lane,” occupied by scandal plagued Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and the media confection Pete Buttigieg, is failing to generate much enthusiasm. The old labor base, long a moderating force in social and foreign policy issues, has shifted to Trump, a trend bolstered by a strong economy that is the best for blue-collar workers in a generation. And then there’s moneybags Bloomberg and Steyer, whose campaigns reflect an increasingly left-leaning party oddly supported by the most entrenched and powerful corporate interests.

The politics of redistribution

This new configuration has come about by removing one key commonality, the belief in economic growth, that Democrats traditionally embraced. Growth, at least until the past decade, rewarded rich financiers as well as large portions of the middle and working class. The American left’s abandonment of promoting prosperity marks a dramatic shift from the approach of expanding opportunity embraced last by Bill Clinton.

Under President Obama, however, growth occurred, albeit modestly, but in ways that did little to improve the conditions of middle- and working-class voters. The big rewards went to the tech oligarchs, Wall Street and “creative” professionals, many tied to government. In 2016 both Sanders and Trump ran against this bifurcated economy.

Now rather than seek to outperform the somewhat more robust economy and expand modest uptick in blue collar jobs under President Trump, progressives have shifted their focus to identity politics, environmental piety and income redistribution.

On the environment left growth is regarded often as something tumorous; some even promote “de-growth,” essentially urging societies to consciously reduce their wealth. In order to save the planet, the anti-growth agenda seeks to boost energy, housing, food and other consumption costs steadily increase in ways that would most deeply impact ordinary people and their families.

It is striking that virtually none of the leading Democratic candidates for President even discuss growth as a campaign issue. Joe Biden, the leading “moderate” in the Democratic party primaries, has explicitly stated that he would wipe out fossil fuel employment in the country to pursue a green agenda. Biden may like to sell himself as working class Joe, but his politics seem increasingly reflective of the faculty lounge.

Fundamentally, abandoning growth means the effective end of the growth-centered old social democratic program. Today’s Democratic populism, epitomized by Sanders and Warren, does not seek to make Americans better off by expanding the economy but by siphoning off the wealth of the rich.

That leaves Bloomberg, the self-financing juggernaut, and his loopier billionaire counterpart, Tom Steyer, to defend the interests of the oligarchy. In exchange for protecting the billionaire class, these grandees offer to follow the party’s left line on environmental, social issues and immigration, while promoting the interests, in the manner of Barack Obama, of the Wall Street-Silicon Valley duopoly.

Divided progressives

Ultimately the Democrats’ civil war reflects conflicts between prime constituencies. This can be seen in the struggle between Warren and Sanders. Warren’s main appeal is to other members of the clerisy — the well-educated professional class — who embrace technocratic progressivism that does not threaten their basic interests, as she insists her massive reforms can be paid for by taxing the wealthy.

Much of her program, for example a ban on fracking and proposals to allow only “carbon neutral” homes can be built after 2028 don’t exactly suggest opportunities for blue collar, energy or manufacturing workers. But that’s not her base; the clerisy, secure in the upper bureaucracy, the professions, the media and academia, can embrace ultra-green policies since they do not threaten their economic interests or social status.

Sanders more openly socialist approach would address the inegalitarian impacts of extreme climate policy by engineering a massive re-distribution scheme, including make work and outright welfare payments, made possible by a government takeover of the economy. His open willingness to tax the entire affluent class may be economically suspect, but seems far more honest than Warren’s assertion that massive new spending can be paid for simply by taxing the ultra-rich.

Sanders’ supporters may not care too much about raising taxes on the merely affluent since his base includes large numbers of the often underemployed service industry precariat, made up largely of young people, including large numbers of African-Americans and Latinos; youthful activists of all races increasingly embrace socialism . They are choosing the garrulous septuagenarian radical far more than the worn down party hack Biden, a didactic Harvard prof or age appropriate technocratic candidates like Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg.

What about the oligarchs?

If this election was being held a quarter century ago, the middle-laners would have ample opportunity to pick up mainstream voters, while receiving the grateful support of the financial overclass. But what Sanders calls “the billionaire class” clearly worries the more moderate Democrats are losing out. Bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach, who runs $149 billion Double line Capital, recently suggested that Wall Street now faces “a scare that Bernie Sanders is starting to become a plausible candidate” , posing “the great risk” to the financial markets.

