Despite the Great Recession, Obama’s New Coalition of Elites Has Thrived

Appearing in:

The Daily Beast

The middle class, we’re frequently told, decides elections. But the 2012 race has in many ways been a contest between two elites, with the plutocratic corporate class lining up behind Mitt Romney to try and reclaim its position on top of the pile from an ascendant new group—made up of the leaders of social and traditional media, the upper bureaucracy and the academy—that’s bet big on Barack Obama.

As recently as 2008, the Wall Street plutocrats were divided, as Obama deftly managed to run as both the candidate of hope and change and the candidate of the banks. But this year, the vast majority of the corporate ultra-rich have backed Romney, who after all is one of their own, his top five sources of donors all financial giants: Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and Wells Fargo. As The Wall Street Journal memorably noted, in 2008, no major U.S. corporation did more to back Obama than Goldman Sachs—and in 2012, none has done more to help defeat him. Those titans, along with the powerful and well-heeled energy sector, have placed most of their bets on the Republican.

But don’t mourn too much for Obama, who’s held his own in the cash race by assembling a new, competing coalition of wealthy backers, from the “new hierarchies of technical elites” that Daniel Bell predicted in 1976 in The Coming Of Post-Industrial Society. For that group, Bell wrote, nature and human nature ceased to be central, as “fewer now handle artifacts or things” so that “reality is primarily the social world”—which, he warned, “gives rise to a new Utopianism” that mistakenly treats human nature as something that can be engineered and corrected by instruction from their enlightened betters. This approach, although often grounded in good intention, can easily morph into a technocratic authoritarianism.

Along with Hollywood, Obama’s big donors have come from the tech sector, government, and the academy—with his top five made up of the University of California, Microsoft, Google, the U.S. government, and Harvard. Tech heavyweights such as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have given maximum donations to the president, as have Eric Schmidt and four other top executives at Google.

These idea wielders make fortunes not through tangible goods but instead by manipulating and packaging information, and so are generally not interested in the mundane economy of carbon-based energy, large-scale agriculture, housing, and manufacturing. They can afford to be green and progressive, since they rarely deal with physical infrastructure (particularly within America) or unions or the challenges of training lower-skilled workers.

There is a growing synergy between science, academia, and these information elites. Environmental policies pushed by the scientific community not only increase specialists’ influence and funding, but also the emergent regulatory regime expands opportunities for academicians, technocrats, and professional activists. It also provides golden opportunities for corporate rent seeking, particularly among those Silicon Valley figures involved in a host of heavily subsidized “green” ventures, most famously Solyndra.

In many senses, we are seeing a “progressive” version of the unlamented John Edwards’s two Americas. Much of the U.S. is struggling, but the Clerisy has thrived. Between late 2007 and mid-2009, the number of federal workers earning at least $150,000 more than doubled.

As government has grown even while the economy staggers, the direct and indirect beneficiaries of that growth have hitched their carts to the administration. Many professors have been protected by tenure, even at hard-hit public institutions. Foundation and NGO heads, financed by philanthropy—much of it from often left-leaning Trustifarian inheritors—have remained comfortably secure, as have their good workers. And Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke’s money policies have funneled cash from return-starved investors into the coffers of tech and social-media companies.

There’s an old name for this new group of winners: the Clerisy, which British poet Samuel Coleridge defined in the 1830s as an enlightened educated class, made up of the Anglican church along with intellectuals, artists, and educators, that would school the rest of society on values and standards.

But in many ways the New Clerisy most closely resembles the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, serving as the key organs of enforced conformity, distilling truth for the masses, seeking to regulate speech and indoctrinate youth. Most of Obama’s group serves, as Bell predicted, a “priestly function” for large portions of the population.

This post-industrial profile has shielded the post-industrial elite from the harsh criticism meted out to Wall Street grandees and energy executives by green activists, urban aesthetes, and progressive media outlets. Steve Jobs, by any definition a ruthless businessman, nevertheless was celebrated at Occupy Wall Street as a cultural icon worthy of veneration.

There are of course libertarians and even traditional conservatives in academia, the media, the think-tank world, Silicon Valley, and even Hollywood. But they constitute a distinct minority. For the most part, the members of the groups that make up Obama’s Clerisy, like any successful priestly class, embrace shared dogmas: strongly secular views on social issues, fervent environmentalism, an embrace of the anti-suburban “smart growth” agenda, and the ideal of racial redress, of which Obama remains perhaps the most evident symbol.

As befits a technological age, the New Clerisy also includes now orthodox portions of the scientific community—figures such as President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren, NASA’s James Hansen, and the board of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These secular clerics have been extraordinarily influential about global warming, primarily advocating limited consumption by the lower orders.

Energy marks the clearest demarcating issues between the plutocrats and the Clerisy. The regime of ever higher energy prices with its inevitable immediate impact of slower growth—long preferred by environmentalists and openly espoused by Energy Secretary Steven Chu—represents no real threat to the Clerisy and presents a boon to the “green” capitalists. Yet the rising hyper-regulatory state threatens to slow the overall economy, as it has in California, and to wreak havoc on the largely suburban, exposed middle and working classes.

But energy is not the only issue dividing the two elites. The Clerisy—as can be seen clearly in the secular mecca of California—also seeks to impose mandates on more and more of private decision making, whether shaping college admissions and the composition of corporate boards, as well as basic choice in everything from housing types to food consumption.

The Clerisy often employs populist rhetoric, but many of its leading lights, such as former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag, appear openly hostile to democracy, seeing themselves as a modern-day version of the Calvinist “elect.” They believe that power should rest not with the will of the common man or that of the plutocrats but with credentialed “experts,” whether operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations.

This authoritarian tendency, often perceived as arrogant, has fueled revulsion among large parts of the nation, as evidence by the Tea Party 2010 sweep. The continued hostility of the bourgeois masses to the Clerical agenda appears to be helping Romney solidify his support in the countryside, the suburbs, and smaller cities.

Of course, Romney himself is the very opposite of a populist. As president, he would offer four years of technocratic, corporate power. Yet at the same time, a Romney administration—contrary to the claims of Democratic operatives and at times also the mainstream media—would not embrace the savage worldview of Pat Buchanan, Sara Palin, or even Rick Santorum. It would be establishmentarian in a “sensible shoes” kind of way. Mormonism, as an old friend raised in the faith told me, combines “a Pentecostal theology with an Episcopalian mentality.” Expect something like George H.W. Bush, with a religious twist.

The prospect of four years of plutocratic rule under Romney is no cause for celebration for those who would like to see greater social justice and reduced inequality. But it may prove less damaging to the country than allowing Obama’s new, secular priesthood to wreak damage on the economy that could take decades to unwind.