Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite

By Michael Lind (WSJ)

Jan. 10, 2020 11:15 am ET

To heal our deep social and political divisions, urban professionals must start sharing power with the working class.


The ongoing turmoil in U.S. politics is part of a larger political crisis that is shattering old alignments of left and right in North America and Western Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, embattled establishments are besieged by populist insurgents. The rebellion takes different forms in different countries—the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., Brexit in the U.K., the revolt of the yellow vests in France. But the underlying dynamic is the same: the revolt of alienated, mostly but not exclusively native and white working-class voters against post-national metropolitan elites.

This is the new class war. Forget the familiar three-way social diagram, with a big middle class bracketed on either end by a small upper class and small lower or impoverished class. The deepest cleavage in Western democracies yawns between college-educated managers and professionals—a third of the population, at most—and the majority who lack college educations. The new class divide is manifested in striking cleavages along the lines of geography, family relationships and politics.

The major geographic divide in Western democracies is not between urban and rural areas but between expensive hubs or urban cores where professionals and immigrant service workers cluster, on the one hand, and exurbs and satellite towns on the peripheries of metro areas, where most working class people find jobs and low-cost housing.

Credentialed professionals are the most likely to move long distances to pursue careers in hub cities that specialize in particular sectors—Silicon Valley in tech, New York and London in finance, Los Angeles in entertainment. But it is a snobbish mistake to assume that people in “left behind” regions should simply “move to opportunity.” Why should members of the working class move? The jobs that are being created in the greatest numbers in the U.S., including home health aide, retail clerk and restaurant worker, do not require college degrees and can be done almost everywhere.

Moreover, members of the working class are more likely to depend on relatives for child care and elder care, unlike affluent professionals, who can pay nannies or other child care or elder care workers, many of them low-wage immigrants. As Quoctrung Bai and Claire Cain Miller noted in a 2015 article in the New York Times, the average American lives within 18 miles of her mother, and 37% of Americans live in their hometowns, apart from periods of military service and education. More than half live in the states in which they were born.

The class divide is most visible in politics. Between 2010 and 2018, whites with a college degree fell from 40% to 29% of Republican voters; Democrats now win an overwhelming share of the country’s most highly educated counties. Similarly, in predicting a vote for Brexit in the U.K. in 2016, lower educational attainment was more important than race or ethnicity.

Unwilling to admit that the center-left has been largely captured by the managerial elite, many pundits and academics on the left insist that mindless bigotry, rather than class interests, explains the attraction of many working-class voters to populist parties that promise to restrict trade and immigration. But it is just as rational for workers to prefer a seller’s market in labor as it is for employers to prefer a buyer’s market in labor. Blue-collar workers who have abandoned center-left parties for populist movements bring with them the historic suspicion of large-scale immigration that was typical of organized labor for generations.

And as MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues have shown, voters in the U.S. regions hit hardest by Chinese import competition were the most likely to favor Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in 2016. Strict environmental regulations, which impose few costs on the urban elites, can threaten the livelihoods and lifestyles of workers in the exurban heartlands, like the French yellow vest protesters who rebelled against a tax on diesel fuel intended to mitigate climate change.

The new class war is very real—and the managerial class is winning. A few decades ago, corporate managers, politicians and university professors had distinct subcultures. No longer. What we might call “woke capitalism” represents a fusion of the three elites at the commanding heights of the economy, the culture and politics; they increasingly constitute a single conformist caste.

This newly consolidated ruling class is best described as “liberaltarian,” combining moderately libertarian views in economics with cultural progressivism in values. From its citadels in a few big cities, this oligarchy periodically notifies the working-class majority what values and opinions about sex, immigration and other topics it must immediately adopt without debate, on pain of being blacklisted by the private sector, prosecuted by the government or censored or erased by the media.

Many elites in history have justified their largely hereditary privileges by a doctrine of noblesse oblige, which imposes special military or economic obligations on members of the ruling class. But today’s managerial elite is different. The pretense that it springs solely from “merit”—from individual talent and hard work—creates a false sense of superiority for its members, stoking resentment among their fellow citizens, who are defined as failures in fair competition.

The managerial overclasses of the West understand that the policies they prefer on trade, immigration, entitlements and other issues are unpopular and can be threatened by voter rebellions. That is why for the last few generations they have sought to remove decision-making authority from legislatures, which are somewhat accountable to working-class majorities, and deliver it to administrative agencies, courts and transnational institutions such as the European Union.

Casting votes is like putting coins into a broken vending machine. When there is no response, frustrated people tend to kick the machine.

This transfer of power permits establishment politicians pressed by working-class voters to claim that they can do nothing because their hands are tied by courts and treaties. As a result, casting votes is like putting coins into a broken vending machine. When there is no response, frustrated people tend to kick the machine.

In his 1941 global best seller “The Managerial Revolution,” James Burnham, a disillusioned Marxist, argued that old-fashioned, small-scale bourgeois capitalism was being succeeded not by socialism but by a new kind of society dominated by professional managers—not just in corporations but also in the public and nonprofit sectors. Burnham warned of the potential for collective tyranny by this managerial elite over the working-class majority.

