the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts

I can’t recommend too strongly Hahrie Han’s New York Times piece entitled “Want Gun Control? Learn From the N.R.A.” Her argument is important not only for gun-control advocates but for everyone who has a political cause in 21st century America.

Han notes that the NRA does not win because it deploys more money than its opponents do. Funding is substantial on both sides of the issue. I would add that most political scientists doubt that money has much influence on high-salience legislative battles.

Rather, the NRA has “built something that gun-control advocates lack: an organized base of grass-roots power.” Han identifies three characteristics of the NRA that I believe have always been the main ingredients of vibrant civil society in America:

  1. Through gun clubs and gun shops, the NRA offers a wide range of activities and benefits, not merely opportunities to express one’s opinion on a policy issue. In that sense, the NRA is like the traditional bulwarks of 20th-century civil society: religious communities, unions, grassroots political party organizations, and metropolitan daily newspapers. All offered packages of non-political benefits (worship services, employment contracts, social opportunities, comics and box scores) while also steering their members into politics.
  2. The NRA recruits people who do not necessarily agree with its positions but brings them into a community that has strong norms and cultural resonances. Belonging then changes people’s opinions about issues. Again, this was true of religious denominations, unions, 20th-century parties, and newspapers.
  3. The NRA may be centrally run, but it offers lots of opportunities for leadership at the local level.

In contrast, most gun-control groups draw people who already agree about their issue. We join because we want to regulate guns, and only for that reason. Our relationship with the organization is transactional. They ask us to send them money or contact members of Congress, and we take these actions as individuals. Han recalls:

When I joined gun-control groups, I got messages about narrowly defined issues like background checks and safety locks. These messages were a pollster’s dream, tested down to the comma to maximize the likelihood that I would donate or take action. But they never challenged me to rethink who I was or what my relationship to my community was.

A community of people organized around a whole way of life and capable of developing relationships and leadership–that is a fearsome force in politics. A list of people who already vote in a given way and agree to send money or make phone calls–not so much.

One result is that the NRA beats the gun-control groups. The other is that many people lack opportunities to become effective and well-networked citizens because they don’t see organizations around them that offer any opportunities for belonging. They perceive their communities as what my colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan named “civic deserts.” (The analogy is to food deserts: places where nutritious food is not for sale.) In an era of civic deserts, a robust membership group like the NRA has awesome power. If you admire their structure but despise their lobbying agenda, then the solution must be to build alternative structures.

See also:  Civic Deserts and our present crisisthe Hollowing Out of US Democracy; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth). And see this new article by CIRCLE: Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do

Democrats as technocrats

This web search takes you to a whole stack of good recent writing about the Democratic Party as the technocratic party, with headlines ranging from Twilight of the Technocrats? to The Triumph of the Technocrats. In lieu of a critical review, I’d pose these questions:

  1. What would a technocrat support and do in our context? It’s possible to be a socialist technocrat or a technocrat who works for a huge, for-profit company. I presume that a technocratic Democrat today is someone who believes in optimizing GDP growth, environmental sustainability, and reductions in tangible human distress (e.g., disease, homicide) through efficient governmental policies. These desired outcomes often conflict, and then technocrats are fine with compromise. To qualify as a technocrat, you can’t be too enthusiastic about working with ordinary citizens on public issues, and you can’t base your agenda on controversial, challenging moral ideals.
  2. Do Democrats present themselves as technocrats, in this sense? Some do and some don’t. It seems fair to read the positive agenda of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as largely technocratic (she promised to govern competently and continue the balanced progress of her predecessor), although her critique of Donald Trump was ethical rather than technical. I also think that Clinton was in a tough spot because she didn’t believe that she could accomplish transformative change with a Republican Congress; thus managerial competence seemed a workable alternative. The 2016 campaign does not demonstrate that she–let alone all Democrats–are fully technocratic. However, consider a different case that is pretty revealing: the Josiah Bartlet Administration. This is an informative example just because it is idealized and fictional, free of any necessary constraints. The Bartlet White House is staffed with hard-working, highly-educated, unrealistically competent, smartest-guy-in-the-room, ethical people who strive to balance the budget while making incremental progress on social issues. Hollywood’s idealized Democrats are technocrats in full.
  3. Do Democrats choose technocratic policies? Again, I’d say “sometimes.” Both the Clinton and Obama Administrations definitely showed some predilection for measurable, testable outcomes; for behavioral economics; and for models that were consistent with academic research about the economy and the climate. They weren’t particularly good at empowering citizens to govern themselves or collaborating with social movements. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act has a moral core (aiming to cover people without health insurance), even if many of its tools and strategies are best defined as technocratic.
  4. Are Democrats good technocrats? There has been more economic growth under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the sample is small, several Democratic presidents faced conservative congresses, and any correlation with a small “n” can easily be spurious. A deeper point is that Democrats are currently more committed to the mainstream findings of climate science, social policy research, and academic economics than Republicans are. Their accomplishments may be affected by sheer chance, but their strategies tend to be consistent with positivist, empirical research.
  5. Is Democratic technocracy consistent with justice? No. Almost any theory of justice, from libertarian to strongly egalitarian, would demand fundamental shifts from the status quo. Certainly, I would favor deeper changes in our basic social contract. On the other hand, compared to what? Managing our existing social policies in a competent way delivers substantial, if inadequate, justice. It beats incompetence or deliberate assaults on existing social institutions. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a center-left technocratic party would play an important role. I would be open to voting for it, depending on the circumstances and the alternatives. In our two-party system, a technocratic and centrist component competes for control of the Democratic Party. It shouldn’t be surprising that this component receives constant criticism from within the Party, because the Democrats represent a broader coalition, and there is plenty of room to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton. Whatever you think of her, I don’t think you can complain that she was criticized from her left.
  6. Is Democratic technocracy good politics? That’s not a question that will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. Clinton lost to Trump but also won the popular vote. She was technocratic but not completely so. She faced many contingencies, from Fox News to Bernie to Comey, and handled them in ways that we can debate for the next decade. Again, the answer has to be: Compared to what? A compelling new vision of America’s social contract would beat competent management at the polls. But competent management may beat incompetence or a deeply unpopular vision (from either right or left).
  7. What’s driving the Democratic Party’s drift to technocracy? One could explain it in class terms: the Democratic coalition is now highly educated, including many people who make a living by demonstrating expertise. But I would propose a deeper thesis. Modernity itself is defined by constant increases in specialization and differentiation, plus radical doubts about our ability to know which ends are moral or just. In that context, people prosper who are good at applying technical reasoning to complex problems without worrying too much about whether the ultimate ends are right. Modernity has generated a white-collar governing class that is currently aligned with the Democrats, but more than that, it has generated a very high estimation of expertise combined with a leeriness about moral discourse. Religious conservatives monopolize the opposition to both of these trends. Getting out of this trap requires more than new messages and policies. It is a fundamental cultural problem.

