I first heard of Michael Lind from a friend, who called him “cantankerous” and “brilliant” and mentioned that Lind was certain Trump would win. This was in 2015, when the conventional wisdom held that Trump’s pre-primary lead in the polls would evaporate, giving way to a more serious establishment candidate to challenge Hillary Clinton.
I first met Lind more than a year later, at an event hosted by a Washington, D.C. think tank he founded, where he walked me through his entire theory of American politics. In short, we were undergoing a realignment where populist Republican voters would lead a revolt against the party’s libertarian and neoliberal elite. And he explained how this realignment led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Lind has now published The New Class War, a book that delves into the details of our conversation from a few years ago. It’s an expansion of an essay he published in American Affairs, where he argues that Western democracies are undergoing a significant upheaval because Western elites have rebelled against the working and middle classes of their own countries. Those elites have invested in globalized labor arbitrage in China and other countries instead of building productivity in their own nations. In the process, they have created a labor market where working-class people have found it harder to find the kind of work that enables them to live the kinds of lives they want. And they have made a social world where the institutions—unions and churches, especially—that working class people rely on have been decimated. These two facts are related, of course: the decline of unions is, in part, a story of globalization decimating the American manufacturing sector.
In some ways, this is a story that many have heard before, but Lind explores it in new ways.
First, building from James Burnham, he defines “the elite” as the “professional class”: people who’ve achieved advanced education, who cluster in the major urban enclaves of our country, and who serve as bureaucrats in our government, managers in our corporations, and educators in our schools and universities. This definition leaves out many rich capitalists—an uneducated, but wealthy, owner of an electrical supply company, for instance—even as it includes middle-income teachers.
Many classical Marxists will bristle at Lind’s decision to place so much of the blame at the feet of the professional class instead of the super-rich, but Lind’s argument does possess some explanatory power: income is often a far less potent predictor of voting and cultural affiliation than educational attainment.
And though the Marxist can scream “false consciousness” until he’s red in the face, recent electoral history in Western Europe and America suggests that the working classes, in fact, do care about their own national borders. The proletariat of the world has not united, even as the professional class shows increasing transnational solidarity and fewer obvious signs of national loyalty or civic pride.
Compromising the Good Life
But Lind does not advocate an overthrow of the professional class. He’s instead arguing that they should wake up, learn a little about their own countrymen, and share a little power. To the libertarians on the Right, he asks them to consider the upside of labor unions. To the neoliberals of the Left, he asks them to consider the downside of mass immigration. To Lind, the populists can’t “win”: there will always be an elite, and the goal of our politics should be a class compromise.
Outside of provision for healthcare and other basic needs, Lind doubts whether redistribution can solve our most significant problems. He is similarly scornful of the idea that workers need only to “go back to school” or, worse yet, “just move” for better wages.
Part of living a good life is being able to build it where you want, not just in four or five coastal megacities. The problem with the working class, says Lind, is not that they lack enough human capital or geographic mobility, it’s that they lack bargaining power. And in an economy replete with various types of labor arbitrage (like shipping millions of manufacturing jobs to China), acquiring more education is unlikely to give workers the bargaining power they need. Consequently, our class compromise can’t take the form of a little more redistribution or subsidies for education so the working class can “upskill” into better jobs.
This “palliative reform,” says Lind, “at most can create oligarchy with a human face.”
Human Capital and Productivity
There are parts of Lind’s argument with which I quibble. I’m not so sure it’s possible to separate the managers of our globalized world from its owners. The managerial class at Apple has shipped much of the iPhone production to China—even as it allows the Chinese government to spy on dissidents using its devices—but I don’t see the shareholders or leadership of Apple offering much resistance.
Human capital development may be no substitute for bargaining power, but there is undoubtedly some connection between human capital and productivity, and we ought to make our workforce as skilled as possible. I would have appreciated a more detailed treatment of religion, especially because Lind (who is not Catholic) has clearly been influenced by late-19th century Pope Leo XIII.
But this is simply a brilliant book by one of our country’s most gifted thinkers. And it is more than that: it offers a path forward for a conservative movement almost pathologically unable to offer a structural critique of the American economy.
It is important, of course, to emphasize personal agency and responsibility—no person benefits from a defeatist attitude or culture. But the tendency in recent years has been to take this insight and turn it into a reactive policy agenda.
