The following is a preview from the forthcoming print issue of Jacobin, on populism. Subscribe to Jacobin today and get it when its released in November!
October 2040: an exhausted nation readies itself for the third and final presidential debate of a grueling campaign season. Across Americas living rooms, bars, basement shelters, and prisons, augmented reality devices light up with images of the two contenders.
First-term California governor Malia Obama, vaulted to the Democratic nomination after her heroic response to the devastating Central Valley flood of 39, introduces her Green Forward agenda. This ambitious plan, developed in partnership with Harvard University and the Bezos Foundation, aims to relocate 20 million workers from environmental and economic brownfields to productive metropolitan cores, where they can apply for federal grants, providing the displaced with access to education and skills training, along with civic engagement and entrepreneurship programs.
The proposal brings a throaty sneer from Republican president Allen Jones, the retired professional wrestling star formerly known as A.J. Styles. The elite wants to make you move to Portland, Oregon, and eat plastic hamburgers in a cubicle until you die, he says, referring to the citys recent ordinance banning the consumption of animal products. In contrast, Jones pledges to protect Judeo-Christian values by building the largest military drone fleet in world history, implanting microchips in illegal immigrants (just stamp em!), creating a million new American jobs in ocean-floor mineral mining, and cutting taxes.
As the debate ends, pundits remark that the country is more polarized than ever. Earlier in the campaign, Joness son Ajay, a freshman congressman from Georgia, made headlines by performing his fathers signature move, the Styles Clash, on longtime Texas senator Beto ORourke; images of bleeding Beto have featured prominently in campaign ads on both sides. But it is not clear how many Americans are really paying attention. One hundred and thirty million people sat out the last election, including a record share of lower-income and working-class voters. Even as wealth and income inequality soar to new highs, experts predict that less than a quarter of Americans without college degrees will cast a ballot in 2040.
For socialists, this may be a dystopian vision, but this is the future many liberals want or, at least, the future that professional Democrats have been aiming at for some time.
Chuck Schumers notorious boast about trading blue-collar Democrats for college-educated Republicans accurately captured the strategy that produced both the Democratic Partys disastrous 2016 defeat and its limited victory in 2018. But the comment was not just an unusually candid confession of the partys strategic priorities; it was also a neutral description of a much larger process that began long before Schumer reached the Senate.
Since the 1970s, parties of the left center have bled working-class support all over the industrialized world, with millions of blue-collar Democrats, Social Democrats, and Labor voters giving way to a new class of highly educated professionals. Schumers own political career, which began at age twenty-three, when he graduated from Harvard Law School and won election to the New York State Assembly in the same year (eat your heart out, Pete Buttigieg!) is just one illustration of this shift. In fact, Schumer-like politicians, and the professional-class voters they represent, have become the active leadership and core constituency within center-left parties from Brooklyn to Berlin to Sydney.
Thomas Piketty has dubbed this new configuration a clash between the Brahmin Left educated professionals, defined by their cosmopolitan virtues and the Merchant Right business leaders, committed to the ruthless maximization of profit. Under this arrangement of forces, working-class voters have either dwindled into quiescent adjuncts of the professional-class left, gravitated toward right-wing populism, or dropped out of politics altogether.
It wasnt always this way. Even in the United States, where racism and the two-party system have always sapped working-class solidarity, politics in the mid-twentieth century was polarized firmly along class lines. From the 1930s to the 1960s, if you were a working-class voter a mail carrier in Harlem, a miner in West Virginia, a farm laborer in New Mexico, a garment worker in Cleveland you were very likely to vote Democrat. If you were a manager or professional outside the Solid South from Vermont to California you were very likely to vote Republican. At its peak, in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, class voting was nearly as robust in the United States as anywhere in the industrialized world.
Across the twentieth century, it was this politics of class that structured the great and lasting achievements of European social democracy, from Britains National Health Service to the Scandinavian welfare state. In the United States, class voting produced the political coalitions that delivered the New Deal and the Civil Rights Acts. Here, as elsewhere, the decisive energy for reform came about through working-class organization, chiefly in labor and social movements.