See also: the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyvarieties of neoliberalismthe big lessons of Obamacarethe new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; and why the white working class must organize.

assessing the congressional town meeting protests, 2009 and 2017

In 2009, when Democratic House members went home to discuss the Affordable Care Act with their constituents, they faced disruptive questions and protests, often from people loosely affiliated with the Tea Party. The protesters cited such supposed evils as Death Panels. This year, when Republican House members go home to discuss repealing the same legislation, they face disruptive questions and protests from supporters of the ACA. In at least one case, a Member of Congress decried the Death Panels that are supposedly now in existence and was hooted down as a liar by his constituents. In both 2009 and 2017, many Members of Congress have decided not to hold so-called Town Meetings at all because of the prospect of protests that would be covered on mass media.









I was prone to lament the protests in 2009 but welcome them in 2017. That sounds like hypocrisy, but the comparison is more complicated. First, the same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on its purpose and content. Making such distinctions requires judgment, but judgment is essential in politics and is not merely a form of bias. In other words, the right judgment may be that the protests of 2017 are helpful even though those of 2009 were harmful. One reason may be that the protesters of 2017 are speaking truth, and those of 2009 were repeating lies. I acknowledge that’s a simplification, but it may be roughly correct.

Second, if we treat a political act (such as organizing or disrupting a public meeting) as a general category, without reference to its purpose or outcome, we still must weigh several values. Disrupting a meeting is bad for civility but may enhance free speech and agency. Only a purist about civil dialogue would automatically oppose any form of disruption.

I took a somewhat unusual position in ’09. I argued that deliberation–i.e., genuinely listening and being open to changing one’s mind–plays an important role in a democracy. When protesters shut down events sponsored by Democrats, or when Democrats stopped holding open meetings in fear of protests, deliberation suffered. This was a shame because we are all badly limited, morally and cognitively, and we need opportunities to hear from the other side.

However, I said then, a major cause of the disruption was the design of these events. In a truly deliberative event, such as a classic New England Town Meeting, the participants make a collective decision that is not pre-determined by the organizer. To make such a discussion go well requires rules that give people and arguments equal time and organize the debate. An event that is billed as a “Town Meeting” is a fake deliberation if the politician-organizer has already made up his or her mind and just wants to persuade the audience. Giving members of the public a chance to react for a minute at the mic. is a recipe for angry responses. Such meetings are so predictably bad that they provide frequent moments of comedy on Parks & Rec:

The solution would be to reserve events that are billed as deliberative for genuine deliberations. Citizens would be invited to discuss and design solutions, and the organizers would be open to any outcomes. An example is our successful recent experiment with a Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts.

When, on the other hand, a representative already holds a position on an issue and wants to persuade the public, she or he is entitled to screen the audience, to talk only through the media, or otherwise to control the format. At the same time, opponents are entitled to exercise their rights of assembly and petition to argue the opposite position. If the politician chooses to speak in an open room, then she should expect disruptions. If the politician screens the audience, she should expect people outside with signs.

Several additional issues arise for me:

  1. What should matter to protesters is winning. You win if you get more than 50% of the public to support you actively, e.g., by voting in 2018. A protest that may inspire your side and even encourage more participation may also alienate the undecided. Everyone involved in a social movement should read Bayard Rustin’s 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” to remember the difference between moral purity and political effectiveness. Perhaps “What would the median voter think about this?” is not the only important question, but it is always one question to consider explicitly.
  2. The number of people who are present at these events is trivially small in a nation of almost 320 million. The protests matter because they are covered by mass and social media. Controversy and outrage are profitable for media companies. That means that moments of disruption will receive disproportionate attention, and most moments of actual dialogue will be lost. An effective protest may have at least two mediated audiences: supporters whom it inspires, and opponents whom it outrages. They will see the same event in different media contexts. Smart political activists think their way through to the media coverage in all channels.
  3. Listening is a political virtue, even if it’s not the only virtue. Speaking out of turn at a meeting, or drowning out the main speaker, may be the right thing to do. It allows other people to hear you and it honors your right to a voice. But it does have a cost: the audience can’t hear the person you have drowned out or preempted. It’s appropriate to reduce that cost by (for example) interrupting briefly and then yielding back the floor.
  4. Politicians who appear at open public meetings before hostile audiences to defend their settled positions are not strictly deliberating. They have made up their minds and they seek to use their influence to affect public opinion. However, by physically appearing before their critics, they demonstrate vulnerability. As Danielle Allen argues in Talking to Strangers, democracy requires vulnerability. It is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for valuable interactions between people who are strong and weak. Therefore, Republican Members of Congress who continue to face protesters in open meetings deserve some credit–which takes nothing away from the protesters who challenge them.
  5. A protest is a moment of potential, but only if the protesters find other ways of acting together politically. In turn, that requires members of the protest movement to form durable relationships and to develop and extend their skills, usually in the context of organizations to which they belong. In a very important recent interview, Marshall Ganz says, “Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership.”

