Politics have changed. Democrats today do not seem like the Democrats of yesteryear. Neither do the Republicans. Something feels different . . . alien. A lot of people are leaning toward socialism, for example. In years past, this was always a bridge too far. At the same time, supposed “Democrats” seem to think very little of the people.
While Karl Marx was wrong about a lot of things, he was not wrong—or alone—in observing that material conditions have a relationship to political systems. There is a reason economics used to be called “political economy.” Economics affects politics, just as politics affects economics. If you want to change the superstructure, you have to change the underlying conditions.
Highly unequal Medieval Europe was a society of classes, each with reciprocal duties and rights. Its political structures reflected its material conditions. It was a time of courage, knights, guilds, kings, and bishops, but it was not a time of democratic self-rule.
Long before this era, Aristotle wrote of “Oriental Despotism,” the illiberal but intelligent people to his East. They had civilization, but no thirst for freedom. He contrasted this system with his native Athens, whose democracy was founded on a large middle class of farmers and merchants. The Athenians’ rough equality of wealth was matched by equality of citizenship.
Rising Inequality and the Threat to Democracy
American conservatives have not generally, until now, worried very much about “political economy.” Their rhetoric has been strongly free market, especially since the Reagan era. For Republicans, inequality was either self-correcting or a beneficial thing, a reward for the most talented. Government welfare was seen largely as a vote-buying scheme to harness the improvident poor. This view, however, has become increasingly decoupled from reality.
Economic freedom was and should be an important pillar of the “American way of life.” These policies worked well when they were tied to a broader pattern of economic mobility and rising standards of wealth. But sometime in the last 40 years, things began to change. The bargain broke down.
Wage growth flattened, even as national wealth and productivity expanded. Globalization and a large influx of immigrants were important contributors to this state of affairs. As workers struggled, a large oligarch class blossomed in the high-tech and financial services industries.
As this unfolded, the shills of Conservatism, Inc. continued to talk mechanically about tax cuts and the virtues of capitalism. They did the bidding of the very rich, even as the oligarchs of Silicon Valley and Wall Street increasingly were hostile to Republicans and did not see themselves primarily as Americans with duties to their fellow Americans. They saw themselves, rather, as “global citizens.”
Many of the economic patterns that permitted the growth of the new billionaire class—outsourcing, monopolization, and financial engineering—destroyed retail and manufacturing, the traditional sectors in which middle-class entrepreneurs and well-paid union workers could flourish. In 2008, an economic crisis dragged many formerly successful middle-class people into poverty. In response, Republicans and Democrats united to intervene in the economy in order to save . . . suffering banks?
More damaging than the mere concentration of wealth and a self-serving attitude toward government intervention, the oligarchical class became increasingly self-conscious of itself as a class. The mask came off, and they proudly proclaimed their status as distinct from and superior to the rest of the country, particularly in its coastal centers of Washington, D.C., New York City, and Silicon Valley.
Core values of American life—limited government, free markets, free enterprise, and free speech—are now in jeopardy and openly attacked on one side by a large, growing, and restless underclass and, on the other, by an aloof, culturally separate, and very powerful class of the megarich.
America’s Economic Freedoms Are Crumbling
These economic conditions are why things feel so different, even with the modest growth in wages and low unemployment of the Trump era. This improvement is only a small uptick after a 40-year decline.
Among Democrats, we encounter the potentially ruinous specter of economic socialism among the very poor, who are championed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Since there is only so much wealth to be transferred from the oligarchs, the fragile middle class see themselves as threatened by the expense of such programs and the insatiable envy upon which they depend. They have seen this horror movie before in the form of ruinous “Obamacare.”
With the emergence of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, we see the other face of the liberal elite: certain, proud, imperious, and fantastically rich. The elite sees its right to rule as completely natural. They are fearful of the economic populists, preferring instead to indulge in a cultural revolution that accords with their cosmopolitan view of the world but does not threaten their privilege. They are contemptuous of the values and wants of the “rubes from flyover country.”
In other words, the liberal elite, like the Sanders-wing of the party, is also hostile to the middle class and impatient with their insistence upon their traditional rights and privileged position in American life.
The middle class may be thought of, roughly, as those who work and who take pride in pulling their own weight. They’re the kind of people who own a home but also have a mortgage. They don’t have a Harvard degree, but they read the newspaper. They don’t inherit much wealth and instead often take care of their parents. They like NASCAR and college football and guns and Applebee’s and other things that are alien to someone like Michael Bloomberg or Hillary Clinton.