Fortunately, his nightmare vision did not come true. In the U.S. and Western Europe after World War II, the power of the managerial minority in the economy, the culture and politics was limited by a variety of extragovernmental checks and balances. Unions checked the power of private sector managers. Influential churches and civic organizations, through mass organizations like the National Legion of Decency, limited the cultural power of the commercial mass media. And parties accountable to ordinary voters through local political machines checked the power of national politicians and elite bureaucrats.

No longer. Today, private sector unions have been weakened and, in the U.S., driven into virtual extinction. In the culture, the elite university has replaced the church or synagogue as the source of moral ideas and moral authority for a growing number of Westerners, particularly in the elite. And the urban political machines and county courthouse gangs are long gone, replaced by parties that are little more than marketing labels fought for by politicians and their billionaire donors.

Having lost the tribunes who once represented them—the political machine bosses, the union officials and, yes, the censorious church ladies—and seeing their traditional values stigmatized by metropolitan elites, many in the working classes of the West have grown alienated from politics. Some have lost interest in voting. Others, however, have rallied behind populist tribunes of the people, themselves often members of the elite, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

Successful populists can channel legitimate grievances. But populism is a symptom of a sick body politic, not a cure.

Successful populists can channel legitimate grievances. But populism is a symptom of a sick body politic, not a cure. History shows that populist demagogues are less likely to reform the system than to sell out to the existing establishment or build corrupt personal political machines, steering government patronage to supporters. When a society is trapped in a vicious circle in which patronizing oligarchs alternate with populist hucksters, economic growth and the rule of law are endangered.

What can be done? Mere policy reforms—a bit of trade or immigration restriction here, a bigger child tax credit or health care subsidy there—are not enough to bridge the widening divide between the ruling managerial elite and excluded working-class citizens, native and immigrant alike. Nor will mere political realignment be sufficient, because elected officials have lost or ceded so much policy-making power to unaccountable executive branch bureaucrats, judges and transnational agencies.

Ending the new class war in the U.S. and Europe will require a new era of genuine power-sharing by today’s power-hoarding managerial overclass. The trade unions, powerful religious organizations and local political machines of the 20th century will not return. Their 21st-century equivalents are needed, in the form of mass membership organizations accountable to working-class people rather than to elite donors or granters. Only genuine bottom-up institutions can allow working-class citizens to exercise countervailing power against the elite by pooling the only resource they have: their numbers.

In the political realm, ending the new class war will require strengthening national, state and local legislatures. The executive and judiciary branches tend to be staffed by the social elite and are responsive to its interests and values. Ordinary people are most likely to have influence in legislative assemblies, which to some degree reflect the actual diversity of the U.S., Britain, France and other western nations, rather than mirroring the graduating classes of the Ivy League, Oxbridge or the Grandes Ecoles.

In addition to restoring powerful legislatures, renewing federalism can empower working-class citizens. Basic civil rights should be the same for all, but many decisions that are now made at the national level, where elite influence is greatest, can be made just as well at the regional, state, urban and even neighborhood level, with more opportunities for popular input.

But it is not enough for the non-college-educated majority of all races to regain lost influence in government if the managerial elite can pursue its narrow interests and impose its particular vision by exerting its power in the economy and culture. In the 20th century, trade unions balanced the power of corporate managers in the workplace while religious institutions checked the domination of the culture by secular progressives. As a rule, conservatives do not like organized labor, and progressives do not like organized religion. But the decline of these institutions means the decline of popular power, because most citizens are employees, and the working class is more likely to be religious than the college-educated elite.

To reduce the sense of powerlessness that populist demagogues exploit, conservatives must acknowledge the legitimacy of collective bargaining, in the private sector if not in the public sector, while progressives must accept that religious diversity requires respect for fellow citizens who belong to traditional religious and moral subcultures. In a modern economy that is naturally dominated by large firms, it is absurd to pretend that working-class employees have any bargaining power as individuals. It is just as absurd to pretend that devout Christians, Jews and Muslims can find alternatives to social media platforms and public school monopolies that stigmatize their creeds and mock their values.

In the interest of inter-class peace and creedal coexistence, both labor markets and cultural institutions require a degree of regulation. Collective bargaining to set basic wages and workplace rights can take forms other than the failed American system of enterprise bargaining. There could be, for example, bargaining among representatives of all firms and employees in particular industries, occupation-specific wage boards or labor representation on corporate boards. As for the media and education, institutionalized consultation with religious institutions and other organizations represented on government oversight commissions could be part of a new Fairness Doctrine like the one that governed TV and radio in the 20th-century U.S.

The details of a settlement or peace treaty to end the new class war will differ among Western democracies. The great need is for a new democratic pluralism that incorporates the excluded and empowers the powerless. Today’s angry voters do not need handouts or diversionary culture wars. They need power and respect.

Mr. Lind is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-founder and fellow of New America. This essay is adapted from his new book, “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite,” which will be published by Portfolio/Penguin on Jan. 21.