responding to the deep story of Trump voters

(Washington, DC) This is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s now-famous “deep story” of Louisiana Tea Party supporters, their “account of life as it feels to them.” It’s become famous because it’s also the “deep story” of at least some Trump voters:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

One response to anyone who holds this story is basically: Drop it. The people you believe have moved ahead of you on line are actually still behind, in the sense that they still face unfair disadvantages. For example, an applicant with an identical resume is much less likely to receive a job interview if his name sounds African American rather than White. (My own team is replicating this finding now, as part of a larger study to be released later.) To the extent that some people are moving forward on line, it’s because the most blatant inequalities are being to some extent remedied.

This is true, but I don’t believe it will work politically. I can’t think of any group in history that, upon being informed of its unfair advantages, has responded by yielding them willingly.* The standard response to being told you are privileged is to realize that you have something to defend. And I think that’s an especially likely response if you actually face hardships and disadvantages–which is true of White working-class rural Louisianans.

Waiting in line is a perfect example of a zero-sum situation. Literally, to move one space forward in a queue is to move everyone else one space back. As long as people see themselves in zero-sum relations with others, politics will be ugly. Of course, people don’t have to see the competition in racial terms. If, for instance, White rural Louisianans saw themselves as part of the same group as African-American rural Louisianans, they wouldn’t count successful Black people as winning against them. As Jamelle Bouie wrote yesterday, “many white Americans hold (and have held) a zero-sum view of politics, where gains and benefits for nonwhites are necessarily an imposition on their status.” He adds that how to “fix this white voter problem … is a separate and difficult question.” Telling the people whom Hochschild interviewed that they are racists does not seem to me a likely solution (nor does Bouie suggest it).

A different approach is to attack the zero-sum framing of the situation. People should be asking why anyone must wait so long for the American Dream. White Americans have voted for progressive policies when they have come to think that maybe everyone could achieve a good, secure, prosperous life. The underlying rules could be changed so that everyone wins.

The immediate barrier to that kind of solution is distrust in government. If you don’t believe that government can be trusted to improve the social contract, then the existing contract may seem inevitable. Then your struggle with other people is zero-sum.

And people no longer trust the government much …

Perhaps the most common way to change this trend is to try to “sell” people on the government again– to persuade them that it offers solutions by outlining the policies that it can achieve and by using more effective rhetoric to defend it as an institution.

I dissent in part. People should not trust governments. As Jean Cohen writes, “One can only trust people, because only people can fulfill obligations.” Trust in the US government, as displayed by the American public ca. 1958, was naive. It often involved viewing presidents and other national leaders as friendly personalities, which reflected poor judgment. When it comes to governments and other large institutions, we ought to use one of these substitutes for trust:

  1. A sober assessment that the incentives are aligned to make the people who run the government also look out for our interests. I don’t think rural White Louisianans have much reason to make that assessment, even though, in my view, they would have been much better off with Clinton than with Trump.
  2. Personal connections to people who work in or closely with government. Because politics and government service are now the preserves of white-collar professionals, working-class people have few such connections. Consider, for example, the almost total absence of actual, current working-class people at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
  3. Intermediary organizations that tangibly answer to us and (in turn) influence governments. Unions [and grassroots-based political parties] were prime examples, but they are shattered.

I’d support anything that makes White Americans less likely to see zero-sum situations in racial terms. But I believe it’s most promising to reduce the zero-sum situation more generally. Improving the social contract requires large institutions. Governments are strong candidates, although unions, co-ops, and other nongovernmental structures can be effective as well. Any large institution must, in turn, have direct, human connections to the people whose support it seeks. That means that even if the government is our main tool for social change, we need more than the state by itself; it must come with a panoply of social movements and organizations that link people to it. The hollowing out of these movements and organizations is thus at the root of our problems.

See also why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election.

*Partial exception: the French nobility voted on August 4, 1789 to abolish the privileges of feudalism, spending all night eliminating one major privilege at a time by majority vote. It was a heady spectacle, but many of them lost their actual heads in 1793-4. Besides, they were voting for a new regime that promised all kinds of glories, not just moving themselves down the social hierarchy.

the Democrats and religious Americans

In The Atlantic just before the New Year, Michael Wear–an evangelical who helped Barack Obama with “faith outreach”–offered a critical assessment of the Democrats’ relationships with Evangelicals, 81% of whom supported Trump in 2016. Wear argued that it is a civic obligation to strive to engage all sectors of the society, and it’s a political necessity to engage religious Christians, given their large numbers. Wear wouldn’t expect Democrats to compromise on the substance of abortion, but he suggested that they could acknowledge the moral motivations of abortion’s opponents and look for common ground where it exists. He also decried a certain tone-deafness or ignorance about religious values and traditions, which sometimes verges implicitly on contempt. For instance:

[Wear] once drafted a faith-outreach fact sheet describing Obama’s views on poverty, titling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These,” a reference to a famous teaching from Jesus in the Bible. Another staffer repeatedly deleted “the least of these,” commenting, “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?”

Wear’s remarks are a bit anecdotal and could give a misleading overall impression. However, in The New Republic, Sarah Jones responded in a way that I thought vindicated Wear’s point. She argued that the Democrats should “frame abortion access as a moral good”; women suffer from any wavering on that topic. (Note that an outright majority of women have been against abortion in several recent years.) She added, “The country is becoming increasingly secular and increasingly liberal on issues like marriage equality. The Democratic party won’t win by catering to social conservatives, and it shouldn’t try.”