But a key ingredient in the mix was a partisan alignment that allowed, and in some ways even encouraged, the success of class-based demands for economic redistribution and democratic equality. Unexceptional New Deal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, pushed by organized labor and confident in the knowledge that they spoke as clear representatives of the working people, could denounce scabs and defend vigorous labor laws while calling for national health insurance, an end to Jim Crow, unprecedented mass transit and eldercare projects, and a stabilized economy of full employment.
There is no need to romanticize such mid-century Democrats, who also presided over the expansion of the security state and the murderous war in Vietnam. Yet neither can we afford to dismiss the victories in this era of class voting, which dwarf anything either Democrats or American leftists have won in the last fifty years. The Democratic Party was never truly a workers party, but its major achievements of the twentieth century were possible only because it was a party of workers.
This alignment has been under stress since the 1960s. Today, it is officially dead. The Democratic Party of our own decade, as New Americas Lee Drutman writes with palpable excitement, has become an unequal partnership between highly educated professional whites and minority voters, in which wealthy cosmopolitans play a role of increasing significance, not least as fundraisers and donors, but also in the party primaries, where the affluent disproportionately participate.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, has sharpened its identity as an alliance of bosses, cultural conservatives, and white nationalists. With a working class divided by race, and a managerial class divided by culture, more than ever it is education and moral values rather than material interests that form the battleground on which Americas two parties collide.
The causes of this broader shift, of course, transcend the conscious maneuvering of center-left party leaders. Racist backlash in the postcivil rights era served to undermine class solidarity everywhere. More broadly, globalization, financialization, automation above all, the political victories of capital over organized labor in the late twentieth century have combined to create a social reconstitution of the American working class. Its representative figure today is not a General Motors line-worker, close to the centers of power, but a home health aide (or atomized gig worker) whose labor, however necessary to society at large, does not always generate obvious leverage over capital or natural opportunities for collective action.
In the same decades, the rise of the knowledge economy swelled the numbers of credentialed professionals especially in law, medicine, education, and engineering and cemented their influence on American politics. With organized labor in decline, Democrats increasingly sought and often won this professional-class support, often clustered in affluent suburbs near universities, hospitals, and technology centers.
In the 1970s, the practitioners of the New Politics gave this process a progressive sheen, seeking to build a constituency of conscience in the era of George McGovern and Watergate. In the 1980s and 1990s, New Democrats in the mold of Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton tacked to the right, promising to rein in big government, forge public-private partnerships, and get tough on crime. But what both party movements shared was a laser-like focus on white-collar voters, accelerating the decline of class voting and paving the way for todays even more comprehensive dealignment.
This fundamental shift from the party of Humphrey to the party of Schumer remains the most important American political development that confronts the Left today. It is no accident that the decline of class voting has corresponded with fifty years of retreat for American workers: stagnant wages, accumulating debt, and increasing precarity, even as corporate profits have soared. Nor is it a coincidence that even popular two-term Democratic presidents in this era, elected by such dealigned class coalitions, have proven unable or unwilling to push for structural reforms on anything like the scale of the New Deal era, even after facing the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression.
This is the heavy undertow that churns beneath the apparent rising tide of the American left. Yes, the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign helped bring social-democratic ambition back to national politics, revealing mass support for once-marginalized ideas like single-payer health insurance and free public college. Yes, the overwhelming popularity of these and other proposals from debt cancellation to a Green New Deal has encouraged mainstream Democrats to ride the wave the best they can, accepting some limited demands (a $15 minimum wage) while attempting to dilute others (Medicare for All Who Want It). And yes, by appearing to embrace most of Sanderss platform, Elizabeth Warren has vaulted to the front of the 2020 primary race, leaving more cautious contenders like Kamala Harris and Beto ORourke far behind.
In one sense, these are cheering ideological victories, and a testament to the ongoing appeal of class-based politics. But the truth remains that all this has come about almost entirely within a political party whose own professional-class character, in the same years, has only grown stronger than ever. The 2018 midterms, after all, were won in the affluent suburbs; Democrats now control every single one of the countrys twenty richest congressional districts.
Warren, meanwhile, has broken away from the Democratic primary pack with the unmistakably enthusiastic support of voters making over $100,000 a year, among whom she leads in almost every poll. A recent California survey showed Warren winning more voters making over $200,000 than her next two rivals combined.
