You can say one thing for conservatives—they know what they want and they fight to get it. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing for American progressives. They are wimps. When they are not reacting to conservative initiatives, they are hardly acting at all. If it were any more anemic, today’s “progressive movement” would cease to deserve the name, for lack of movement.
I use the term “progressive” in today’s sense, to refer to the mainstream center-left in American politics, which overlaps almost completely with the Democratic party. Within this mainstream, there is a spectrum from centrists like Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, many of whose views would have put them on the Rockefeller Republican center-right a generation ago, to more liberal Democrats (if that is not an oxymoron) like Elizabeth Warren. But just as nearly all Republicans now insist that they are conservatives, so nearly all Democrats today insist they are progressive.
Thus we can rephrase the question—why are Democrats so wimpy, while Republicans are so combative?
The answer, I suggest, has to do with the class composition of the two parties. Republicans are empowered because their ideals tend to coincide with their economic interests. Democrats are feeble because their ideals tend conflict with their economic interests—at least at the elite level.
The Republicans are the party of the white middle and upper classes. Contrary to misconceptions shared by many on both left and right, outside of the South the white poor, along with the nonwhite poor, tend to support the Democrats. As Larry M. Bartels has observed:
As members of a top-middle coalition, Republican voters are not voting against their interests when they oppose the expansion, or support the contraction, of means-tested safety net programs for the poor. Middle-class as well as rich Republican voters make too much money to be eligible for such programs.
It is true that middle-class Republicans would be voting against their interests, if they supported politicians who cut the universal Social Security and Medicare programs on which middle-class Republicans no less than middle-class Democrats depend in their old age. But while Republican politicians like Paul Ryan talk about cutting or abolishing Social Security and Medicare, this has not happened yet. And even Paul Ryan assures today’s voters that the cuts he wants will fall on the next generation, not on them. So it is rational, if selfish, for middle-class Republicans to vote for politicians who carry out their campaign promises to slash spending on the poor, including the white poor, while the same conservative politicians preserve universal middle class programs, for this generation’s voters.
The situation is quite different in the Democratic coalition, where ideals and economic interests are often at odds.
Unlike the Roosevelt Democrats of the New Deal/Great Society era, who were a coalition of the middle and the bottom against the top, the post-McGovern Democrats are an “hourglass” coalition, uniting white Americans with graduate and professional degrees and a minority of the white rich with the white poor and the majority of blacks and Latinos. Elite white Democrats can be further divided into two categories: the rich and the highly-educated professionals whom Joel Kotkin among others call “the gentry.” Let’s call the rich the One Percent Democrats and the highly-educated the Ten Percent Democrats (because in 2012 only 11 percent of the U.S. population has a graduate or professional degree and subtracting the highly-educated among the One Percent leaves Ten Percent). Almost all of the campaign funding comes from the One Percent Democrats, while many Democratic politicians, staffers, pollsters, activists, and intellectuals belong to the Eleven Percent—the rich and/or highly-educated.
Whereas the Republican top-middle coalition tends to unite on the issue of slashing redistribution to the poor, the Democratic top-bottom coalition tends to divide along class lines on questions like raising taxes on the rich or cutting entitlements for the majority. As a matter of abstract idealism, rich and professional-class Democrats may oppose inequality. But their personal and familial economic interests would be adversely affected by progressive reforms that seriously addressed inequality.
For example, wealthy Democrats would take a major financial hit, if capital gains taxes were taxed at the same rate as wage income, instead of the present privileged lower rate. That is why many Democratic politicians who look to Wall Street for campaign donations and in some cases perhaps future private employment have opposed this reform.
Democratic members of the professional-managerial class who are affluent but not rich also have economic interests at odds with the logic of a serious progressive reform agenda.
Upper-middle-class professionals derive their relatively high incomes in part from the rents that are extracted from consumers and business by the monopolistic professional guilds of medicine, the law and the professoriate. If the number of licensed doctors, lawyers and tenured professors in the U.S. expanded dramatically, this would provide cheaper services and more career opportunities for most Americans. But the incomes of progressives in the professional class would decline.