Leaving aside Wear’s point that national leaders should always try to engage any significant group, Jones is also wrong empirically. It’s true that the proportion of Americans who do not believe in God has risen–to 10% in 2016. Still, 89% say they believe in God, 64% believe in Hell, 54% believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems,” 53% say that religion is very important in their own lives, and 55% claim to belong to a church or synagogue. The secularization trend is subtle and modest. I also fail to see a trend in the pro-choice direction:

Ed Kilgore offers a more interesting response to the Wear interview. He notes that whenever Democrats become concerned about losing “religious” voters, the conversation turns to White Evangelicals (see the Wear interview) or to “cultural conservatives” (as in Jones’ reply), with sometimes a passing reference to Jews. The discussion overlooks Catholics of all backgrounds, Protestants of color, Mainline Protestants (who number 36 million, mostly Whites), Muslims, Hindus, and other religious minorities.

Many of these constituencies see politics through religious lenses, at least in part. They are prone to be alienated by an aggressive secularist agenda, and they are likely to see issues like abortion as morally complicated, wherever they land. Often enough they vote for reasons other than religious ones. For instance, a majority of Mainline Protestants supported Trump, which I would attribute mainly to their race and class rather than their faith. Still, there are powerful faith-based reasons that they might oppose not only Trump but also Paul Ryan’s economics. Meanwhile, religious congregations remain sources of social capital and bottom-up political power that progressives ignore at their peril.

See also the political advantages of organized religion.

what activist movements will look like in the Trump era

Dave Karpf has a great piece entitled, “Cyclical patterns in activist politics: what do we know about the politics of opposition”? Karpf argues that opposing a government looks very different from the “politics of articulation” (trying to develop and promote an agenda). These are some key differences:

  1. Opposition unites. As Karpf notes, the Tea Party formed to oppose Obama before he had made any policy decisions. Its original rhetoric–and its very name–implied opposition to tax increases. But Obama mainly cut taxes. That was no problem for the Tea Party, which shifted to opposing the Affordable Care Act. It was nimble about policies because its raison d’etre was opposition to a person, his core values, and the institution he controlled.
  2. Rapid response becomes more valuable. Especially in the age of social media, activist networks are good at getting people out quickly. They are much worse at sustaining pressure, negotiating, and achieving new policies. When your side shares formal power, rapid response is relatively unimportant. But when the main goal is to block policies coming from the other side, rapid response pays.
  3. By the same token, it becomes harder to advance a positive agenda when a movement must spend all its time blocking new initiatives from the government.

I would add two hypotheses:

  1. I think activists on the left will shift from soft, proximate targets to confront their main ideological opponents. The global justice movement of the Clinton era criticized transnational corporations and the governments that supported them, yet it gained attention for protests outside the World Bank, which funds development projects. Occupy Wall Street claimed to target Wall Street, yet it got the most traction in conflicts with Democratic big city mayors and state universities that were simultaneously facing budget cuts from conservative legislatures. The environmental movement focuses on massive destruction caused by fossil fuels but achieved a notable victory by pressuring a Democratic president to block a specific pipeline that could be easily bypassed. The left tends to confront near-allies for showing hypocrisy or weakness, but that impulse fades when explicit opponents take control. (See Bayard Rustin’s absolutely indispensable and totally timely 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” for a similar point.)
  2. Maintaining political discipline will be an enormous challenge. As Rustin reminded his fellow Civil Rights leaders in 1965, the point is to win. That requires mobilizing and inspiring a majority of Americans, not just fellow travelers. National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted earlier today, “Anti-Trump protesters are gonna take the bait, aren’t they? They’re gonna burn flags, thinking they’re irking him, but alienating majority.” It’s very hard for any large, loose network to remember what the majority of people value, let alone maintain message-discipline. Whether anti-Trump movements can manage that task is enormously important.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth)to beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election; and democracy in the digital age.

the different logics of class and race

It’s common to list racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia together. These are all important and bad phenomena, but they have different logics, and I’m not sure it’s helpful to put them in a single category. Here I explore the differences by focusing on racism and classism.

Older meanings of racism were, I think, always attitudinal. To be a racist was to have negative attitudes toward a racial group, even if those attitudes were unconscious. We now speak of structural racism, which can exist even in the absence of racist attitudes. I sort of wish that we just called that problem “racial injustice,” because the “-ism” suffix connotes an attitude or mindset. But I can accept the linguistic evolution, and I certainly believe that both interpersonal racism and structural racial injustice persist and are destructive.

Classism can be made analogous to the older meaning of racism. You’re a classist if you hold someone in lower regard because of the status of her job, her working-class accent, her neighborhood of birth, or her parents’ social role. Classism of that kind is evident and harmful.

Structural classism would then mean some kind of advantage enjoyed by people due to their class. But this is where the analogy breaks down. Classes are differences in status, power, and advantage. If a society has classes at all, then it gives people different advantages. Put a different way: if a society differentiates among social roles, then it has classes, and that’s structural classism.

Racism is never justifiable, and it’s possible to envision a society that has racial diversity yet no racism. Indeed, I hope that’s where we are headed. In contrast, it’s impossible to imagine a society with classes that doesn’t have “structural classism,” if that means different levels of status, power, or money for different social roles. In theory, we could pay everyone the same salaries, but I’m not sure that would work in practice, and even if it did, it wouldn’t eliminate differences in the quality of work or the status of professions.