Is this a reliable base on which to challenge the power of capital or even to fight for basic social-democratic reforms? The experience of the last fifty years suggests otherwise.
For some liberal-left commentators, the decline of class voting and the rush of rich professionals into the Democratic Party is not a problem, but an opportunity. Matthew Yglesias and Eric Levitz, among others, have assembled all their cleverness to make the case that these new affluent voters so-called Patagonia Democrats are not an obstacle to economic populism, and may even be an asset.
As should be obvious, this is a deeply counterintuitive argument you see, wealthy people want to have their wealth redistributed! for which the burden of proof should be very high. Yglesias and Levitz do not reach it with either of the two major points they make.
First, they contend, the leftward shift within the professional class reflects a sincere ideological response to empirical reality that is, the shocking inequality of our era. Surveys show that upscale voters are increasingly willing to support redistributive ideas, including new taxes on the rich and increases in health-care spending. Even the professional establishment of the Democratic Party, Levitz notes, has moved dramatically leftward why else does the Center for American Progress now propose a federal job guarantee and a universal health-care plan?
Why now, indeed? Inequality yawned just as grotesquely ten years ago, under the presidency of Barack Obama and a filibuster-proof Senate, when the Center for American Progress supported no such things. The American health-care system was no less revolting in 2014, when the words Medicare for All did not appear in a single New York Times news article. Nor did this great leftward turn of the establishment make much of an impact on the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, which won Patagonia Democrats in droves while fiercely resisting most of Bernie Sanderss social-democratic platform.
Might it be that the Democratic establishments recent leftward movement does not represent a sudden ideological conversion, but a tactical response to a rather different empirical reality the militant economic populism unleashed by the Sanders campaign, whose base was anything but Patagonia Democrats? In that case, the way to further advance the shift is not by congratulating professional-class elites on their progress much less building a political strategy centered around them but by making bolder and broader demands for change from outside the system.
Abstracted opinion polls, in any case, are an unreliable index of political behavior, especially when material interests become involved. After all, surveys show that most millionaires and tech CEOs also support various redistributive measures; a number of billionaires, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have consistently expressed support for higher taxes on the rich. Does this mean that literal millionaires and billionaires are also not an obstacle to waging class war on millionaires and billionaires? Obviously not.
Yglesias and Levitzs second point is that the material interests of the professional class diverge sharply from the true 1 percent, which has hogged nearly all the economic growth of the last three decades. This is surely true, to an extent, and a major reason why many six-figure earners support taxes on seven-figure earners, while seven-figure earners support taxes on eight-figure earners, and so on and so on. But what does such modest and selective backing for redistribution look like in political practice?
One clue comes from Democratic governments in deep-blue states. Levitz optimistically cites Californias new bill to protect gig workers, but for every such example, there are several more discouraging ones, most of them concerned not with the regulation of a particular sector, but with the red meat of budgets and taxation. In New Jersey, new millionaire governor Phil Murphy failed to persuade a Democratic legislature to pass a millionaires tax. In Connecticut, governor Ned Lamont made good on his major campaign promise by passing a budget without any income tax raises. In Washington State, meanwhile, the new Democratic House speaker recently ruled out a new state income tax. This years California budget, purposefully light on tax increases, can hardly be considered a serious effort at economic redistribution.
Even New York, where a new progressive majority won a number of significant victories in the State Senate, the budget itself remained very much in Patagonia, prioritizing historic tax cuts on incomes up to $323,200 over urgently needed funding for education, public transit, and social programs. The New York Health Act, a single-payer bill that had passed the State Assembly in four straight sessions, was deemed untouchable in the Senate. New Yorks legislative session may suggest the arrival of a better Democratic Party, but it hardly suggests the second coming of social democracy or even the second coming of Hubert Humphrey.
At the national level, it may be that Patagonia Democrats prove more willing, as Levitz says, to pay modestly higher taxes for the sake of fortifying Americas social safety net. But this formula is neither new nor inspiring its a rerun of the Obama presidency, which let the Bush tax cuts expire, passed the stimulus, and expanded Medicaid, thus proving to captive observers like Paul Krugman that progressive policies have worked. Meanwhile, in the real world, the housing crisis destroyed working-class wealth, inequality kept soaring, and poverty remained entrenched.
