Traditional Democrats and Republicans both seem to worry these days that their party is being demoralized or emptied of the virtue that once rendered it worthy of personal devotion. Thomas B. Edsall, a steadfast defender of the Democrats’ redistributive, egalitarian economic agenda, recently wrote about the “striking generational split” in his party’s electorate. Younger voters remain loyal Democrats, but their focus is much less on economic redistribution than “on issues of personal and sexual autonomy.” Similarly, they are traditionally liberal on the interpersonal racial dimension,” but much less interested in affirmative action or what Edsall called “classical liberal notions about ways of achieving social progress for minorities.” Younger Democrats are much more skeptical of government-based remedies than those of Edsall’s generation, and they buy into the thought that government can’t afford to do much more than it already does to improve the lives of Americans in need.Older Democrats are more “communitarian” in their thinking about the national community that fuels progressive reform, while younger Democrats are more individualistic or libertarian. Their main interest is “protect[ing] personal liberties from conservative moral restraint.” This “schism” within the Democratic party, Edsall laments, will doom the Democratic progressive economic agenda and erode its opposition to the efforts of business interests or “corporate America” to roll back the morally admirable results of past Democratic reform. The rich will enjoy further tax cuts, and social spending will be reduced as a result, as will the regulatory regime that contained the greed of “commercial and financial sectors.” Young Democrats, apparently, are fine with their party being against any government imposition of moral restraint on personal behavior.The Obama Administration has de-emphasized progressive economic reforms, the better to build a coalition against “conservative moral restraint.” And the old-fashioned or compassionate conservative Republican Peter Wehner agrees with this course; the President, he writes, is homing in on the Republicans; area of “increasing vulnerability.” Trends in public opinion, especially among the young, are solidly on the Democrats’ side when it comes to social or cultural issues such as contraception, gay marriage, and religious liberty. Part of that new Democratic offensive, of course, is the strategic overreaction to the Court’s narrow ruling on behalf of liberty in the Hobby Lobby case. The Democrats’ view is that anyone who dissents on the trending position on these cultural issues is a religious fanatic driven by irrational animosity. And it does seem that the Hobby judicial victory for the Republicans is morphing into a political stimulus package for the Democrats. So Wehner is attuned to the reasonableness of those Republicans who say that future victories depend on sticking to the economic issues, but he at least wishes that this strategic move won’t come at the expense of the soul of his party, of its way of defending the dignity of ordinary people from the sophisticated, liberationist elitism of big government and big corporations. Wehner echoes Edsall’s concern about his own party when he concludes that elderly Republicans are more communitarian or driven by issues of religious, civic, familial, and local ecology, while younger Republicans are more consistently libertarian or chafing at all forms of moral restraint.What’s driving the libertarian convergence of our two parties, as described by Edsall and Wehner? In a nutshell, the morality of capitalism has won. All of American life is being transformed by the imperatives of the 21st century global marketplace. The Koch brothers, we read, are “moderating” the Republican party by purging it of its concern with social issues, which are really just reactionary prejudices. Silicon Valley is “moderating” the progressivism of the Democratic party, purging it of policies that stifle growth and innovation by stripping members of the meritocracy of their honestly earned property and money. Impediments to globalization have fallen away, and the results are astonishing. More people than ever have access to the world past and present through what they can call up on their various screens, the average lifespan continues to get longer, and the realm of personal freedom or autonomy, as our Supreme Court explains, continues to grow. More than ever, America is defined by a meritocracy based on productivity. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, even the imperatives of biology (such as birth and death), and so forth mean less than ever in constraining the opportunities for free and industrious individuals.This libertarian convergence of opinion is clear in both parties. The Democrats today are confident insofar as their autonomy-based stands on the various social and cultural issues are increasingly popular, and they hope that sophisticated individualism will divert attention away from their failure to build a bigger and better welfare state. Republicans say, with considerable force, that when it comes to entitlements and such the Democrats are “reactionary”, defending positions that really have no future, and that the true progressivism is the techno-liberation of individuals provided by the unfettered marketplace. The imperatives of public opinion, markets, and technology all point to each party gradually surrendering its characteristic reactionary baggage, anything opposed to the rule of the true meritocracy based on productivity.Forces opposed to the reign of that meritocracy, such as unions, are in retreat. Unions depended on American industries’ relative lack of competition from the rest of the world. Given the intensification of that competition, unions have become counterproductive and unable to properly benefit their members. Other safety nets that ordinary people have come to depend on to cushion the impact of the market on our lives are also atrophying. These include pensions, all kinds of tenure, government entitlements, general loyalty between employer and employee, and relatively independent local communities, family, and churches. More and more, the American worker is becoming an independent contractor selling his or her flexible skills and competencies to whomever can use them at the moment. We have here, all factors considered, a multifaceted new birth of freedom, an expanded menu of individual choice, and a reduction in some ways of personal security and relational flourishing (the latter especially for ordinary Americans).One paradox about this unprecedented situation is that Americans are becoming more and less middle class. