walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 21, 2010
The Meaning of Massachusetts

Over at The Arena this morning they are asking whether the Democrats understand the meaning of their defeat in the Massachusetts senate race.  My thoughts:

Do the Democrats ‘get it,’ you ask?

It’s a big tent party; some do and some don’t.

Somebody very cruel once said that Hubert Humphrey is a man who is twenty years ahead of his time — but that his time is 1948.  That was a damning comment in 1972; it’s an even more damning one today, but I’m afraid this describes the mindset of a great many good Democrats.

For these people — earnest, passionate, often very smart and engaged, and many of them good friends of mine — the 1940s and 1950s model of progress still holds.  The world is divided between three groups of people: a large mass of basically good but oppressed and poorly-educated working people (and small farmers) who need guidance, enlightenment and protection; evil and greedy corporations and special interests who seek to grind them down and suck them dry; and honest, competent, well-educated professionals whose job it is to steer society forward in the interests of the ignorant mass.  Unfortunately the evil and greedy interests and their sly minions are good at befuddling and confusing the dumbass masses, using such retrograde themes as patriotism, religion and always and everywhere racism.

William Jennings BryanFor Democrats with this mindset, the party has to balance the interests of the masses and the classes.  That is, the masses are, regrettably, too stupid to know what is good for them.  It is necessary for the enlightened professionals to steer a middle course between the unreflective populism of the masses and the self-destructive and shortsighted greed of the special interests.  These Democrats interpret the populist revolt against the Obama administration (evil “teabaggers” and all) as a sign that the Democrats have steered too far toward the classes, creating a window of vulnerability for evil minion Republican demagogues to confuse the masses about who their real friends are.  To hold this in check, the party needs to embrace more ‘populist’ economic rhetoric: crosses of gold, bankers foreclosing on widows, the whole William Jennings Bryan playbook.  Card check, tax the rich, a hugely expensive jobs bill, regulate the hell out of business.  This, they are deeply and utterly convinced, will foil the minions completely and let everyone know beyond any doubt who the real friends of the people are.

It is extremely difficult for people steeped in this mindset (as I was for many years) to wrap their heads around the core idea powering American politics in the last generation: a revolt by the ‘dumbass masses’ against this basic social map of the world.  Huge chunks of the masses today don’t think they need or want tutors, directors, counselors, union leaders, civil servants or anybody else managing their affairs.  They hunger and thirst for social and political autonomy — it is the liberal world view that they long to be freed of.

For many lower-middle and middle-middle class Americans, the upper-middle class has a basic strategy to protect its privilege and position: to define horrible social problems which require a privileged upper middle class professional establishment to manage.  The fight over the role of government in America today is less ideological than class: the middle-middle class and its allies think that the upper-middle class and its allies use the state as a system to tax other people to defend the privileged class position of professionals, managers and civil servants.  More and better funded university professors; more snooty lawyers with more power; more bureaucrats with life tenure and fat pensions; more money thrown down the rat holes of public schools dominated by self-seeking teacher unions.

To people coming from this (increasingly common) perspective, Democrats actually become much more offensive and patronizing when they embrace what they think of as populist economic rhetoric.  When ‘populist’ Democrats try to respond to public dissatisfaction by offering their services as tribunes of the people out to crush evil monster corporations and vicious robber baron plutocrats with big new government programs, they unintentionally confirm popular suspicions that they are using public grievances to strengthen the class that many Americans think is their real enemy.

The war on upper-middle class privilege is the cause today that, for better or worse, embodies the spirit of American populism.  Some Democrats get this; most don’t and, probably, sadly, won’t.

Cross-posted at

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  • Rellag

    Dr. Mead,

    This is this most brilliant piece of analysis I’ve read in a year.

    It is predictive of behavior, original, and its ahead of its time.

    Its an important piece of work.

    I urge you to seek wider dissemination.

    There are so many entrenched models that are providing horrible outcomes for the citizenry/ whether it is public education or the various manifestations of agency (vs. owner) capitalism.

    And the state always seems to show up to enhance and expand the entrenchment.

    Once you see it described as a pattern, as you’ve done above, its painfully obvious.

    Again, please seek greater dissemination.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Most Republicans, at least the professional politicians, don’t get it either.

  • Joshua Bay

    Dr. Mead,

    “Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess.” (Rene Descartes)

    How would you define well educated and enlightened? Does having a PHD qualify one as well educated? Is being well educated equal in exact proportion to being enlightened?

    I remember fondly my 2nd year in college; two separate professors who both happened to be heads of their departments. In each introductory course I asked the professor after class why what they were saying was the truth and why it was worth knowing. One professor’s response was, “It just is and if you don’t memorize it you’ll fail my course”. The other responded, “It isn’t the truth. It is a theory and it is based on these studies (…). If you don’t agree with these studies you should try to prove them wrong. The reason for learning them is to understand what we thought in the past, what we think now and to prepare you to discover what we will think in the future.” Needless to say both Professors were well educated but I’d argue only one of them was enlightened.

    Back in those days I thought I knew it all. I hated courses like communications because I felt they were based on drivel and idle speculation. I tended to courses emphasizing mathematics and reason. I believed that there was always one right answer. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I started truly learning. I read philosophers from Nietzsche, Kant and Bacon to Plato, Descartes and Voltaire. I can’t remember exactly when I changed but the change was profound. I realized the sheer scope of things we really don’t know and that even mathematics is incomplete. I found immense wisdom in some of the least educated individuals I have ever known.

    Dr. Mead I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and on a certain level I agree with you. I agree that the vast majority of human beings have no wisdom and are not enlightened. Also, it is a statistical fact that most people do not have a post-secondary education let alone Bachelors. It is also my opinion that a university education aids in wisdom and enlightenment.

    My point of contention, and the reason I asked for further clarification, is that there are enlightened individuals within all three groups and it sounded somewhat as if the first group, poorly-educated working people, were who you’re referring to when you said, “Unfortunately the evil and greedy interests and their sly minions are good at befuddling and confusing the dumbass masses…”. I would contend that just as there are enlightened individuals in all three of your groups there are also, “the dumbass masses”, in all three. Further, I would contend that a vast majority of the, “dumbass masses”, are similar to myself and would love to further their education but do not have the means or the wherewithal to do so.

    “Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light.” (Plato)

  • Rellag

    Dr Mead

    In light of the Stack incident in Austin, and the ongoing societal response, I reiterate that you are onto something very important here.

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