Democrats should take the class warfare message to upscale suburbs Yglesiass argument is a sentence that makes sense only if your idea of class war is a few tweaks to the tax code, and your ultimate political horizon stretches no further than a third Obama administration.
Elizabeth Warren is the ideal general to fight just this kind of class war. A university law professor for forty years, thirty of them inside the Ivy League, Warren would be the most academic president since Woodrow Wilson, and she is already the most influential scholar to mount a serious presidential campaign. Her impressive credentials and technocratic sensibility have made her catnip for affluent professionals including, of course, some journalists who have become her most enthusiastic supporters.
Ideologically, Warren is no centrist New Democrat. Nor is she a lofty neoliberal triangulator in the mold of Obama or Pete Buttigieg. In her determination to fight corruption, and her fondness for clear rules and fair regulations, she may most resemble the progressive reformers of the McGovern era.
Yet while she is sometimes described as an economic populist, Warrens chief function in the primary race against Bernie Sanders has been to take the populism out of progressive economics. While formally embracing much of Sanderss 2016 platform, the Warren campaign distinguished itself not by underlining the necessity of popular struggle, but by advertising the comprehensive wonkery of her policy agenda: She has a plan for that! Warrens planfulness is Democratic savior politics in the style of Obama or Hillary Clinton. It does not summon the will of the masses; it says, Chill out, shes got this.
The emphasis here is on the reasonableness of the plans, not the boldness of the demands. Even Warrens most daring stroke on this front, a 2 percent tax on fortunes over $50 million,elicitschantsoftwo cents, two cents! withthe campaign and its supporters alike practically fetishizingthe modest limitsof the request.
When Warren does vow to challenge the power the wealthy, her rhetoric often works not to stoke the popular mind against Americas inequality but to naturalize it as a fact of national life: In America, there are gonna be people who are richer and people who are not so rich. And the rich are gonna own more shoes, and theyre gonna own more cars, and they may even own more houses. But they shouldnt own more of our democracy.
This isnt economic populism; its closer to a folksy progressive riff on there is no alternative. Nor does such a cabined understanding of democracy a question of fair procedures, walled off from the world of material goods open much room for questioning the tyranny of bosses under capitalism.
Having assembled a scrupulously conventional campaign staff, loaded with veterans of the DNC and Hillary for America, Warren has made it clear through careful primary endorsements that she remains an institutional player within the Democratic establishment, not an insurgent aiming to transform the party itself. Even in her scattered and vague references to the need for a grassroots movement, what she appears to mean, when she doesnt mean selfie lines, is nothing more revolutionary than electing more Democrats.
Rhetorically, Warrens stress on corruption the malfeasance of individual bad actors in Washington further channels legitimate complaints about a rigged system away from a confrontation with class power (as Sanders intends) and toward a search for better rules. It is perfectly suited to the spirit of todays proceduralist progressives Rachel Maddow Democrats whose first and strongest instincts are to outlaw, invalidate, or somehow disqualify their opponents rather than to defeat them in popular struggle.
In occasional populist moments, as in her recent speech at New York Citys Washington Square Park, Warren talks about the need to put economic and political power in the hands of the people. But the technocratic style of her politics hardly works to close the distance between political professionals and the people even her own supporters. I havent specifically pored through her policy proposals, said one New York University student in Washington Square Park, with what one imagines was a mixture of shame and awe, because there are a hundred thousand of them.
In fact, Warren lacks detailed plans for K12 education and health care. In Washington Square Park, while Warren talked about big structural change, comparing herself to the workers rights advocate Frances Perkins, she devoted just two formulaic sentences to contemporary labor politics. Although 2018 saw the most labor strife in over thirty years, with nearly half a million workers involved, Warrens speech barely mentioned the word strike.
The question here is not simply whether a Democratic candidate nominally supports unions, but where labor stands asa priority within the party. Memorably, Barack Obama supported the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act on the campaign trail, but after his election, he let the proposal die in Congress with barely a sound.
We may choose to regard this as a shameful presidential betrayal, but like many Obama-era failures, it revealed far less about Obamas personal views than about an institutional Democratic Party dominated not by labor advocates but by professional-class politicians highly attentive to their professional-class constituents. (The rise of the broader Patagonia left, as a study of fifteen European countries has found, tends to produce a less pro-worker welfare state.) As an individual Democrat, Warren may be to the left of Obama, but there is little reason to believe that she has the capacity to change this larger state of affairs.
