Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over could also be called The End of the Middle-Class Nation.
Much has been made of the yawning chasm between left-leaning intellectuals of the modern clerisy and the “deplorable” lower strata of workaday Americans. The chasm is real, of course, and Exhibit A is the Trump phenomenon, which has been so proficiently aided and abetted by overweening Progressive arrogance. What is left to figure out is whether the political muddle in which we find ourselves portends real shifts in our political order.
If we truly were in a new era, we ought to have seen a significant change in tone and tenor on the part of the Left, and some genuine attempts to reinvent progressives as modern representatives of the salt-of-the-earth working poor. This mostly hasn’t happened—witness the Democratic complacency around an expected “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm election. On the other hand, as the 2016 popular vote tallies show, “out of touch” elites were not so very out of touch after all. The core ideologies of identitarian victimization, social welfare provision, and hyper-“nuanced” (read conciliatory) foreign policy resonated with slightly more than half the electorate. In short, the Left may be out touch with most of Main Street USA, but is deeply in touch with University Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, and the rest of the cultural avant-garde.
To an extent, this is natural and perhaps inevitable. In character terms, America has shifted: There is a new working class now, for whom technical savvy and vigilant, tone-sensitive intercourse have replaced the traditional virtues of mechanical competence and grit. The Left has actively promoted this shift in the culture wars, sensibly following the evolution to its logical end—toward an electorate now thoroughly enchanted with nanny-state “protections” like guaranteed employment, universal healthcare, and free college tuition.
This is sad because it is workaday Americans who, despite the Left’s categorical dismissal, still make the country function. Coders and app developers get all the press, but it is still sweating men (and a few women) with nail guns that put roofs over our heads and plucky women (and a few men) with organized lesson plans who educate our children.
I was reminded recently of just how critical (and critically understated) actual working-class expertise is in our modern life. There, in Port William, Kansas, sat a stack of new railroad segments ready for installation; they were marked with elaborate spray-painted codes. What kind of immensely sophisticated background must it take to not only decipher the complex shorthand but to turn the pile into a functional segment of industrial infrastructure? Not to mention the blood blisters and the grime. And yet, if a millennial coder and a grizzled foreman were to pass one another at the gas station (one of the few places where the uber left and hoi polloi overlap), it seems unlikely the one in the worn work boots would get the nod of respect.
The irony is subtle but significant: The Left built itself on a foundation of intellectual labor, or at least intellectuals laboring on behalf of the working masses. Antonio Gramsci, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm couched their historical analyses in terms of working-class concerns, tying them to the socialist mystique of class revolution. This is echoed, albeit in strangely refracted form, by the “Democratic Socialism” of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Karl Marx (who just turned 200 years old, as Daniel J. Mahoney has pointed out to the readers of Law and Liberty) would probably be surprised to see the extent to which his ideology is embraced by today’s bourgeois “socialists” but rejected by the real laboring proletariat.
To their credit, the leftist intellectuals of yesteryear were at least passingly familiar with the difficulties experienced by the working poor. Thompson, for instance, taught adult evening classes to the underemployed at the University of Leeds. My sense is that modern progressive intellectuals are far more fluent in organic hummus recipes than in working-class daily reality.
Here’s a pop quiz taken from the front lines of modern working life that would likely stump our neo-Marxists of today:
Transportation: What is a four-way flat connector?
Tools: What’s the difference between a chop saw and a Sawzall?
Shopping: Where would you find the clothing line “No Boundaries”?
Hobbies: What is a “full choke” and how is different from a “modified choke”?
Style: Carhartts are traditionally what color, and why would they offer a flame-resistant line?
Granted, when we speak of “working class” Americans, they are not a unitary group. The experience of a logger in Montana, on the lowest quintile of the income scale, is different from that of a line cook at a big city restaurant in the Midwest also in the lowest income quintile. The Left, make no mistake, is aware of this and exploits the difference adroitly by pandering to the “minimum wage” impulse of unemployed or underemployed workers at the very bottom.
And to be fair, the “out of touch” critique might be equally leveled at conservative intellectuals as at the Elizabeth Warrens of the world. But right-wingers do not spend so much (or really any) time belittling today’s real working class. Moreover, they tend to promote economic freedom as a means of achieving social mobility instead of government “correctives” toward that end.
Thompson wrote of the “enormous condescension of posterity” toward the lowest paid members of society. The irony is how unlike him is today’s Left. Ostensibly representing the downtrodden against the vested interests of rogue capitalism, it has become much more attuned to identitarianism than to the fate of those who toil to earn their daily bread. If progressives would mitigate their enormous condescension—if they would begin to grapple with the Trump phenomenon—their focus ought to be on Middle America not microaggressions. If they want to understand the frustrated expressions of rejection by ordinary Americans who resent the smarmy elitism of urban leftists, they should leave their blue enclaves and seek to understand what it is to actually be blue-collar.
But it seems, unfortunately, that they already have their portion of the electorate figured out. And the mid-terms are only months away . . .