The left's changing personality: How progressives are changing from professionals to populists

Elizabeth Warren, hero of the left, may be a professor. But her rhetoric is not what you'd hear in a faculty lounge

By Michael Lind
Published January 29, 2015 12:00PM (EST)
  (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
(Reuters/Adam Hunger)

Nobody is talking about it, but the professions are collapsing.  And as they collapse, they will take a certain kind of center-left progressivism with them. There will be some sort of liberal left in the future, but it probably will not resemble the school of progressivism familiar from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, a school rooted in the professional class.

For more than a century, the American upper middle class has been divided between “professionals” and “managers.”  The elite professions—doctors, lawyers and professors—have shared several characteristics.  Although professionals may choose to specialize, they are essentially generalists.  The ideal professional is self-employed or works with partners, instead of working in a corporate or public bureaucracy.  Doctors and lawyers, though not professors, are paid fees for specific services to specific clients, not wages.  Membership of the profession is limited, both by requirements that practitioners obtain expensive credentials and by politically influential cartels—the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Bar Association (ABA).  The credentials and the cartels artificially restrict the supply of practitioners, driving up their fees.

Contrast the managers.  While some are self-employed, most work in corporate hierarchies.  They have far less control over their schedules and jobs than independent professionals.  Within the firm, they usually specialize in finance or human resources or marketing.  They are paid wages and sometimes stock options, tying their remuneration to the success of the firm and the industry.  The educational requirements of managers are lower than those of professionals.  Many do well with B.A.s, and the MBA program takes only two years.  There is no cartel for managers like the AMA or ABA, and nothing like state bar or medical licensing exams.

The differences in working conditions are reflected in different worldviews.  American academics and lawyers, and to some degree doctors, tend to see themselves as having special professional responsibilities to the public as a whole, rather like civil servants, in a way that American business executives do not. This claim to the exercise of a public trust justifies the privilege of self-regulation by professional associations.

In the 20th century, some services like goods production and entertainment came to be industrialized and provided by corporations, while others like medicine and law and higher education continued to be supplied by generalist professionals working alone or in partnerships.  Many doctors would use the same hospital, or as many professors would inhabit the same campus, without being employees in the sense that someone who works for IBM is an IBM employee.

All of this is changing, as a result of technology and new business models.

The Internet combined with advanced software is eliminating one traditional role of doctors and lawyers:  accessing information buried in medical treatises or rows of legal volumes.  The need for informed interpretation remains.  Even so, anyone with access to WebMD and similar websites is pretty well equipped for self-diagnosis for many simple maladies.  And LegalZoom and similar firms have software that can help people write their own wills and other documents.

What remains are legally enforced cartels and monopolies in medicine and the law, governing who can authorize prescription drugs and who can argue cases in court.  But sooner or later these guild monopolies may come to be viewed as anachronistic and eradicated by legislation.

The professions will be replaced, not by universal amateurism, but by the extension of the corporate model to the fields of medicine, law and perhaps higher education. Doctors will be replaced by medical services corporations, lawyers by legal services firms. There will continue to be legal standards and regulations, but the subject of regulation, as in other industries, will be the firm as a whole, not the independent practitioner.

In American medicine, the transition is already well underway. American physicians are rapidly abandoning private practice for salaried jobs with hospitals and other employers.  In 2014, according to the AMA, 60 percent of family doctors and pediatricians and 50 percent of surgeons were salaried employees.

The professoriate is in an advanced state of decay.  The tenured university professor may soon go the way of the medieval knight and the 18th century dancing master.  The number of nontenured faculty teaching at accredited colleges and universities has risen from fewer than half in 1975 to nearly two-thirds today.  Many of these teachers are poorly paid adjuncts without benefits.  The class division (no pun intended) between academic sweatshop workers and privileged tenured faculty is not likely to last. Whether higher education is nominally public, nonprofit or for-profit, its transition from a service provided by largely independent professionals to an industrialized sector seems inevitable.

For the most part, consumers will probably benefit from the industrialization of the former professions, in the same way that they benefited from the replacement of village blacksmiths by more efficient industrial enterprises.  But one consequence may be the annihilation of the social elite that has underpinned capital-P Progressivism in the U.S. since the late 19th century.

Early 20th century Progressives tended to have backgrounds in the mainline Protestant clergy, the professoriate and the law.  Woodrow Wilson, a professor who was the son of a Protestant pastor, was typical.  From Professor Wilson to Professor Obama, academics and also lawyers have provided much of the leadership and support for left-of-center causes.  The expansion of the progressive professoriate compensated for the decline of the liberal Protestant clergy.

Elite professionals have long been associated with a distinct kind of technocratic progressivism—believing in research-informed nonpartisan problem-solving, carried out by administrators or judges shielded from politics and invested with considerable discretion.  It is no accident that the ideal public servant of this kind of progressivism—the highly educated, apolitical expert—is a kind of idealized self-image of the professional.

The disinterested, technocratic progressivism of the American professional elite has always had to share the left-of-center part of the American political spectrum with other, less upscale political traditions, like social democratic labor unionism and Jeffersonian and Jacksonian populism.  In the late 20th century, the New Democrats associated with Bill Clinton and Al Gore represented, among other things, a rebellion of the expanded professional class created by the GI Bill and student loans against the “Old Democrats” of the farmer-labor alliance, led by less-educated union bosses and rural and small-town populist politicians.  By reviving the dusty old term “progressive” and styling themselves as “Wilsonians” rather than “Rooseveltians,” the New Democrats signaled their identification with early-1900s elite Progressives rather than with mid-century New Deal “liberals” identified with organized labor and Southern and Western populism.

As the social base of elite progressivism is wiped out by technology and corporatization, it is safe to predict that these rival traditions of labor liberalism and populism will become more powerful on the center-left, if only by default.  The next American center-left will probably speak in the emotional, streetwise accents of populism rather than in the measured tones of technocratic, professional-class expert progressivism.  Even if the populist, like Elizabeth Warren, is a professor.

Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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