Much is said about class warfare in contemporary America, and there’s justifiable anger at the impoverishment of much of the middle and working classes. The Pew Research Center recently dubbed the 2000s a “lost decade” for middle-income earners — some 85% of Americans in that category feel it’s now more difficult to maintain their standard of living than at the beginning of the millennium, according to a Pew survey.
Blaming a disliked minority — rich business folks — has morphed into a predictable strategy for President Obama’s Democrats, stripped of incumbent success. But all the talk of “one percent” versus “the ninety nine percent” misses new splits developing within both the upper and middle classes.
There is no true solidarity among the rich since no one is yet threatening their status. The “one percent” are splitting their bets. In 2008 President Obama received more Wall Street money than any candidate in history, and he still relies on Wall Street bundlers for his sustenance. For all his class rhetoric, miscreant Wall Streeters, particularly big ones, have evaded big sanctions and the ignominy of jail time.
Obama enjoys great support from the financial interests that benefit from government debt and expansive public largesse. Well-connected people like Obama’s financial tsar on the GM bailout, Steven Rattner, who is also known as a vigorous defender of “too big to fail.”
The “patrician left” — a term that might have amused Marx — extends as well to Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists and techies have opened their wallets wider than ever before for the president. Microsoft and Google are two of Obama’s top three organizational sources of campaign contributions. Valley financiers are not always as selfless as they or their admirers imagine: Many have sought to feed at the Energy Department’s bounteous “green” energy trough and all face regulatory reviews by federal agencies.
The Republicans have turned increasingly to those patricians who depend on the more tangible economy. If you make your living from digging coal or exploring for oil wells, even if you don’t like him, Romney is you man. This saddles the GOP with the burden of being linked to one of America’s most hated interests: oil and gas companies. Almost as detested is the biggest source of Romney cash, large Wall Street banks. (In contrast, Democratic-leaning industries, such as Internet-related companies, enjoy relatively high public support.)
With the patriarchate divided, the real action in the emerging class war is taking place further down the economic food chain. This inconvenient reality is largely ignored by the left, which finds the idea of anyone this side of Bain Capital supporting Romney as little more than “false consciousness.”
Obama’s core middle-class support, and that of his party, comes from what might be best described as “the clerisy,” a 21st century version of France’s pre-revolution First Estate. This includes an ever-expanding class of minders — lawyers, teachers, university professors, the media and, most particularly, the relatively well paid legions of public sector workers — who inhabit Washington, academia, large non-profits and government centers across the country.
This largely well-heeled “middle class” still adores the president, and party theoreticians see it as the Democratic Party’s new base. Gallup surveys reveal Obama does best among “professionals” such as teachers, lawyers and educators. After retirees, educators and lawyers are the two biggest sources of campaign contributions for Obama by occupation. Obama’s largest source of funds among individual organizations is the University of California, Harvard is fifth and its wannabe cousin Stanford ranks ninth.
Like teachers, much of academia and the legal bar like expanding government since the tax spigot flows in the right direction: that is, into their mouths. Like the old clerical classes, who relied on tithes and the collection bowl, many in today’s clerisy lives somewhat high on the hog; nearly one in five federal workers earn over $100,000.
Essentially, the clerisy has become a new, mass privileged class who live a safer, more secure life compared to those trapped in the harsher, less cosseted private economy. As California Polytechnic economist Michael Marlow points out, public sector workers enjoy greater job stability, and salary and benefits as much as 21% higher than of private sector employees doing similar work.
On this year’s Labor Day, this is the new face of unionism. The percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped from 24% in 1973 to barely 7% today and in 2010, for the first time, the public sector accounted for an absolute majority of union members. “Labor” increasingly means not guys with overalls and lunch pails, but people whose paychecks are signed by taxpayers.
The GOP, for its part, now relies on another part of the middle class, what I would call the yeomanry. In many ways they represent the contemporary version of Jeffersonian farmers or the beneficiaries of President Lincoln’s Homestead Act. They are primarily small property owners who lack the girth and connections of the clerisy but resist joining the government-dependent poor. Particularly critical are small business owners, who Gallup identifies as “the least approving” of Obama among all the major occupation groups. Barely one in three likes the present administration.
The yeomanry diverge from the clerisy in other ways. They tend to live in the suburbs, a geography much detested by many leaders of the clerisy and, likely, the president himself. Yeomen families tend to be concentrated in those parts of the country that have more children and are more apt to seek solutions to social problems through private efforts. Philanthropy, church work and voluntarism — what you might call, appropriately enough, the Utah approach, after the state that leads in philanthropy.
The nature of their work also differentiates the clerisy from the yeomanry. The clerisy labors largely in offices and has no contact with actual production. Many yeomen, particularly in business services, depend on industry for their livelihoods either directly or indirectly. The clerisy’s stultifying, and often job-toxic regulations and “green” agenda may be one reason why people engaged in farming, fishing, forestry, transportation, manufacturing and construction overwhelmingly disapprove of the president’s policies, according to Gallup.
Obama supporters sometimes trace the loss of largely white working-class support — even to the somewhat less than simpatico patrician Romney — to “false consciousness.” A recent Daily Kos article, charmingly entitled “The Masses are Asses,” chose to wave the old bloody shirt of racism, arguing that whites “are the single largest, and most protected racial group in this country’s history.”
Ultimately this division — clerisy and their clients versus yeomanry — will decide the election. The patricians and the unions will finance this battle on both sides, spreading a predictable thread of half-truths and outright lies. The Democrats enjoy a tactical advantage. All President Obama needs is to gain a rough split among the vast group making around or above the national median income. He can count on overwhelming backing by the largely government dependent poor as well as most ethnic minorities, even the most entrepreneurial and successful.
Romney’s imperative will be to rouse the yeomanry by suggesting the clerisy, both by their sheer costliness and increasingly intrusive agenda, are crippling their family’s prospects for a better life. In these times of weak economic growth and growing income disparity, the Republicans delude themselves by claiming to ignore class warfare. They need to learn how instead to make it politically profitable for themselves.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.