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in Democracy in America, that ours is a middle-class democracy, he meant that almost all Americans thought of themselves as free beings who work. The American works for himself and his family and believes that everyone has the right and duty to do the same. What the aristocrat calls leisure, he calls laziness. A free, middle-class country will inevitably have vast disparities of wealth, but also a kind of rough equality of hope—a hope supported by the perception of some connection between talent, effort, and success, and by the fact that wealth circulates rapidly and fortunes are made and lost so readily.America, Tocqueville noticed, was also characterized by a rough homogeneity of habits and opinions. Even today, few people (outside the South) talk up the advantages of an aristocratic leisure class for culture; most have a technological (as opposed to a “purely theoretical”) understanding of what science is; most appreciate the utility of the family and religion; most people apply the spirit of industry even to literature, vacations, and “free time” generally; and most people believe that self-interest can explain and justify social duties.Many also worry that inequality is increasing, at the expense of the social mobility that undergirds the equality of hope. As libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has shown, the gap in wealth mirrors a gap in productivity between a cognitive elite of maybe 15 percent of the population—which owes its wealth to being skilled and industrious either in working with “genius machines” or marketing the products of or managing the work of those who do—and the rest, who are becoming less productive and so less prosperous. Cowen proclaims that “average is over”; the middle management class between the highly productive and the marginally productive is withering away. The division of labor is increasingly pronounced between those who do “mental labor” and those who, relatively mindlessly, work off scripts devised by top management and marketing, often located in some centralized and even undisclosed location.Many jobs in “the middle” are becoming obsolete as efficiency improves and technology advances. Consider that perhaps the most stunningly efficient workplace in America right now is the Amazon warehouse; it was somewhat less efficient, not so long ago, when it employed nearly 200 employees. Productivity and reliability soared as the astute use of robots cut the actual number of persons per warehouse to fewer than twenty. Even the nicer, more homey chain restaurants, such as Panera Bread, are replacing cashiers with kiosks, and the geniuses in the home office in St. Louis anticipate that the more impersonal service will be faster and less error-prone. “Average is over” means, then, that many or most of those Americans who formerly could think of themselves as middle class will become “marginally productive” at best.Other conservatives, such as Joel Kotkin, are writing articles about the “proletarianization” of the middle class. In other words, Americans around the middle and lower end of the income spectrums are becoming less than middle class; many have become chronically jobless dependents or have had their wages, job security, and conditions of work reduced to less than what is required to live comfortably and to reliably support a family. This trend is driven, some say, by the decline in work ethic; by family breakdown, the collapse of neighborhoods, and the disappearance of the common life that was the parish or other form of religious congregation; and by the failures of schools to produce graduates with the basic literacy that is required of almost everyone who works for himself. There is, I think, a tendency for libertarian conservatives to overrate the culture of dependency generated by the welfare state as the cause of the deterioration of middle-class habits and values. Someone might immediately add the sharp drop in the number of unionized industrial jobs. Those jobs were often full of repetitive drudgery but ennobled by the fact that their wages and benefits (not to mention their security) made it possible for a man to earn enough to support a middle-class family. Too many think, not without reason, that the jobs available to them won’t make possible that kind of relational dignity. So they punt on working, and so punt on being responsible husbands and dads. The real problem, of course, is that they lack the skills and competencies required to be productive enough in an economy such as ours, and the jobs available to them pay less than they used to because of the rigors of the market.Meanwhile, as social critic Charles Murray has written, the American “cognitive elite” are smarter and more sensible than ever, with excellent work habits, surprisingly stable family lives, and due attention to what the studies show about health and safety. Our sophisticates may talk the Sixties line—“Do your own thing”—but few of them actually live that way. Murray’s cultural elite, however, remains decisively middle class in terms of work ethic, and is certainly less of a leisure class than the aristocratic WASP elites of our even recent past. It is also middle class in the sense of having little of the old aristocratic sense that privileges that flow from wealth generate responsibilities to care for those less gifted or fortunate than oneself. But these elites are less middle class in the sense of