Further, classes may be justifiable or even good. Some argue that a classless society is the ideal. We haven’t seen one, however: communist societies produced powerful, detached social strata–the nomenklatura, etc. John Rawls argued that it’s right to pay heart surgeons more than carpenters if (and only if) that is necessary to serve the interests of cardiac patients–who would want highly skilled doctors. Rawls was not perfectly egalitarian, but he was more egalitarian than many Americans, who would make principled and sincere arguments in favor of different pay and status for jobs of different difficulty and complexity.

To say that structural racism exists is to make a critique. To say that classes exist raises the question of whether they are good or bad, and that is worthy of discussion.

One can see the analogy break down in educational settings. A university, for example, ought to be free of both interpersonal and structural racism. It should strive to be a place where your race doesn’t affect how well anyone else treats you or how you flourish. A university cannot, however, be free of class if it exists to provide the education that people need to enter certain desirable professions. If a university prepares people to be teachers, doctors, accountants, and poets, then it is producing a certain class. They could theoretically be paid the same as domestic workers and laborers; they would nevertheless form an advantaged group. A university can strive to reduce interpersonal classism, in the form of prejudice against first-generation students and its own blue-collar employees. But as long as it has blue-collar employees at all, it has classes; and as long as it promises good jobs for its graduates, it generates the class structure. Again, this may be necessary, justifiable, or even good–but it’s no use pretending that an advanced educational institution could be class-free.

Ending racism is theoretically possible and compatible with everyone’s legitimate best interests. You have no right to any advantage conferred by your race, and the very existence of such differences is caustic for all. In contrast, ending class differences might be just, if it’s possible, but it is not compatible with everyone’s interests. We like to talk about “social mobility,” because then we can focus on happy upward trajectories from poor to rich. But for everyone who moves up, someone else must go down. For instance, if the children of domestic workers have a decent chance of growing up to be doctors, then the children of doctors must have a good chance of cleaning houses for a living. Again, we could reduce the disparities in after-tax income and political power, but there will still be winners and losers as long as some people diagnose patients while others clean homes for a living.

Finally, the causation seems to be different. Presumably, interpersonal racism was an original cause (although maybe not the only original cause) of structural racism. We wouldn’t have had slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining if most white people had held most black people in high regard. But today the causal link may be weakened, for structural racism can persist even in the absence of interpersonal racism. For instance, assume that white college grads come to feel benignly and respectfully toward all other races. Still, if each college grad succeeds in getting his own children into a desirable college, those colleges will enroll mostly white students. As long as the distribution of goods in a society is racially unjust, you don’t need interpersonal racism to replicate the inequality; you just need unequal resources plus self-interest.

Meanwhile, interpersonal classism is mainly a consequence of objective differences in income, status, and power. It’s not that middle-class people are prejudiced against working-class people and give them bad jobs. It’s rather that people with bad jobs get treated worse. That pattern can turn into class prejudice, as when a person who has a working-class accent but plenty of money gets treated rudely at a snooty restaurant. But classism of that sort is not the main problem. The main problem is the real distribution of status, wealth, and power in the society. To change that is not a matter of improving attitudes but of redesigning institutions.

why the white working class must organize

It is inexcusable to vote for Donald Trump, a cruel and incompetent charlatan. To imply that anyone is justified in voting for him sets a patronizingly low standard. Our fellow Americans can do better than that.

At the same time, Trump’s demographic base consists of people–predominantly, white working-class Americans–who must be active, enthusiastic members of a progressive coalition. If they fall outside that coalition, real progress is impossible. I think the solution lies not in developing policies that would benefit the white working class, nor in devising new messages to attract them, but in strategies that allow them to win genuine power. I interpret the Trump phenomenon, in part, as a symptom of their powerlessness.

Class and the current partisan alignment

It is normal for partisan support to reflect demographics. What is unprecedented is the precise way that the US population has split in this decade. Basically, the Obama/Clinton coalition is the upper end of the economic scale plus people of color. The Trump coalition is the working class minus people of color.

College attainment is both a precondition and an indicator of middle-class status in contemporary America. In a poll taken between the conventions, Hillary Clinton led college-educated whites by 5 points, but she trailed Trump among whites who don’t have college degrees by 39 points: 62% to 23%. That gap must have set a record, but it was not wildly out of line with other recent results. Peter Beinart has assembled much more evidence for what he calls a “class inversion.” Note that Clinton also leads Trump by 16 points among Fortune 500 CEOs. In Silicon Valley, she led Trump by 64% to 20% in a poll last spring. Meanwhile, she leads by huge margins among all racial/ethnic groups other than Whites.

Chris Arnade reports from two parts of metro Cleveland, OH: white working-class Parma and African American Central Cleveland, which is one of the poorest communities in the nation. In Parma, Arnade writes,

Trump voters want respect. They want respect for their long hours of work that risks their bodies, for the hands caught in vices, backs wrenched by weights, and knees torn. They want respect because they are doing dangerous work, but their pay has been flat for decades.

They want respect because they haven’t just lost economically, but also socially. When they turn on the TV, they see their way of life being mocked and made fun of as nothing but uneducated white trash.

With Trump, they are finding someone who gives them respect. He talks their language, addresses their concerns

In Central, “the need for respect, the feeling of being left behind, is [also] well-understood.” But everyone there favors Clinton, and Arnade thinks that’s because “people feel they do have a political voice. They believe the Democrats are working for them, they might not like everything about the party, they might not fully like the results, but the party is respecting their concerns. [The] overwhelming political concern I heard had little to do with anything other than electing Hillary, and stopping Trump.”

I think this passage overstates African Americans’ satisfaction with the Democrats. Peniel Joseph describes “multiple strategic and substantive displays of multiracial unity” inside the Democratic National Convention. But “outside the convention hall Black Lives Matter demonstrators begged to differ, protesting the Democratic Party as an entity held corporate hostage to financial institutions whose candidate Hillary Clinton they say backed criminal justice and welfare reform that have had a devastating impact on poor black communities.” Jordie Davies writes that 2016 presents the choice between “a demagogue [Trump] and more of the same complacent, anti-black policies [from Clinton].”

