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.
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