Trump ran and won as the champion of the embattled middle class. In the process, he ditched some of the free-market Republican orthodoxy. He instead considered whether policies actually helped his coalition; he embraced economic policies showing a pragmatic, ad hoc commitment to the middle class. These policies, whether on immigration or trade, were not merely economic policies, but they aimed to restore the honor and dignity of the middle class.
The necessity of a strong middle class was recognized by our own nation’s Founders and political theorists stretching back to Aristotle and forward to modern writers like Hernando de Soto. For those interested in conserving a democratic polity, a democratic culture and a democratic economy are essential.
While some conservatives have dismissed Trump as a Democrat, a liberal, or worse, his concern for the fortunes of the middle class has deep roots. The entirely alien tone of political life today is a product of the squeeze put upon the middle class by the very poor and the very rich, and both of these groups are joined together uneasily in the modern Democratic Party.
The Importance of the Middle Class Is Ancient Wisdom
A highly unequal society of a few very rich with much more numerous proletariat class bodes ill for democracy.
Aristotle, in his Politics, wrote that the chief alternatives to republican government—that is, a democracy limited by laws—were oligarchies and monarchies, both of which thrived in conditions of inequality.
By contrast, the middle class tends to embrace political self-rule, because they also make a habit of ruling their own lives. They demand a share of political power and desire limited and predictable rules under which they can pursue their own version of the good life.
James Madison warned that democratic self-rule and property rights were both jeopardized by excessive inequality:
If all power be suffered to slide into hands not interested in the rights of property which must be the case whenever a majority fall under that description, one of two things cannot fail to happen; either they will unite against the other description and become the dupes and instruments of ambition, or their poverty and independence will render them the mercenary instruments of wealth. In either case, liberty will be subverted; in the first by a despotism growing out of anarchy, in the second, by an oligarchy founded on corruption.
Madison rightly understood that the poor and the rich are not necessarily antagonists, but can be natural allies, indifferent to the rights of the middle class.
One distinction of the early United States was the extensive availability of land, which allowed most to own their own small farms. By contrast, Europe was filled to the brim, stagnant, and notoriously unequal. Alexis de Tocqueville described the situation:
America, then, exhibits in her social state a most extraordinary phenomenon. Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance.
This equal, democratic, bountiful America had people who maintained limited government, eventually abolished slavery, and their commitment to freedom permitted a dramatic expansion and distribution of wealth.
Traditionally American conservatives were wary of the threat from the poor. An earlier wave of immigration resulted in the urban underclass, a true proletariat, who were less attached to America’s traditions and ethos. They were the clients of the Tammany Hall and the labor unions, and later became the constituents of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. From that time through the 1980s, conservatives focused on the welfare state as their nemesis. Silicon Valley censorship and “woke” capital’s use of its power to force its cultural views—exemplified by Mayor Bloomberg—shows that the very rich can also be a threat to the middle class and middle-class values.
The very rich are oriented differently to the economy. The rising burdens of healthcare, student loan debt, and the frictions of a diverse society are unimportant to them. They are insulated from these phenomena by gated communities, private schools, private security, and private jets. For the same reason, they can deploy their resources to bribe supporters, buy elections, and impose their tastes upon the rest of us.
American oligarchs find an ally in the large managerial class. This group, though not propertied and only middling in wealth, is ambitious for power and employed by the oligarch class. The managerial class’s power comes from its expertise and credentials, rather than from economic independence. Thus, the managers are insecure and slavish in their devotion to the fads, concerns, and interests of their very rich patrons.
The oligarch class and their managerial allies are less attached to the rule of law than is the traditional middle class, not only because the worst effects of those laws do not reach them, but also because they can manipulate the laws together thanks to their proximity to power.
Making America Great Again is About Restoring the Middle Class
The key to a stable democratic system is a healthy middle class. When Trump says “Make America Great Again,” the message is one of restoring the wealth, honor, and status of this shrinking group, who have been crushed by a pincer movement of a hateful elite and a grasping and desperate underclass.
For traditional conservatives who don’t like Trump’s style and are equally repulsed by the designs of someone like Sanders, the old conservatism and the old America cannot be restored without restoring its economic and social conditions, which included a robust middle class. Nationalist policies, which restore the primacy of the American worker, the American family, and the American middle class, are the only way to do that.