Warrens most enthusiastic left-liberal supporters seem to regard her as a kind of sleeper agent within the system who can heroically cajole or hypnotize establishment Democrats into backing big, structural change, purely on the strength of professorial persuasion. Such faith, if sincere, is almost touching. But the record of Warrens own private battles with the Obama team hardly suggests that transformational change can be achieved through such a deeply institutional politics.
Warren will surely aim to craft better rules for Washington and Wall Street, but is this really structural reform? Her campaign has already announced that the first legislative priority of a Warren administration is nothing more architectural than a suite of strict lobbying regulations, most of them already passed by the Democratic House, along with the creation of a US Office of Public Integrity. Naturally, Vox calls this agenda ferocious.
Even in the best-case scenario, politics under a President Warren would almost surely resemble politics under Obama: careful negotiations between progressive professionals and stakeholders in Washington, in which the president seeks the least-worst outcome in a world of narrow and fixed constraints. An infinite variety of Yglesiases and Krugmans will luxuriate in the nuance, integrity, and ferocity of Warrens bold progressive agenda, even as fundamental economic structures remain unchanged. And then they will be shocked, just shocked, when the next Donald Trump swaggers into the White House and blows it all to bits.
Above all, it is hard to see how Warren can address the dealignment of class voting, or the ongoing evolution of the Democratic Party into the party of Fairfax County, USA. More than likely, Warrens nomination would only accelerate the trend. It is not a coincidence that by far her strongest support comes from Democrats with six-figure incomes and postgraduate degrees: in style and in substance alike, she offers a version of progressive politics as professional politics.
Theres a reason, as the journalist Krystal Ball has pointed out, why Warren and Buttigieg appeal to the same class of voters, despite the considerable differences in their platforms. Both candidates Harvard folk, of course rely heavily on individual stories of meritocratic achievement, along with an appeal to white papers, intellect, and resume items. This has worked and may continue to work wonders for Warren in a Democratic primary, where Patagonia Democrats predominate; how it would fare in a general election is much less clear.
In a campaign against Trump, of course, Warren would win many of the same votes that Hillary Clinton won, including black, Latino, and Asian workers who see no real alternative in the Republican Party. But a Warren nomination also clearly sets the stage for another dreary cultural clash between elite progressivism and Trumps fake populism. In such a battle, earnest liberal hymns to Warrens 100,000 plans no matter how many wealth taxes they propose are not likely to fare much better than 2016 pleas for voters to visit http://www.HillaryClinton.com/Issues.
Ultimately, there is little sign that a Warrenite politics of strict rules, detailed plans, and careful procedures can break the grip of this new cultural polarization never mind inspire the multiracial working-class coalition necessary for big, structural change, both inside and outside the Democratic Party.
More than a hundred years ago, Engels mocked the faddishness of elite interest in left-wing economics, and even socialism itself:
There is indeed Socialism again in England, and plenty of it Socialism of all shades: Socialism conscious and unconscious, Socialism prosaic and poetic, Socialism of the working class and of the middle class, for, verily, that abomination of abominations, Socialism, has not only become respectable, but has actually donned evening dress and lounges lazily on drawing-room causeuses. That shows the incurable fickleness of that terrible despot of society, middle-class public opinion, and once more justifies the contempt in which we Socialists of a past generation always held that public opinion.
In the last fifty years of American history, elite Democratic support for economic redistribution has proven no less fickle. The carousel of professional-class opinion spins on and on last week, McGovern; yesterday, Dukakis; today, Warren; tomorrow, Buttigieg? all while the right wing grows ever uglier and workers, as a class, drop ever further from view.
In a 2020 campaign against Donald Trump, a bet on Warren is a risky wager on its own terms. But over the next twenty years, the politics of Patagonia liberalism is not a bet at all its an unconditional surrender to class dealignment.
Bernie Sanders offers a fundamentally different path forward and not only due to his domestic, foreign, and planetary policy ideas, his ideological roots, his theory of change, or his relationship to the Democratic Party. All these differences are important, but Sanders also points to an alternate future for class politics itself.