Most Americans are almost entirely dependent on Social Security in their retirement. Only the top tenth of the population has other significant financial assets in retirement, including 401k stock portfolios. Unlike most Americans, rich and gentry-class progressives would benefit little from all but a radical expansion of Social Security. But many professional-class Ten Percenters would pay much more of their income in taxes, if all wage income, and not just the first $113,700, were subject to the Social Security payroll tax—while taxing capital gains as well as wage income to pay for Social Security would crimp the lifestyle of the One Percent progressives who derive most of their income from investments rather than salaries or professional fees.
Education is another example. Most progressives support public education in the abstract. But many Ten Percenters as well as One Percenters to the left of center would rather send their children to class-stratified private schools, or public schools in class-stratified suburbs, rather than send them to urban or rural schools where most of the students come from downscale backgrounds. And—if anecdotal evidence counts—I have heard the fiercest defenders of “legacy preferences” for the children of alumni/alumnae in elite universities from otherwise progressive Democratic graduates of those elite institutions who hope that hereditary privilege will help their progressive offspring win a coveted slot in the entering class.
The professional class benefits from the low wage labor pool produced by a combination of mass low-skill immigration and a low minimum wage. Upscale progressives may fret about inequality and low wages, but how many of them would be willing to pay their nannies and maids a living wage of $15 an hour (or more, in big cities)?
In short, in their narrow economic interests elite Democrats—upscale professionals as well as the truly rich—are closer to elite Republicans than they are to downscale Democratic voters. The dominant role of the Eleven Percent in the Democratic party explains why, even though most Democratic voters are downscale, many Democratic politicians side with Republicans on issues like cutting Social Security of the kind that President Barack Obama has proposed, opposing increases in capital gains taxation, and supporting mass unskilled immigration which, according to Slate’s Matt Yglesias, is a good thing because it keeps down the cost of household servants for the professional class.
I don’t mean to suggest that economic interests always trump social ideals. On the contrary, the center-left has always included dissident members of the economic elite such as the Roosevelts and the Kennedys.
But in the mid-twentieth-century glory days of American progressive-liberalism, upscale progressive “traitors to their class” were only part of a coalition that included populist farmers and militant industrial workers. The farmer-labor coalition had its own sources of funding—they didn’t depend on grants from philanthropic progressive foundations or rich sympathizers. And they had their own member-controlled organizations, including patronage-based local and state political party machines, not elite-created astroturf groups.
There would have been nothing like the New Deal, if the center-left coalition in the 1930s had consisted only of earnest patricians like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, without allies among farmers, union organizers and urban and county party bosses. Today, however, technological and economic change has radically shrunk the number of Americans who are farmers or industrial workers. Their organizations, from party machines to the Grange and labor unions have withered away or, in the case of the unions, have been destroyed by business working with conservatives in government. Some of the children and grand-children of the farmers and factory workers have moved up into the affluent professions, but the majority are now part of a swelling service sector workforce, many of them working for low wages and no benefits in health care, restaurants, recreation and retail. Call them the Service Proles.
Unlike the farmers, who had the Populist Party and the Grange, and the factory workers, who had the unions, the emerging American majority of Service Proles has no powerful organizations of its own, because of the defeat of efforts to organize the hard-to-organize service industries. And the replacement of labor-intensive local party organizations by money-intensive state and national media campaigns as the basis for choosing and electing candidates has eliminated the chief mechanism by which ordinary people once influenced politics in addition to elections, in which the downscale are less likely to vote as it is.
Benevolent donors, idealistic professionals, and reformist foundations sincerely struggle to better the lot of America’s Service Proles—but with the latter as objects of charity, rather than as powerful, independent partners in a political coalition. And given the limits that self-interest imposes on idealism, there simply aren’t enough rich or highly-educated progressives in the top Eleven Percent willing to sacrifice their personal economic interests to their ideals. Far easier to say, with many elite Democrats, “I’m a social progressive but a fiscal conservative”—or, in other words, “Live right and think left.” Far easier, as well, to de-emphasize economic issues in the progressive agenda in favor of other progressive issues including civil rights and environmentalism.
The upshot is that the asymmetry of passion between the spirited right and the weak center-left is likely to continue indefinitely. The top-middle coalition on the right will be energetic and united in its campaign to cut spending on the poor, while the top-bottom coalition on the left will be hesitant and conflicted about more progressive taxation or redistribution. The situation is unlikely to change unless America’s multiplying Service Proles generate leaders of their own, from within their own ranks, and answerable to them.