Some predict a victory by Sanders, or even Warren, could spark a decline of between 25% and 40% in the value of American stocks liquidating trillions of dollars in wealth of American households.

This should provide manna for the presumptive moderates, and has generated some new backing from the financial elite and New York cognoscenti for the assumed front-runner Joe Biden whose candidacy depends largely on the thin, unprovable reed of “electability”. Others in the upper classes have started to embrace, at least tenuously, Warren as the “less bad” alternative to Sanders.

This can be seen in the support for Warren in the media, from CNN’s disreputable attack on the Vermont Senator to the endorsement from the New York Times and the Des Moines Register.

Some may find it implausible that the monied elites would rally to the cause of redistribution-minded hectoring busybody like Warren.

But a surprising number of players in the “enlightened” class of capitalist oligarchs, notably in Silicon Valley, could accommodate themselves to a highly regulated economy which both reduces competition and keeps them firmly on top. As for the masses, some embrace an expanded welfare state, what Marx called “a proletarian alms bag,” to keep the masses both from destitution and rebellion by offering housing and education subsidies as well as guaranteed monthly payments.

Those rebelling against this notion of a carefully managed society logically see Sanders, and to some extent Trump, as the last bastions of resistance to the globalist uber-class.

The durability of Sanders’ vision of a socialist America, however dodgy and far-fetched, rests on the reality that many Democrats, particularly the young, would rather go with a guy who sounds like a New York cabdriver than hand the keys of control over to corporate shills, Harvard professors, Wall Street managers or the tech elite.

This piece first appeared on The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit: Phil Roeder via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Demographic Undestiny

Demography becomes destiny, the old adage goes. But many of the most confidently promoted demographic predictions have turned out grossly exaggerated or even dead wrong. In many cases they tend to reflect more the aspirations of pundits and reporters than the actual on-the-ground realities.

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Big Tech’s Hypocritical Wokeness May Soon Backfire

Not long ago, in our very same galaxy, the high-tech elite seemed somewhat like the Jedis of the modern era. Sure, they were making gobs of money, but they were also “changing the world” for the better.

Even demonstrators against capitalism revered them; when Steve Jobs died in 2011, the protesters at Occupied Wall Street mourned his passing.

Increasingly, Americans no longer regard our tech oligarchs as modern folk heroes; today companies including Google, Apple and Facebook are suffering huge drops in their reputations among the public.

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You Think Trump’s a Danger to Democracy? Get a Load of Bloomberg.

Many in the media and political class see Donald Trump as the face of America’s autocratic future. They’ve had less to say about Michael Bloomberg, a far more successful billionaire with the smarts, motivation, and elitist mentality not only to propose but actually carry out his own deeply authoritarian vision should he be elected president. Read more

The Growth Dilemma

More is more and more is also different
Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, 2005

For much of the last seventy years, economic growth has lifted the quality of life in Europe, North America, and East Asia, providing social stability after the violent disruptions of World War II. Today, however, many of the world’s most influential leaders, even in the United States, reject the very notion that societies should improve material wealth and boost incomes given what they believe are more important environmental or social equity concerns. Read more

Is America About to Suffer its Weimar Moment?

Is America about to suffer its Weimar moment, culminating in the collapse of its republican institutions? Our democracy may be far more rooted than that of Germany’s first republic, which fell in 1933 to Adolf Hitler, but there are disturbing similarities.

A polarizing would-be despot as national leader, rising anti-Semitism, an out-of-control upper bureaucracy, a politicized media and education systems, an economically stressed middle class, widespread dalliance with extremist ideologies and the rise of armed militant groups. America’s descent to authoritarianism is far from pre-ordained, but the reality remains that it could happen here, and perhaps already is.