But to the extent that the African American voters of Central Cleveland trust the Democratic Party, it may be because they observe Black people wielding actual power within the party. The President is African American. One in four delegates to the DNC was Black, and more than half were people of color. This is not because the party has given African Americans anything, but because Black people have won elections at all levels from local party officers to the presidency. So African Americans are at the table, even if they are often outgunned by wealthier interests and outnumbered.

Meanwhile, if you identify as working class, you will see virtually no one like you wielding power in either party. You may notice a few politicians of working-class origins, but almost everyone who influences either party is now a white-collar professional. Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director, says, “We would argue that most of the political class comes from the same background whether it is Democrats or Republicans and that all politicians lack a kind of authenticity with working-class voters.”

Of course, union staff are also professionals, but they owe their jobs to rank-and-file members. Unfortunately, their place is increasingly marginal. Although five union leaders spoke on the first day of the DNC, none spoke in prime time, and two of them represented college-educated public employees. It would be easy to overlook industrial unions in the Democratic Party coalition, and this is why:

Private sector workers simply aren’t in unions anymore. Andrade begins his depiction of white working class Parma with the key point. It is “defined by auto factories: massive edifices to another era that now sit mostly idle. Scattered throughout are union halls, like UAW Local 1005, which is mostly empty, holding only a few cars.” I think the UAW’s empty parking lot is an image of political powerlessness; and powerlessness breeds Trumpism.

The new demographic split influences cultural institutions as well politics. For instance, Tufts University has always had, and must have, conservative students and faculty. It should be a place for productive debate between liberals and conservatives (and others). But I have not personally encountered anyone here who supports Trump. That makes sense, because Tufts is a college; its purpose is to produce college graduates. We admit students from working-class homes, but we strive to prepare them all for adulthood in the middle class. That’s what they pay us for. We also strive–albeit imperfectly–for racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. Consequently, everyone who graduates from Tufts enters the demographic categories that are currently lined up behind Clinton.

The need for organizing

The New Deal/Great Society coalition–always highly imperfect, unequal, and fractious–consisted of the working class (of all races/ethnicities) plus wealthier people who saw themselves as minorities, including religious minorities. In settings like national political campaigns, the various elements of the progressive coalition had to learn from and negotiate with each other. Together, they achieved some progress.

Today’s Democrats are typically stronger than Republicans on civil rights, especially rhetorically and in cases when addressing injustice won’t cost upper-income whites anything. For instance, as a white man with a PhD, I gain nothing from unjust policing or mass incarceration; I’d be better off without both. Racial diversity also improves my life, as long as I retain my own place in my job and neighborhood. Further, Democrats are prone to fund education, partly because they endorse principles (like equality and freedom) that education may advance; partly because today’s Democrats are often meritocrats and technocrats who treat success in school as an indicator of a good life; and partly because their coalition includes teachers and professors, who are paid to educate.

But Democrats won’t make more than marginal commitments to addressing the profound destruction of de-industrialization, rising deference to wealth and capital, or the economic situation of working class people (trends summarized here). That is because the working class is outnumbered in the Democratic coalition. Meanwhile, the Trump coalition could support policies that benefited the working class–note his embrace of a higher minimum wage and his opposition to trade liberalization–but since his coalition has been built to exclude people of color, it is terrible on civil rights and diversity issues. And Trump offers no real solutions even for working-class white people.

Democrats should enact policies for working class communities suffering from declining real income, falling life-expectancy, opioid addiction, and fragmenting families. At this moment, I think their policies are much better than the Republicans’, and it’s worth emphasizing that contrast. But beneath policy is politics, and there is no reason to believe that a coalition dependent on the upper class will consistently support policies that make a real difference to people in the lower class, especially when a majority of the lower class is voting for the other party. I’ve shown (here and here) that today’s most educated Americans are liberal but not egalitarian. The Democrats can obtain a majority coalition by offering neoliberalism plus diversity, and that is the likely long-term outcome.

An even deeper problem is that you cannot confer respect on someone else by giving him a better deal. So even if the Democrats enacted stronger policies to benefit the working class–infrastructure spending would be a good example–that wouldn’t make working-class people feel that they had a genuine seat at the table. They must design and enact policies to feel empowered. In turn, that requires organizations that can compel attention.


Unions are one essential form of organization. The Democratic Party Platform says, “A major factor in the 40-year decline in the middle class is that the rights of workers to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits have been under attack at all levels.” The Platform promises: “Democrats will make it easier for workers, public and private, to exercise their right to organize and join unions. We will fight to pass laws that direct the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a simple majority of eligible workers sign valid authorization cards, as well as laws that bring companies to the negotiating table.”

I am not sure to what extent such reforms would restore the fortunes of organized labor, because another major obstacle is the changing nature of work; but we should certainly demand that the Democrats honor this promise.

In addition to unions, there are also community organizing groups that have genuine roots in white working class communities. Check out Kentuckians for the Commonwealth or the Maine People’s Alliance, among many others.

There is also cultural work to be done: the creation of stories, images, music, and other media that inspire working people politically. It’s striking that the Great Recession of 2007-8 never produced a cultural response comparable to the 1930s: no iconic images or anthems. I think a satisfactory narrative must address racism, because that is both morally important and necessary for building a coalition that spans races. However, the main rhetorical emphasis cannot be the privilege of being white, because “privileged” is a poor description of people who are being made superfluous in the 21st century labor market. Besides, I can’t think of any case when people have given up advantages because someone has drawn their attention to them. Told that they are privileged, people are much more likely to realize what they ought to protect.