To be sure, the Sanders campaign in the United States, like the Corbyn movement in Britain, has benefited, too, from the professional-class vogue for left-wing politics. (Thus Engels mocked the rise of respectable socialism, but admitted that we have no reason to grumble at the symptom itself.) Sanders supporters, much younger than average, are hardly a perfect cross section of Americas working class.
Yet neither is Sanders the creature of drawing-room progressives. From the beginning, Bernies campaign in 2015 attracted a coalition that looked very different from any primary insurgent in Democratic Party history. While McGovern, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, and now Elizabeth Warren won their first and fiercest support from wealthy professionals, Sanders in 2016 won more than 13 million votes from a much younger, less affluent, and less educated swath of the electorate.
In this years primary, the Sanders coalition remains young and relatively lower income, while it has grown more racially diverse. Bernies large, enthusiastic, and disproportionate support from Latino voters who form by far the fastest-growing segment of Americas working class must be one of the most underreported political stories of 2019.
The gaps between Warren and Sanders supporters are stark, especially considering their purported similarities in policy and ideology. According to Politicos September poll averages, Warren underperforms with voters making less than $50,000 by a greater margin than seven of the top eight Democrats in the race; Sanders overperforms with the same group by the highest margin the field.
When it comes to Patagonia Democrats, especially, the differences are unmistakable. A recent YouGov poll showed that just 13 percent of Democrats making $100,000 or more would be disappointed if Warren were nominated, the lowest share in the entire field, aside from Pete Buttigieg. Over a third of the same affluent group was opposed to Sanders, by far the highest of the top five leading Democrats.
In California, meanwhile, a UC Berkeley poll showed Warren far ahead of the pack among postgraduates (at 39 percent) and voters making over $200,000 (35 percent). Sanders, meanwhile, earned the backing of just 12 percent of postgrads and 9 percent of highest earners.
If the Sanders platform is in the objective self-interest of virtually all affluent suburbanites, as Eric Levitz argues, why do so few of them seem to know it?
The point is not thatSanders or his agenda is incapable of winning professional-class votes. In a general election, as dozens of polls have made clear since 2016, these affluent Democrats will almost certainly come around if the alternative is Trump. But while some upscale Democrats may benefit from Bernies platform, they are not drawn to his populism or his class politics. Sanders, unlike Warren, will never be their top choice.
In fact, the core of Bernies support comes from voters with a far more urgent material interest in the social-democratic programs he proposes, and a far clearer position in the class struggle that he has helped bring to the fore. Among California voters making under $40,000, Sanders had more support than Warren and Joe Biden combined; he also led both rivals among all voters who didnt go to college.
Bernies call for wealth taxes is not a modest plea for two pennies from Jeff Bezos, but a cry to abolish Jeff Bezos, and billionaires writ large. His support of Medicare for All is not a pledge to find the best policy framework, but a vow to fight the private insurance industry until every American has health care as a human right.
This is the kind of class politics that has won Sanders the support of 1 million small donors, faster than any candidate in history (and twice as many as the Warren campaign). An OpenSecrets review of campaign donations found that while Warren was naturally the top recipient among scientists and professors, Sanders led by far among teachers, nurses, servers, bartenders, social workers, retail workers, construction workers, truckers, and drivers. Of all the money going to 2020 Democrats from servers one of the lowest-paying jobs in the country more than half went to Sanders alone.
This is just what is required to challenge the power of the ultrarich: a politics that does not treat lower-income voters as a kind of passive supplement for professional liberals, but one that can put the new working class itself at the center of the action.
A professional-class left, as scholars of European politics have noted, may be trusted to safeguard the bare bones of existing welfare states programs that are themselves the legacy of much older working-class struggles. But in the United States, with our barbarously incomplete provision for basic social needs, the necessary struggle is not just to defend existing social democracy, but to build it from the ground up.
This is not the work of a single election cycle or a single presidential administration. Nor is it exclusively, or even primarily, the work of electoral struggle itself. But if we want to build anything like a halfway decent, free, or fair democracy, we should remember that the only politics that have ever achieved this or can ever achieve this are the politics of class voting, led by an organized working class. Bernie Sanders, all by himself, will hardly bring about the movement we need. But unlike every other Democrat in the field, at least he points in the right direction.