As happened in Germany, we are seeing the collapse of any set of common beliefs among Americans. Before the first votes are case in 2020, “the majority of Americans already believe that we are two-thirds of the way to being on the edge of civil war. That to me is a very pessimistic place,” says Mo Elleithee, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

In Weimar Germany, the prospects of civil war were greater by far, as the institutions of the young Republic were never fully accepted by the old monarchist elites, the military, the industrialists or the far left, notably the Communists. In comparison, American institutions may be battered, but have more than 200 years of “street cred”; even far left politicians like the members of the socialist “squad” still try to wrap themselves in the American flag rather than wave their own symbol, as occurred in Germany, where Nazis waved the swastika and Communists their Die Rote Fahne.

Yet there are still disturbing parallels, for example in the often lenient treatment for violent protesters whether on the streets or on the campuses. When Bavarian judges gave Hitler a light sentence for his 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, they treated treason against the republic as a minor offense. Nazism was particularly strong at the universities, which became a powerful base for the party, and supplier of its specialists, commanders and scientists. In Germany, as here, anti-republican sentiments were not confined to the “deplorables” but were also widely shared, as historian Frederic Spotts has detailed, by many painters, poets, filmmakers and sculptors—at least those not Jewish or openly communist. Many creatives were thrilled by Hitler’s dream that “blood and race will once more be the source of artistic intuition” as an inflation-devastated generation lost faith in the values of compromise, responsibility and justice. The parallels with the assault on free speech and discussion on our campuses are disturbing.

In America, too, respect for the main institutions of our society—corporations, banks, Congress, the presidency, religion, the media, academia—has declined over decades. Only 10 percent of Americans feel that the federal government is suited to meeting the challenges before it; 40 percent feel it is totally incapable, a percentage roughly twice that in 1970. These feelings are strongest, significantly, among the younger generation. Recent revelations about the Afghan conflict, and the military’s systematic lying about it, are not likely to boost confidence.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that respect for the basic folk ways of our republic has disappeared, even at the highest levels of society. President Trump, with his all-too-evident lack of knowledge of how the system works, is a classic authoritarian personality who identifies those who oppose him, like the media, as “enemies of the people.” Some fear that Trump is weaponizing the courts to go after opponents in the bureaucracy and the military, just as Hitler and other dictators once did. 

But if Trump is nauseating and dangerous, so too are his critics. From the moment of his election, a large part of the entrenched establishment—in the military, the court systems, the FBI and CIA as well as large parts of the old GOP establishment—have sought to violate their oaths so they can undermine his rule. Even the foreign policy establishment has been weaponized against the current administration to wage “war by other means” against a sitting President.

Despite claiming to be the protectors of “American values,” many progressive politicians now display their contempt for constitutional norms by calling for “packing” the Supreme Court, eliminating the electoral college and even overhauling the Senate to favor more populous urban states. Calls by leading Democrats for establishing “states of emergency,” particularly to address climate issues, eerily reprise similar practices towards the end of Weimar, which helped set up the logic for the Hitler dictatorship.

Read the rest of the piece at The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

How Trump Can Win Again

By all rights, Donald Trump should be packing his bags and headed to the golf links and his favorite fast food restaurant. Never popular, he has done little to expand his base over the past three years. Unlike previous officeholders, many from more humble beginnings, he also demonstrably has failed to grow in the job.

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California Preening: Golden State on Path to High-Tech Feudalism

The Golden State is on a path to high-tech feudalism, but there’s still time to change course.

“We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta. California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta,” declared then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007. “Not only can we lead California into the future . . . we can show the nation and the world how to get there.”

When a movie star who once played Hercules says so who’s to disagree? The idea of California as a model, of course, precedes the former governor’s tenure. Now the state’s anti-Trump resistance—in its zeal on matters concerning climate, technology, gender, or race—believes that it knows how to create a just, affluent, and enlightened society. “The future depends on us,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at his inauguration. “And we will seize this moment.”

In truth, the Golden State is becoming a semi-feudal kingdom, with the nation’s widest gap between middle and upper incomes—72 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 57 percent—and its highest poverty rate. Read more

The Middle Class Rebellion

We usually associate rebellions with the rise of the desperate. But increasingly we are seeing large protests in comparatively wealthy countries that are led not by working class sans-culottes or starving peasants, but what was once the stable middle class.

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