Nor can the main tone be resentment, a sense of victimhood, or reactionary nostalgia, because nothing good comes of that. The story must evoke genuine pride and must look forward rather than back.

Since an identity as “white” is deeply problematic, we should be looking for alternatives: pride in local geographical communities or specific subcultures, plus a definition of “American” that is proudly inclusive rather than fearfully divisive.

Leonard Cohen probably isn’t the guy to reach a big enough audience, but we might take hints from his song “Democracy” (brilliantly analyzed by Laura Grattan). For instance, here he juxtaposes Otis Redding with a Chevy ad, goes inside a home and over to the Middle East with our troops:

It’s coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin’
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

This is a version of progressive democratic patriotism. The Democrats didn’t do a bad job of evoking such ideas at their Convention. I think the issue is the credibility of Democratic politicians as messengers.

In any event, messages and narratives must rest on real organizations, and the working class needs more of those. Otherwise, to quote Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (h/t Josh Miller), we will face a combination of “superfluous wealth”–think of Donald Trump– and “superfluous men” (working class people without capital or advanced skills). As in the early 1900s, the superfluous could again form “a mass of people … free of all principles and so large numerically that they [can] be used only by imperialist politicians and inspired only by racist doctrines” (pp. 156-7). We know how that story ends.

what is the political economy that people are revolting against?

(Hartford, CT) One interpretation of Trump, Brexit, and related phenomena is that people fear losing their privileges and are reacting with prejudice against immigrants and racial and religious minorities. That thesis must contain a lot of truth. But a different–and compatible–interpretation is that large elements of the working class are revolting against an unjust but dominant political economy.

For instance, Harvard Professor Richard Tuck makes the leftist case for Brexit. Britain needed to leave the EU because “the essence of the EU is neoliberal. … The policies that are enshrined in its treaties and in its administrative structures are essentially those of the neoliberals.” Meanwhile, in the US, Trump holds a double-digit lead over Clinton among the working class as a whole, while he trails by similar margins among college-educated people–and the US Chamber of Commerce denounces his position on trade.

If the working class is rising up, what are they rising against? Hardly anyone calls himself a “neoliberal,” and critics load a lot of diverse ideas into that term. It presumably doesn’t mean libertarianism or laissez-faire, because then we could just use those words (dropping the “neo-“). What’s more, the US and EU have not moved in a libertarian direction. Here, for instance, is the trend in government spending as a percentage of GDP in the USA. It’s basically up, albeit with declines in the last six years of both the Clinton and Obama administrations.


The volume of government regulation is also up, although that’s harder to measure. This is the size of the annual federal compendium of new regulations, measured in pages. A libertarian regime would not issue 80,000 pages of new rules per year.

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There are many good things about regimes like the US and the EU member states. In broad, historical context, they are relatively free, prosperous, safe, and democratic. Nevertheless, I will emphasize the negatives, for much the same reason that your doctor wants to talk about your hypertension and family history of cancer, not how wonderfully well your liver and kidneys are working. In other words, I’ll offer a critical assessment even though there would also be many positive to points to make.

In brief, I think that states are increasingly powerful, but they are accountable to capital, not to citizens. That’s what critics mean by “neoliberalism,” although “state corporatism” might be a better phrase. I’ll break the diagnosis into six parts.

1. Deindustrialization

We call the wealthiest countries of the world the “industrialized” nations, but that description is becoming obsolete. These countries did industrialize after 1800 but have shed most of their manufacturing jobs. Below is the trend for the US since 1977. The graph understates the decline, because many more than 14% of households had at least one manufacturing worker, usually a man, in 1978. Also, the rate was higher in 1950, but I can’t find a longer time series. In any case, the decline since 1977 has been steep.
Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 8.27.17 PM

Manufacturing jobs are rarely enviable, but they give their workers political leverage because they require expensive, fixed investments. Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit employed 100,000 men at its peak (versus 6,000 people today). Autoworkers could organize and strike. They voted in city and state elections. It was expensive for Ford to move its investments out of Detroit, although that gradually happened, and the city has lost 61% of its population. But in the heyday of industrialization, Ford needed those men to be reasonably happy. In return, manufacturing workers benefitted from their political leverage–including Black workers, whose civil rights improved with their concentrated market power in factories.

By contrast, Google, which is worth about half a trillion dollars, employs some 50,000 people, worldwide. They are well paid, but they remain at Google for a median of 1.1 years. They have market value–far above the average market value of average Americans, let alone average human beings–but they have little or no political leverage. Even the best-paid are dispersed, transient, and eminently replaceable.

2. Mobile capital

The fact that you can now make more money by investing in intellectual property and networks rather than rooted industries is one reason that capital moves faster than ever before. Capital mobility is also encouraged by favorable laws and treaties and by financial instruments, analytics, and other tools that assist investors.

The result is a substantial increase in the leverage of capital even as the leverage of labor has weakened. Businesses gain their “privileged position“–even in democracies with free and fair elections–from two major sources. First, since a business is organized, it can deliberately advocate for its interests by lobbying or advertising, whereas diffuse interests (like consumers or workers) have much more trouble acting politically. Second, investments are essential for prosperity, and a business can move its investments. Thus, even without lobbying at all, a business–or an individual investor–gains leverage over governments. Its ability to invest and or disinvest gives it power. That power has rapidly increased. It also reinforces …

3. Deference to wealth

This point is harder to quantify, but I perceive that we live at a time when billionaires, celebrities, and CEOs are given extraordinary deference, especially in comparison to run-of-the-mill elected officials, civil servants, union leaders, and grassroots organizers. Politicians, for instance, are constantly in contact with their wealthiest constituents. First-year Democratic Members of the House are advised to spend four hours per day of every day calling donors. Meanwhile, many advocacy groups are funded by rich individuals, not sustained by membership dues, so their leaders are also constantly on the phone or at conferences and meetings with wealthy people. The conversations in these settings tend to be deeply deferential, and they occur behind closed doors. Of course, these habits are abetted by laws and policies–especially, laws governing campaign finance in the US. But we observe somewhat similar deference in other countries with better laws. I think the deeper cause is the shift of leverage to economic elites.

