Blaming a new social hierarchy for the rise of populism

Daniel Markovits

THE WASHINGTON POST – Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite seeks to put the populist eruptions that have consumed politics across the rich nations of the world into perspective and to deflate the panic that populists induce, by both treating them sympathetically and cutting them down to size.

Lind finds populism’s roots neither in direct economic hardship nor in white nationalism but rather in resentment of the cultural, political and economic hierarchy that oppresses middle- and working-class people today. He claims that over the past half-century, a new ruling class – of “managers” in global cities and other urban hubs, for whom “degrees are the new titles of nobility and diplomas the new coats of arms” – has “deprived much of the working class of effective voice or agency in government, the economy, and culture.” Once, Lind observes, “trade unions, participatory political parties, and religious and civic organisations compelled university-educated managerial elites to share power with them or defer to their values.” But beginning in the 1970s, the managers “unilaterally abrogated” this power-sharing settlement. Now, “no longer restrained by working-class power,” the “metropolitan overclass” has, as Lind puts it, “run amok.”

Populism, Lind asserts, is a “defensive reaction” that channels “the legitimate grievances of many working-class voters.” Populist demagogues, in his view, are reactive rather than generative – a spark, not the fuel. They are also more pettily corrupt than grandly evil and weaker than commonly feared. President Trump, seen through this lens, is less a channel by which European fascism might come to the United States and more a familiar American type: A “vulgar” urban political boss. “Not Der Fuhrer,” Lind writes, but “Da Mayor of America.”

Lind assembles many pieces of data – including reports of historical episodes, economic facts and statistics about current political opinion – to create his portrait of the class war. And he clearly sides with the beaten-down masses over the rising elite. He pairs hostility toward the hubris of the hyper-educated, cosmopolitan class with deep sympathy for the wounded dignity of ordinary citizens who are neglected by the economy, society and politics that this elite has built.

Readers who agree with Lind’s perspective will find much ammunition here. Indeed, some of his claims are immediately compelling. The distinction (borrowed from Prospect magazine founder David Goodhart) between “Somewheres,” whose lives and fates are linked to particular local communities, and “Anywheres,” who derive income and status from globally transferrable skills, resonates powerfully with the felt experience of politics today. It also helps to explain Lind’s view that citizens can embrace populist nationalism without being bigots.

Other claims, however, fall flat. For example, Lind’s suggestion that foundation-supported “community activists” are today’s equivalent of “nineteenth-century missionaries sent out to save the ‘natives’ from themselves” is rhetorical rather than reasoned. Lind offers no evidence that the activists are condescending or even outsiders, and he ignores the many ways in which activists seek to empower rather than to control the communities they serve.

A tendency toward bare assertion infects much of the book and some of its main themes. For instance, Lind’s treatment of immigration badly lacks evidentiary support.

He insists that large-scale immigration by unskilled workers powerfully depresses domestic wages and adds little to economic growth.

He credits immigration’s critics with a legitimate public concern for domestic equality and plays down ethno-nationalism and bigotry.

He even calls suggestions that xenophobia plays a role in opposition to immigration an absurd medicaliSation of morality. Lind further proposes that those who protect immigrants act not from principle but from greed.

He accuses corporations of seeking a compliant workforce and the rich of wanting cheap domestic help.

These claims are intensely contested. For example, an open letter signed by 1,470 economists, including six Nobel laureates, argues that “the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh” its costs.

A recent empirical study finds that each immigrant creates 1.2 jobs for local workers, so that “overall, it appears that local workers benefit from the arrival of more immigrants.” And another study extends a similar result even to specifically illegal immigration, finding that deporting undocumented immigrants “weakens” labour markets, “increasing unemployment of native low skilled” workers, while legalization “decreases the unemployment rate of low-skilled natives and it increases income per native.”

Lind’s treatment merely states one side of the issue. And his brief notes (focused on secondary sources rather than primary scholarship) give readers no assistance in reconstructing the debate for themselves.

The book’s biggest problem cuts even deeper. The New Class War lacks a theory of its own. Lind lays out facts but scarcely interprets their social meanings or identifies the causes that connect them. He does not explain why the mid-century power-sharing regime broke down just when it did or why managers in particular – people who run companies, cultural institutions or governments but do not own them – have taken over.

He never explains why the managerial elite assumed economic, cultural and political power all at the same time, or how power in each sphere shores up power in the others. And he does not explain why the political reaction against these hierarchies takes on the peculiarly populist character – involving ethno-nationalism and hostility to institutions and the rule of law – that it has almost everywhere.

Other writers have provided deeper analyses. On the right, New York Times columnist David Brooks emphasises the moral and psychological evils of individualism and private ambition, while American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray has lamented the decline of traditional virtues, including monogamy, industriousness and faith.

On the left, the economist Thomas Piketty argues that capitalism inexorably concentrates wealth and enables rich owners to exploit poor workers, while Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University document the ways in which exclusive colleges enable rich families to pass privilege down from one generation to the next.

All these theories, of course, are debatable and even controversial.

But each draws explicit lines of argument between effects and their causes, and between political movements and moral ideals to anchor perspectives on the current moment.

Is faith really as essential to self-control as Murray supposes? Will capital overrun labour as Piketty describes?

By revealing the deeper logics that drive their claims, these writers give readers the materials needed to make up their own minds.

Lind’s book will surely resonate with those who are already persuaded, but it will do little to enlighten those who are not.

This is a shame. Books like Lind’s are being written and read because populism is as disorienting as it is disruptive.

The political whirlwind makes it difficult to know what is happening, even as it only increases the desire to understand.

There is, after all, a great deal at stake.