Joel Kotkin makes sense of the confusing US politics around the 2020 presidential campaigning. He writes A class guide to the 2020 presidential election in Orange County Register. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
America’s electorate in 2020 has been dissected by race, region, cultural attitudes and gender. But the most important division may well be, in a nation that has become profoundly unequal, along class lines. All politicians, from Donald Trump to Elizabeth Warren, portray themselves as “fighting for the middle class” and “working families.”
Yet our increasingly neo-feudal America is best broken down into four broad groups — the oligarchs, the clerisy, the yeomanry and the serfs. The oligarchs dominate the economic realm, including control of information media. Below them are sometimes allied members of the clerisy, the well-educated middle class who set the country’s intellectual and cultural context.
Below them are the two most numerous classes — the property-owning yeomanry and, most numerous of all, the expanding new serfdom. Understanding these groups provides a valuable insight into 2020’s realities.
The candidates of the oligarchy
The oligarchs, roughly the top .01 percent, now own the highest share of wealth in almost a century. They can fund nonprofits, media outlets, campaigns and political action committees with almost unlimited largesse. The oligarchy’s wealthiest and most influential members hail from the tech sector, Wall Street and Hollywood. In recent decades they have created a plutocrat-funded Democratic Party backing economically non-threatening but culturally and environmentally liberal figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
At first Joe Biden seemed to be winning the battle for oligarchal support. But his poor performance has opened the field for Kamala Harris, who enjoys long-standing financial ties, both political and through her husband’s law practice, to big media companies, telecom providers, Hollywood and, most of all, Silicon Valley. Harris offers gentry liberal delight — telegenic, smart, female, non-white but without posing the threat to oligarchal power represented by Elizabeth Warren and, even worse, Bernie Sanders.
Trump, of course, also boasts oligarchal supporters from older sectors of the corporate elite — retail chain owners, builders of single-family homes, manufacturing and energy executives. Given the Democratic embrace of the Green New Deal, massive redistribution of income and reversing corporate tax cuts, a lot of old economy money will flow into Dr. Demento’s coffers this time around.
The clerisy’s favorite
What analyst Michael Lind calls the “overclass” — made up of academics, the media and well-paid professionals — represents some 15 percent of the American workforce. This group has done better than the traditional middle class, let alone the working class, but over the past few decades has lost much ground against the oligarchs, who have reaped the vast majority of the economic gains.
Like the rising professional classes of the gilded age, many in the clerisy are offended by the huge wealth of the oligarchs. Harvard’s Elizabeth Warren reprises the role performed by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson over a century ago. Her most radical proposals target not the affluent middle class but the super-rich, notably through anti-trust, while her wealth tax impacts only people with over $50 million. Most of her financial support, not surprisingly, comes from women’s groups and academics. Only Pete Buttigieg, with his base of gay support, comes close to competing in the intersectional sweepstakes.
Warren’s insistence on calling herself a “capitalist” separates her from Bernie Sanders’ full-throated socialism, with its odd Soviet nostalgia. It helps her appealing to those who still have something to protect. Sanders also loses by dint of his race and sex; Warren may have to failed to prove her Native American credentials, but her gender remains an asset at a time when being old, white and male is not the preferred brand among progressives.
The Yeomanry: Trump’s to lose
Most of America sees itself as middle class. But there’s a growing gap between the yeomanry — small business and property owners — and the clerisy as well as a vast, expanding class of permanently landless permanent serfs. Most members of the yeomanry work in the private sector; unlike the clerisy, for them government regulation provides not employment, but a burden.
They gained little from the largely asset-based prosperity of the Obama years but have done far better under Trump Many suburban dwellers and property owners may find Trump personally abhorrent (which is easy to do) but are directly threatened by a Democratic Party anxious to force up worker wages, control rents, boost regulations and raise taxes.
Many of these voters also would not like to give up their private health insurance, which Warren, Sanders and, intermittently, Harris have demanded. As the Democrats go further left, this constituency is likely to line up largely with Trump or simply abstain, given the awfulness of the choices.
Serfs and the “blue tidal wave”
The property-less working class does not tend to vote as much as the yeomanry, but their numbers are growing. Some are déclassé millennials unable to launch full careers or afford to buy houses. Unlike previous generations, they also have been reluctant to start businesses.
Many of the new serf class inhabit the precariat, a modern proletariat lacking the protections of steady work and trade unions. Many participate in the gig economy as Uber drivers, trainers, personal assistants and contract technicians. Most depend on their gigs for their livelihood income, and they are often lowly paid; according to one study nearly half of gig workers in California are under the poverty line.
With little stake in the capitalist economy, the youthful members of the precariat have been drawn to the socialist appeals of Sanders and, increasingly, Warren. The leftist American Prospect sees them driving a potential new “blue tidal wave.”
Yet if economics may impel this class toward the Democrats, two factors may work against them, particularly those who did not attend college and are older. First, low-income workers, including minorities, generally have done better under Trump than under Obama, something the president’s handlers will no doubt emphasize.
The other is support for such things as reparations, health care for the undocumented, open borders and virtually unlimited right to abortion. These positions may not play well in blue-collar communities, particularly in the Midwest, Great Plains and the south. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination cannot win based only on support from the clerical and oligarchal elites but also by winning over the serf vote, which they now are in danger of squandering.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).