4. The market colonizes the public sphere 

“Commonwealth” is a translation of “republic,” which could be more literally rendered as “the public’s thing.” In a republic, the government is supposed to be distinct from the private sector. As the custodian of the common wealth, it operates on different principles from a market. These principles are not simply majoritarian, for the commonwealth belongs to our unborn children as well to us. We have no right to waste it by voting for the wrong policies. A republic strives to define and implement something worthy of the title “public good.”

That distinct ethic has been lost, as governments are almost universally seen simply as service-providers, constantly compared to businesses on the grounds of efficiency, and expected to compete in a market for popularity and influence. In a 1870 case, the Supreme Court declared a lobbyist’s contract void on the ground that it would be “steeped in corruption” and “infamous” for any business to hire someone “to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests.” The Court added:

The foundation of a republic is the virtue of its citizens. They are at once sovereigns and subjects. As the foundation is undermined, the structure is weakened. When it is destroyed, the fabric must fall. Such is the voice of universal history. The theory of our government is that all public stations are trusts, and that those clothed with them are to be animated in the discharge of their duties solely by considerations of right, justice, and the public good.

We certainly didn’t live up to those words in 1870s, when government was in many ways more corrupt than it is now. But the animating philosophy of a public good was still alive then. In contrast, Buckley v Valeo (1976) defines political money as constitutionally protected speech, and Citizens United (2010) equates businesses with civic associations. These are examples of a general erosion of a distinction between public good and private interests.

5. States have increasing power

If we lived in a neo-“liberal” or laissez-faire era, states would be constrained. In some ways, they are, but they also have more access to data about people than ever before; they have an easier time surveilling, influencing, punishing, and even killing individuals; and they operate increasingly powerful systems for enforcing discipline, headlined by the vast prison system of the USA. Their ability to see, count, and act also extends far beyond their borders, making people in most parts of the world subject to more than one government at once.

6. But states need their citizens less

On the other hand, states don’t need their own citizens. They don’t need us as military conscripts, because they can fight using small numbers of highly equipped experts, and they don’t need most of us as taxpayers, because they can finance their operations on international markets.

Mitt Romney did himself no favors by accusing 53% of Americans of being “takers” instead of “makers.” (Also, his numbers were off, since he omitted people who pay payroll taxes.) But he was right that a small minority can finance a modern government, which means that the state really doesn’t have to pay much attention to the rest of its people.

Put those six premises together, and you would predict a political regime in which investors use an expansive and intrusive state to promote their own interests. This seems almost precisely accurate as a description of regime like China’s, and all too apt when applied to the US, the UK, or the EU as well. It doesn’t excuse voting for Donald Trump, who offers no alternative and threatens fundamental rights. I don’t think it offers a very good rationale for Brexit, either. But it does explain why a political class wedded to this status quo would face an electoral insurrection.

how national policies sucked the power out of local government and disempowered citizens

Phillip Longman makes an extraordinarily important argument in an Atlantic article entitled “Why the Economic Fates of America’s Cities Diverged” (although I would be very curious what economic historians and other relevant experts think about it). Here is my restatement:

  1. When businesses are mostly local, local governments can regulate them. Citizens can also influence them directly by applying social pressure.
  2. When citizens have the experience of influencing economic institutions directly or through representative local governments, they feel empowered and want to act at the state and national levels as well.
  3. Between 1788 and about 1970, federal and state governments and courts instituted a remarkable series of policies explicitly designed to favor local firms. An economic outcome of these policies was a strong convergence of income and prices across the US, as each community captured a lot of its own wealth. Firms were also accountable to local governments, and business owners were highly active in local civic affairs.
  4. Since 1970s, all branches of government have removed those policies. Income and prices have diverged dramatically. Wealth has flowed to the big coastal cities.
  5. Local and state governments have become less capable of regulating businesses. Firms also receive less social pressure because they tend to locate in culturally friendly cities and do their business nationally. Big business leaders are uninvolved in local civic life but increasingly focused on Washington.

Carolyn Bouchard, a diabetic with a slowly healing shoulder fracture, hurried to see her doctor after Matt Bevin was elected governor here this month. Ms. Bouchard, 60, said she was sick of politics and had not bothered voting. But she knew enough about Mr. Bevin, a conservative Republican who rails against the Affordable Care Act, to be nervous about the coverage she gained under the law last year.

“I thought, ‘Before my insurance changes, I’d better go in,’ ” she said as she waited at Family Health Centers, a community clinic here.

Longman summarizes policies enacted to increase local control over business until 1970s–and their repeal since then. Consider, for example, the US Postal Service monopoly (which guaranteed equal prices and service for all addresses), heavy regulation of railroad, telegraph, and television companies, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Robinson-Patman Act (against chain retail stores), the Miller-Tydings Act (against retail discounting), the Celler-Kefauver Act (antitrust provisions), Brown Shoe Co., Inc. v. United States (blocking a retail merger), and FCC regulations that mandated airline service to smaller markets and equal ticket prices per mile.

These were all policies that restrained national business competition but allowed geographical communities to compete against the big cities of the coasts. Once these rules were gone, capital became more mobile and consumers probably got the benefits of lower prices–but it became impossible to govern at the local level, and citizens were taught to be “sick of politics” because the politicians who were closest to them could no longer achieve much on their behalf.

See also: the Democrats’ problem is social capital; the European city as site of citizenship; and wealth-building strategies for communities.