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Is America's Future Progressive?


By Joel KotkinDecember 27 2012

Appearing in: 
Forbes.com

Progressives may be a lot less religious than conservatives, but these days they have reason to think that Providence– or Gaia — has taken on a bluish hue.

From the solid re-election of President Obama, to a host of demographic and social trends, the progressives seem poised to achieve what Ruy Texeira predicted a decade ago: an “emerging Democratic majority”.

Virtually all the groups that backed Obama — singles, millennials, Hispanics, Asians — are all growing bigger while many of the core Republican groups, such as evangelicals and intact families, appear in secular decline.

And then, the Republicans, ham handed themselves, are virtually voiceless (outside of the Murdoch empire) in the mainstream national media.

Whatever the issue that comes up — from Hurricane Sandy to the Newtown shootings or the “fiscal cliffs” — the Republicans, congenitally inept to start with, end up being portrayed as even more oafish.

Not surprising then that progressive boosters feel the wind of inexorability to their backs. Red states, and cities, suggests Richard Florida are simply immature versions of blue state ones; progress means density, urbanity, apartment living and the decline of suburbs. Republicans, he argues, are “at odds with the very logic of urbanism and economic development.”

Yet I am not sure all trends are irredeemingly progressive. For one thing, there’s this little matter of economics. What Florida and the urban boosters often predict means something less progressive than feudalist. The Holy Places of urbanism such as NewYork, San Francisco, Washington DC also suffer some of the worst income inequality, and poverty, of any places in the country.

The now triumphant urban gentry have their townhouses and high-rise lofts, but the service workers who do their dirty work have to log their way by bus or car from the vast American banlieues, either in peripheral parts of the city (think of Brooklyn’s impoverished fringes) or the poorer close-in suburbs. This progressive economy works from the well-placed academics, the trustfunders and hedge funders, but produces little opportunity for a better life for the vast majority of the middle and working class.

The gentry progressives don’t see much hope for the recovery of blue collar manufacturing or construction jobs, and they are adamant in making sure that the potential gusher of energy jobs in the resurgent fossil fuel never materializes, at least in such places as New York and California. The best they can offer the hoi polloi is the prospect of becoming haircutters and dog walkers in cognitively favored places like Silicon Valley. Presumably, given the cost of living there, they will have to get there from the Central Valley or sleep on the streets.

Not surprisingly, this prospect is not exciting many Americans. So instead of heading for the blue paradises, but to lower-cost, those who move now tend towards low-cost, lower-density regions like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte and Raleigh. Even while voting blue, they seem to be migrating to red places. Once there, one has to doubt whether they are simply biding their time for Oklahoma City to morph into San Francisco.

In this respect, the class issue so cleverly exploited by the President in the election could prove the potential Achilles heel of today’s gentry progressivism. The Obama-Bernanke-Geithner economy has done little to reverse the relative decline of the middle and working class, whose their share of national income have fallen to record lows. If you don’t work for venture-backed tech firms, coddled, money-for-nearly-free Wall Street or for the government, your income and standard of living has probably declined since the middle of the last decade.

If the main focus of progressives was to promote upward mobility, they would deserve their predicted political hegemony. But current day leftism is more about style, culture and green consciousness than jobs and opportunity. It’s more Vogue’s Anne Wintour than Harry Truman. Often times the gentry agenda — for example favoring higher housing and energy prices — directly conflicts with the interests of middle and working class families.

The progressive coalition also has little to offer to the private sector small business community, which should be producing jobs as they have in the wake of previous recessions but have failed to do so this time. A recent McKinsey study finds that small business confidence is at a 20 year low, entrepreneurial start-ups have slowed, and with it, the innovation that drives an economy from the ground up.

These economic shortcomings are unlikely to reverse themselves under the Obama progressives. An old Democrat of the Truman and Pat Brown, perhaps even Bill Clinton, genre would be pushing our natural gas revolution, a key to blue-collar rejuvenation, instead of seeking to slow it down. They would be looking to raise revenues from Wall Street plutocrats rather than raise taxes on modestly successful Main Street businesses. A HUD interested in upward mobility and families would be pressing for more detached housing and dispersal of work, not forcing the masses to live in ever smaller, cramped and expensive lodgings.

Over time, the cultural identity and lifestyle politics practiced so brilliantly by the President and his team could begin to wear thin even with their core constituencies. Hispanics, for example, have suffered grievously in the recession — some 28% now live in poverty, the highest of any ethnic group.

It’s possible that the unnatural cohesion between gentry progressives and Latinos will tear asunder. For one thing Hispanics seek out life in suburbs with homes and backyards, and often drive more energy-consuming cars that fit the needs of family and work, notably construction and labor blue collar industries — all targets of the gentry and green agenda.

Arguably the biggest challenge for the blue supremacists may prove the millennials, a group I have called the screwed generation. They have been vulnerable in a torpid recovery following a deep recession since they depend on new jobs or having their elders move to better ones; more than half of those under 25 with college degrees are either looking for work or doing something that doesn’t require tertiary education.

For now, millennials — socially liberal, ethnically diverse and concerned with economic inequality — naturally tilt strongly to the President. Their voting power continue to swell as they enter the electorate. As Morley Winograd and Mike Hais have demonstrated, if they remain, as they predict, solidly Democratic, the future will certainly be colored blue.

But this result is not entirely assured. Now that the first wave of millennials are hitting their thirties, they may not want to remain urban Peter Pans, riding their bikes to their barista jobs, as they age. A growing number will start getting married, looking to buy homes to raise children. The urban developers and gentry progressives may not favor this, preferring instead they remain part of “generation rent” who remain chained to leasing apartments in dense districts.

And then there’s the economy. What happens if in two or four years, millennials find opportunity still lagging? Cliff Zukin, at Rutger’s John J. Heidrich Center for Workforce Development, predicts the young generation will “be permanently depressed and will be on a lower path of income for probably all their life”. One has to wonder if, at some point, they might rebel against that dismal fate. Remember the boomers too once tilted to the left, but moved to the center-right starting with Reagan and have remained that way.

Of course, the blues have one inestimable advantage: a perennially stupid Republican party and a largely clueless, ideologically hidebound conservative movement. Constant missteps on issues like immigration and gay rights could keep even disappointed minority or younger votes in the President’s pocket. You can’t win new adherents by being the party of no and know-nothing. You also have to acknowledge that inequality is real and develop a program to promote upward mobility.

Unless that is done, the new generation and new Americans likely will continue to bow to the blue idols, irrespective to the failures that gentry progressivism all but guarantees.

Joel on Reason.tv

Watch the full sized video at Reason.com.


Watch Joel in this feature on the role of central planning in Los Angeles. View large version.

Interview on Smartplanet.com

"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Praise for The Next Hundred Million

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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