To every person who’s lost a job, or lost a son to opioids, or has been unable to afford a family, our reflexive response can’t be, “Stop complaining and try harder.” Personal resilience and responsibility are invaluable, but as a political response it is both depraved and self-defeating to shrug and recite these mantras. Sometimes, our elites—say, the masters of Purdue Pharma earning billions by starting a drug epidemic—really did screw up. The New Class War offers a more substantive politics that the Right would do well to pursue.
The “Racial Anxiety” Distraction
There is a subversive idea lurking in The New Class War, about the role of social liberalism in our politics. In a critical review at the New York Times, Anand Gridiharas argues that Lind has a massive blind spot when it comes to race: that Trump voters were motivated less by “economic anxiety” and more by cultural or racial animus.
This story is increasingly conventional wisdom among socially liberal Americans. It is also largely absurd and relies on a series of academic studies that suffer from real errors—some lack proper statistical controls, others redefine “working class” or “racial anxiety” to suit the narrative. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that Romney’s voters were more racist than Trump’s—and yet the 2012 election didn’t invite dozens of mainstream think pieces about the character flaws of country club Romney voters.
Even if you buy the “racial anxiety” story, you also have to concede that this explanation has an agenda—it leads to certain thoughts, and from certain thoughts to advancing certain policies and ignoring others.
It is uncontroversially true, for instance, that Trump voters live in areas that were both ravaged by the opioid problem and saw a disproportionate share of the casualties from the last two decades of military adventurism. To focus on the racism of Trump’s base is to ignore these problems and instead make these voters villains—it is to “blame the victim” to take a popular term from academic sociology.
Lind’s book invites us to interrogate social liberalism and ask whether this dominant ideology of the American elite exists because it justifies plunder by the professional class.
Single-Minded Social Liberalism
In some people’s hands, social liberalism can encourage us to ignore an entire subpopulation of Americans, call them deplorables, and move on—even as their homes and communities are ravaged. It can be repackaged the next day to defend aggressive protections for abortion rights because, as popular Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams argued, abortion restrictions are “bad for business.”
Cast it in environmentally conscious terms, and Bernie Sanders will flirt with a quasi-eugenics program for the world’s poor, mostly nonwhite populations, to fight climate change. And in Elizabeth Warren’s hands, a neoliberal obsession with education leads to a college debt forgiveness program that, on net, transfers wealth from the middle to the top, even as it leaves the very people who caused the problem—university administrators—untouched.
I had long assumed that social liberalism’s marriage to the Democratic party was incidental. But Lind’s book has me asking: how is it possible that the best-educated, most well-connected people have increasingly adopted the same ideology? Why have both libertarian elites on the Right and neoliberal elites on the Left both adopted social commitments far more liberal than their voting bases? How did the most significant critic of Purdue Pharma, globalization, and financialization—Tucker Carlson—become the man most hated by the political movement that claims to stand for America’s working people?
The answer is simple: social liberalism is the ideology of the managerial class because it serves their economic interests. It’s Lindian class warfare pretending to be a conscience.
Which Way for Conservatives?
Of course, if Lind is right, the conservative movement has problems of its own. Over the last few decades, the Republican Party increasingly has made an electoral trade: losing professional class suburban whites and gaining working and middle class (primarily) whites. Yet it has clung to economic libertarianism because that is the ideology of its own ruling class.
Unlike the Democratic Party, where its social liberalism fits with the Republicans’ suburbanite discards, the Republican Party has not yet moved substantially to where its voters actually are. If the social liberals want to transfer the responsibility for the college debt crisis from Millennials to the middle class, the libertarians refuse to acknowledge the problem at all.
A fuller realignment would likely require that the Republicans discard their libertarianism just as the Democrats fully embrace their neoliberalism. This would mean, among other things, that some of the socially conservative minority Democrats shift to Republicans. That shift, in turn, depends on appealing to those voters’ economic interests more than catering to establishment opinion on issues like “comprehensive” immigration reform (or ignoring them altogether). Indeed, there is some evidence already that, in the wake of the current economic boom, Donald Trump enjoys (for a Republican) high approval numbers among black and Latino voters.
The future is always uncertain. But if Lind is right, and I think he is, the implication for our politics is that conservatives should embrace populism and become the new brokers of a class compromise. The alternative is that they will remain caught somewhere between the libertarianism of Republican elites and the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party, incapable of commanding a multiracial majority but perhaps held afloat electorally by the class war they refuse to actually fight.