understanding themselves as sharing a way of life with almost all of their fellow citizens.Americans in some ways are more divided by “class”—meaning characteristic manners, morals, and opinions—than ever. There are two ways a “ruling elite” can be connected with those they control. One is the generous paternalism of aristocrats (see Downton Abbey), and the other is the respect that free and equal citizens and workers have for each other. Our meritocracy based on productivity, lacking aristocratic generosity, Christian charity, and egalitarian respect, leaves us rather stunningly disconnected.Tocqueville, ever the keen diagnostician, predicted that the ties binding America’s classes together, from a common Creator to shared civic participation, would weaken over time. He feared that America would end up with a kind of industrial aristocracy, one more intellectually and emotionally detached from common people than the aristocrats of old. This fear, unfashionable among many conservatives and libertarians, seems more warranted than ever. Rich people are now smarter and thinner, while relatively poor people are fatter and stupider, than ever. The “best and brightest” mate with their peers (in part because they don’t have much contact with anyone else in their gated communities in the super-rich zip codes and their exclusive public or private school networks). One class is full of people who have what it takes to flourish as productive participants in the 21st century global marketplace; the other isn’t.Americans are more “middle class” than ever before under Tocqueville’s definition; we have enshrined the idea that freedom is achieved through work. Even the elite class produced by the meritocracy is more bourgeois than aristocratic. But Americans are less middle class qualitatively. There is quite the “leisure gap” that separates our cognitive elite from the bottom half of our population. The former work harder than ever; they are, in fact, workaholics with very little leisure time, especially when raising kids. And they perceive themselves as working harder or having less “free time” than they really do. Meanwhile, ordinary people—increasingly detached from meaningful work and responsible family life (especially men)—have more free time than ever, too much of which they fill with activities that don’t deserve to be called leisure or even recreation. For them, the screen that enables the elite’s productivity is mostly a diversion filled with sports, games, and, sadly, porn.It’s probably more true than ever that we lack the cultivated leisure class that values “the best that has been thought and said” (and painted and sung) for its own sake. By now it would be downright audacious to suggest that one of our most important social projects would be to cultivate those with that kind of leisure, whether earned or given; to harness new technology to aid as many Americans as possible in rising far above merely middle-class life. As most experts understand it, however, our greatest social problem is how to get more and more Americans the skills, competencies, and habits required to flourish or at least make it in the 21st century competitive marketplace. The problem, if you’ll permit some hyperbole, is that too many don’t even have what’s required to be proletarian cogs in a machine, to be reliably, if marginally, productive. And so all the education experts say that we have to work harder to transform all of education around the requirements of the competitive marketplace.Notice, too, that when “reform conservatives” such as Yuval Levin suggest the very modest idea of expanding the child tax credits for struggling working Americans, they’re accused of pandering to the envious and thinking in terms of classes instead of individuals. Someone might say that the future of our country requires increasing both prosperity and fertility, and that those who bear and rear the next generation could be asked to provide, in justice, less of the nation’s GDP. But that kind of thinking, after all, can be criticized by liberals for casting women as breeders for the state and not as autonomous individuals, and by conservatives for casting individuals as citizen subjects of the state. That kind of criticism is at the foundation of the libertarian social and cultural consensus that is beginning to unite our two parties. We’re thinking of ourselves less and less as beings sharing the common relational content that comes with being parents or citizens or even creatures with a given, shared nature.In sum, because capitalism has won, America is both more and less middle-class than ever. And keeping America qualitatively middle-class probably requires attention to what might be called relational institutions—those that shore up, for example, the family and the content of education, that go beyond market-based reforms and the vacuous celebration of “diversity.” It’s no longer enough to say, as some conservatives and libertarians still do, that all we have to do is cut the taxes of “job creators” and eliminate pointless and counter-productive regulations, and the resulting economic growth will benefit it us all. We conservatives, especially, need to abandon the tired and misleading distinction between individualism and collectivism and think of people as both free and relational beings, beings who find out who they are and what they’re supposed to do through worthwhile work with others and through the shared joys and responsibilities of personal love.Here’s my concluding takeaway: America is in some ways more “middle class” than ever, insofar as we have trouble understanding people as more than free beings who work. But being too fixed in this orientation seems to threaten the economic and relational conditions required to be a country united by the shared hopes and values of free beings.
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Published on: July 20, 2014
that's so bourgeoisAmerica’s Middle-Class Myopia
How our cultural fixation on the welfare of the middle class blinds us to a deeper view of human freedom and flourishing.