It’s easy to think that the Republican Party is in complete disarray, because they’ve basically gone collectively insane, but politically they’re doing very well. They’re doing so well, in fact, that Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the DCCC official overseeing the 2022 midterm effort, just told the House Democrats that they’re on track to lose their majority.
Obviously there are concerns about Republican voter suppression efforts as well as GOP advantages in the coming redistricting battles, but that’s not the primary problem.
During a closed-door lunch last week with some of his most vulnerable incumbents, House Democrats’ campaign chief delivered a blunt warning: If the midterms were held now, they would lose the majority.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) followed that bleak forecast, which was confirmed by multiple people familiar with the conversation, with new polling that showed Democrats falling behind Republicans by a half-dozen points on a generic ballot in battleground districts.
The Democrats are about as popular as dog water in the districts that actually matter for determining the congressional majority. The left cannot understand how this could possibly be true, but startlingly it’s David Brooks who can clue them in. It what must be the best-reasoned and best-written article he’s ever produced, Brooks does an excellent job of explaining how the left lost middle America and also why it isn’t going to win it back using the same old tactics.
To be sure, Brooks is sometimes as annoying as ever in this Atlantic piece, and I don’t particularly care for how he goes about categorizing people. I don’t like where he puts his emphasis and the choices he makes when assigning blame. But he has at long last matured enough to find some very key acorns.
His basic argument is extremely similar to one I’ve been making since 2010 midterms when I first realized how acute the problem had become. The way I typically put it is that fascism rises when the left abandons the working person in favor of the educated classes that are right above them in economic power and social status.
The reason this happens is that anti-elitist populism is an ever-present phenomenon that can be harnessed by either the left or the right. Typically, the left will organize around prying more assets and better working conditions out of employers and investors. The message is that elites are ripping you off, not giving you a fair shake and proper respect. This is generally true, and it’s a proper political battle, where differences can be arbitrated and equitable compromises can be made.
The right, which traditionally represents employer and investor interests, is not situated to negotiate for the working person, so its messaging focuses primarily on feelings and values. It also focuses populist wrath on a different set of elites. The right attacks people who are better educated or who set the tone of the culture. Their values are different in almost every way from the typical laborer. They put an emphasis on being smart and on going to high reputation colleges. They don’t want their kids growing up to fix washers and dryers or work in a meat-packing plant. They’re not rooted in any particular community and often expect their kids to leave town for college and to seek employment opportunities. They gravitate to more diverse and dynamic areas and seek to open up opportunities for women and minorities rather than staying laser-focused on safeguarding their own advantages.
This group is the professional class, but it also includes academia, Hollywood, and most people who work in media. It has always leaned to the left, but only recently has it become the heart and pulse of the Democratic Party. What’s happened is really twofold. First, the Republicans alienated the once solid support they had among many suburban professionals who had fled the cities in search of better education for their kids and less crime. Second, the Democrats stopped representing the financial interests of their traditional farmer-labor coalition.
It’s true that in some ways the left kept true to its traditions, especially in espousing worker safety and health care, but they didn’t stay committed to breaking up monopolies or fighting for manufacturing jobs. Some call this neoliberalism, and that’s a good enough descriptor if you actually know what you’re talking about.
The left was never particularly great at representing middle American values, especially when they stood in the way of progress on civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or other signs of progress. So, when they didn’t keep their commitment to middle America’s financial interests, there was only one kind of viable populism remaining in these struggling communities. Their anger was channeled by the right, and it took on a very anti-education edge. It has now taken on anti-democratic edge.
And, in the past, the white working class, whether organized by labor or not, could see that their political power relied on a loose coalition with urban machines, including minorities and new waves of immigrants. That’s how FDR and Kennedy’s Democratic Party operated and had success. Today, these immigrants and minorities are unambiguously on the other side of the political aisle.
This is why we’re seeing a rise in fascism. By fascism, I mean a political movement that doesn’t respect norms or precedents that stand in the way of gaining or holding power. I mean a political movement based on majoritarian ethnic, religious and racial pride. I mean a political movement that attacks cultural elites and devalues factual information if it contradicts its interests and goals. They’re anti-democratic because democracy entails accepting the results even when you lose.
This doesn’t somehow exonerate people for being racists or willfully stupid. All it is is an explanation of what happens when the right is left alone to channel working class populism. You can make all the value arguments you want about how bad people don’t deserve representation or that these folks stand in the way of or actually threaten progress. That can be true and not change the costs to society of having the right dominate the populist messaging.
David Brooks hasn’t quite landed on the spot I’m describing, but he’s getting very close. What he is seeing is that the creative class has alienated the white working class so thoroughly that our society has broken down. Probably because he’s grounded in center-right establishment thinking, he doesn’t really have an answer for what the left ought to be doing differently, so it comes off sounding like educated people should be less condescending and advocates of progress should be less forceful.
But the left doesn’t have to adopt the values of Know-Nothing white Christian nationalism. What it has to do is recognize that it’s allowing that to be the other side of the debate, and it’s losing as a result.
People are not going to vote for you if they don’t think you’re on their side. That’s one thing that Biden seems to understand, and to his credit Brooks sees this too.
Biden’s working-class version of progressivism is a relic from the pre-bobo era. His programs—his COVID-relief law, his infrastructure bill, his family-support proposal—represent efforts to funnel resources to those who have not graduated from college and who have been left behind by the creative-class economy. As Biden boasted in an April speech to a Joint Session of Congress, “Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree; 75 percent don’t require an associate’s degree.” Those are his people.
If there is an economic solution to the class chasms that have opened up in America, the Biden legislative package is surely it. It would narrow the income gaps that breed much of today’s class animosity.
It’s early days in the Biden administration, but their ambition is fairly clear. They’re going to invest in America–all of America, including the parts that are simmering with rage about being left behind in the increasingly global and monopolized economy. This isn’t going to make the country less diverse or restore some Leave It To Beaver reality that never actually existed. But it’s going to give people a reason to see the left as something more than a hostile and alien cultural force.
Temperamentally, Biden isn’t a creative class person. He doesn’t value hyper-intellectualized jargon and fancy educations. He likes to talk about the dignity of work, by which he means all work including the most menial. He doesn’t come off as someone who thinks he’s better than anyone, and that’s politically valuable. But it’s not the key to success.
Rolling back fascism requires a left-wing populism that isn’t grounded in the values of trust fund socialism. It’s not about respecting people, but representing them. If you can’t represent their most retrograde beliefs and values, then you better be doubly sure to represent their financial interests. If you don’t, you won’t be able to compete in enough districts in this country to maintain power. And, if you don’t, the consensus needed to have a democratic system will erode to the point that we don’t have a representative government at all.
There is no guarantee that fascism won’t prevail in this fight, but I’m clear about how to fight it.