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The Death Of Gentry Liberalism


By Joel KotkinJanuary 25 2010

Appearing in: 
Forbes.com

Gentry liberalism, so hot just a year ago, is now in full retreat, a victim of its hypocrisy and fundamental contradictions. Its collapse threatens the coherence of President Barack Obama's message as he prepares for his State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

Gentry liberalism combines four basic elements: faith in postindustrial "creative" financial capitalism, cultural liberalism, Gore-ite environmentalism and the backing of the nation's arguably best-organized political force, public employee unions. Obama rose to power on the back of all these forces and, until now, has governed as their tribune.

Obama's problems stem primarily from gentry liberalism's class contradictions. Focused on ultra-affluent greens, the media, Wall Street and the public sector, gentry liberalism generally gives short shrift to upward mobility, the basic aspiration of the middle class.

Scott Brown's shocking victory in Massachusetts--like earlier GOP triumphs in Virginia and New Jersey--can be explained best by class. Analysis by demographer Wendell Cox, among others, shows that Brown won his margin in largely middle- and working-class suburbs, where many backed Obama in 2008. He lost by almost 2-to-1 among poor voters and also among those earning over $85,000 a year. He also won a slight margin among union members--remarkable given the lockstep support of their organizations for Brown's Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley.

Geography played a role, of course, but class proved the divider. Coakley did well in the wealthiest suburbs largely north and northwest of Boston. But Brown's edge in the more middle- and working-class suburbs proved insurmountable.

Obama, a genius at handling race, has always had problems with class. His early primary victories in 2008 resulted not only from superior organization but the preponderance of students and upper-income professionals in early primary states. Once Hillary Clinton morphed, just a bit late, into Harry Truman in a pants suit, she proved unstoppable, rolling over Obama in critical states like Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Florida, Michigan and throughout Appalachia.

In the general election Obama succeeded in winning over a significant portion of these voters. Long-simmering disgust with the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, combined with a catastrophic economic collapse, undermined the GOP's hold on middle-class suburbanites.

Now that the ball is in his court, the president and his party must abandon their gentry-liberal game plan.. The emphasis on bailing out Wall Street and public employees, supporting social welfare and manufacturing "green" jobs appealed to the core gentry coalition but left many voters, including lifelong Democrats, wondering what was in it for them and their families.

In the next few elections there's an even greater threat of alienation among millennial voters, who in 2008 accounted for much of the president's margin of victory. Generational researchers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais note that millennials are starting to enter the workforce in big numbers. Right now their prospects are not pretty. The unemployment rate for those under 25 stands at 19%. Even for college graduates, wages are declining even as opportunities dry up.

The greatest political danger is not so much a millennial switch to the GOP but a loss of enthusiasm that will diminish the youth vote. Winograd and Hais estimate only about one-third of those who voted in 2008 in Massachusetts voted in this last special Senate election. "Republicans will keep on celebrating victories until Democrats turn their attention to young voters and get them as excited as Obama did in 2008," Winograd warns.

Ever deepening disillusionment--not only among millennials--is inevitable unless Obama changes course and starts building a broad-based recovery. The president's economic team is as pro-big-bank as any conjured up by the most rock-ribbed Republican. Its motto could be a reworking of that old notion by onetime GM CEO and Eisenhower Defense Secretary Charles Wilson: "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA"--just substitute Wall Street for GM.

But where GM brought jobs and prosperity to millions, the current Wall Street focus has forged a recovery that works for the gentry but fails to promote upward mobility. Bailed out from their disastrous risky bets and then provided with easy access to cheap credit, the financiers have had themselves a fine party while the rest of the private sector economy suffered. The partygoers have become so rarified that they are unable to lift even the New York City economy, whose unemployment rate now surpasses the national average.

This spectacle has forced Obama to try locating his hidden populist, but dangers lurk in this shift. If he attacks Wall Street with any real ferocity, the only linchpin of the current weak recovery could crumple. An administration that has focused on finance as the essence of the economy may prove poorly suited to skewer its primary object of affection.

Yet it may not be too late for the president to recover some of his economic mojo. Although his financial tax plan represents little more than petty cash at today's absurd Wall Street rates, Obama's endorsement of Paul Volcker's more muscular reform agenda could rally Democrats while forcing Republicans into a doctrinal crisis. Some, like Sen. John McCain, may favor a policy to downsize the megabanks and limit their activities. But many others who hold up the holy grail of free markets über alles will expose themselves again as mindless corporate lackeys.

But badmouthing the financial aristocracy is not enough. Obama also must jettison some of the lamer parts of the gentry agenda. Cap and trade, a gentry favorite that satisfies both green piety and Wall Street's greedy desire for yet another speculative market, needs to be scrapped as a potential job-killer for many industries. Similarly, the administration needs to delay measures to impose draconian limits of greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency, which could devastate large sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, agriculture and construction.

Obama, particularly after the Copenhagen fiasco, needs to shift on more practical, job-creating conservation measures like tree-planting and reducing traffic congestion--notably by promoting telecommuting--while continuing research and development of all kinds of cleaner fuels. Measures that make America more energy-efficient and self-sufficient--without ruining the economy with ruinously high prices--would be far more saleable to the public than the current quasi-religious obsession with wind and solar.

Obama also needs to stop his naive promotion of the chimera of "green jobs" as his signature answer to the country's mounting employment woes. There is no way a few thousand, mostly heavily subsidized, jobs creating ever more expensive energy can turn around any economy. Just look at the economic carnage in Spain--where youth unemployment has now reached a remarkable 44%---which has bet much of its resources targeting "green" energy.

More than anything the president needs to make the case that government can help the productive economy. This requires a scaling down of regulatory measures that are now scaring off entrepreneurs--including some aspects of health care reform--and beginning to demonstrate a direct concern for basic industries like manufacturing, agriculture and trade.

Pivoting away from gentry liberalism will no doubt offend some of the president's core constituencies. But if he does not do this soon, and decisively, he will find that the middle-class anger seen in Massachusetts will spread throughout the country. As a result Barack Obama, a man who would be Franklin Roosevelt and could settle on being the next Bill Clinton, will end up looking more like that sad sack of Democratic presidents, James Earl Carter.

Joel on Reason.tv

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Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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