Everybody has a hot take on the results of the nationwide elections on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Here’s mine: The elections prove the neoliberal restoration is proceeding apace.
By “restoration,” I mean the return to power of establishmentarian Republican-right neoliberals and Democratic-left neoliberals—who together comprise the American ruling elite—at the expense of Democratic progressives and Republican conservatives. Following the populist upheavals of 2016-2020, American politics is reverting to the pattern of 1992-2016, when moderate pro-business Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and moderate pro-business Republicans like the two Bushes alternated in power while squelching the voices of the American majority.
The mechanism by which this happens is the American two-party system. If you think of the factions in the two major parties as separate parties, then we have a de facto four-party system. From left to right, the parties are progressive Democrats, neoliberal Democrats, neoliberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans. While their donor bases are somewhat different, with tech and finance leaning toward Democrats while extractive industries are more Republican, both Democrat and Republican neoliberals are effectively two wings of one party: the neoliberal establishment uniparty. Neoliberal elites tend to move in the same establishment social circles and their children tend to go to the same Ivy League schools. Most of them would feel awkward talking to working-class people of any political persuasion who are not their servants.
The heat and noise of cultural warfare over issues like race and wokeness conceals a broad consensus within the narrow class of people whose needs and opinions are actually represented within the American party system. Business-class Republicans quietly support Planned Parenthood, while business-class Democrats are hostile to unionization (though they may tolerate harmless company unions that act in concert with corporate HR to enforce woke corporate norms). Republican neoliberals quietly, and Democratic neoliberals loudly, favor gay marriage and abortion rights—and also free markets, deregulation, cheap-labor immigration, and offshoring of industry to low-wage countries. They recognize the need for a safety net but prefer to subsidize low-wage workers through programs like the earned income tax credit (EITC)—as opposed to raising the minimum wage or cutting off the supply of low-wage immigrant labor that deprives the least educated American workers of real bargaining power.
It is unsurprising that both left neoliberals and right neoliberals oppose significant increases in taxation on the affluent and rich. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised not to raise taxes on any households that make less than $400,000. Restoring the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, a taxpayer subsidy to the metropolitan rich who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, is a goal of many neoliberal Democrats in Congress.
In contrast to the neoliberals who dominate the U.S. economic and social establishments, Democratic Party progressives and Republican conservatives tend to represent groups which, although not working class, have marginal social and economic power compared to the corporate and bank executives and big law firm partners of the neoliberal establishment. The social base of the unofficial progressive party is found among professionals in the career civil service, K-12 and higher education, the nonprofit sector, and elite media. The social base of the unofficial conservative party is found among small business owners and the self-employed—some of whom are rich, some of them skilled artisans, like plumbers who hire other plumbers.
Professionals with graduate degrees and the self-employed are each around 10% or 15% of the U.S. population (there is some overlap among the groups). These two groups may not be the One Percent, but neither includes a majority of Americans. Both the professionals and the self-employed proprietors rely on credentials—academic diplomas and state occupational licenses, respectively—to boost their incomes and minimize competition in their fields.
The working class itself is best defined by the level of education: the two-thirds of Americans who lack a B.A. If there were a working-class party, to judge from polls, it would be left on economics—supportive of higher Social Security and Medicare benefits and organized labor—and moderately traditional on social issues. But the multiracial American working-class majority has no party, even though it makes up two-thirds or more of the population.
The effective disenfranchisement of two-thirds of the American population by the party system is a recent development. Portions—not all—of the working class used to be represented by private sector trade unions, local political machines, and activist churches within the Democratic Party. But with the exceptions of the Black evangelical churches that are important in Democratic politics, and the white evangelical churches that are a pillar of electoral support for Republicans, these intermediaries that once magnified working-class power have largely ceased to exist or exert much influence within party structures.
Electorally speaking, both progressive populism and conservative populism are instrumental frauds. While the educated professionals who define “progressivism” claim to be pro-union, they would be horrified by the return of powerful private sector trade unions led by the equivalents of Jimmy Hoffa or George Meany—few of whose followers would be likely to share progressive views on late-term abortion or transgender issues or bans on suburban construction and fossil fuels. For them, “union organizing” is a fun activity for liberal arts college graduates looking for a taste of “authenticity” complete with retro Shepard Fairey graphics that will help credential them in their future pursuits as foundation grant-makers, political operatives, or leveraged buyout specialists.
Republican populism is equally fraudulent. So-called Republican populists are mostly just culture-war grifters in the tradition of Patrick Buchanan. They may talk about limiting low-wage immigration or onshoring industry, but when it comes to any policies that might actually raise the wages and bargaining power of American workers—a higher minimum wage, universal health and retirement benefits, new kinds of organized labor—the fake populists of the GOP suddenly go silent or change the subject to noneconomic culture war issues, mostly involving race and sex.
As I’ve noted, the actual base of the pseudo-populist right consists of self-employed Americans—who make up no more than 10% of all working-age Americans—not the vast majority of Americans who work for others, least of all the majority of private sector workers who work for large firms with more than 500 employees. The business model of many Republican conservative small proprietors—owners of hair salons, family farmers dependent on foreign guest workers—relies on cheap and pliant workers. Laws that raise the wages and improve the working conditions of their workers threaten the small proprietors of the right, many of whom do not make all that much money anyway. Today as in the past, the small business lobby is the natural enemy of the underpaid, overworked American worker, of any race or religion.
For their part, genuine working-class Americans tend to pay little attention to politics and view it as something alien that they cannot influence. During elections, Democrats and Republicans try to overcome this entirely reasonable aversion through cynical campaigns to make their potential supporters terrified of the other side. Democrats try to win the votes of working-class Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans by claiming that Republicans are white nationalists seeking to overthrow democracy and jail or deport them. In 2012 then-Vice President Biden said of Republicans to a multiracial audience in an affected Black idiom, “They’re gonna put ya’ll back in chains.” Republicans win the votes of their working-class white base by claiming (more plausibly) that progressives hate their traditional religious and patriotic values and are bent on desecrating their symbols and reeducating their children.
Of the four de facto parties, two—neoliberal Democrats and neoliberal Republicans—are natural governing parties, while the other two—progressives and conservatives—are countercultures that cannot effectively govern, even when their politicians win elections. In filling government offices, the two neoliberal factions can draw on the same overlapping pool of elite “in-and-outers.” When their party is in power, they serve in the government. When their party loses power, they migrate to lobbying firms, corporations, banks, and think tanks to make money and pad their resumes until their party returns to power in an election cycle or two. Needless to say, the reserve army of in-and-outers—whether centrist Democrats or moderate Republicans—consists of careerists who do not question neoliberal establishment pieties. Those who do are weeded out quickly.
As anti-establishment countercultures, progressives and conservatives lack the deep benches available to left and right neoliberals. Progressives who continue to insist that capitalism is the real enemy are not going to be hired by Uber or McKinsey after working in a Democratic administration. Neither are conservatives who denounced Planned Parenthood or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training by corporate HR departments.
Progressive appointees tend to come from the nonprofit or academic sector. In Democratic administrations, they are hopelessly outnumbered and easily outmaneuvered by in-and-outers from the revolving door between the Democratic Party, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street.
The situation is even worse for conservatives. Despised and ostracized by establishment law and lobbying firms, corporations, banks, and think tanks, zealous conservative appointees when out of office tend to make a living in the commercial counterestablishment media of Fox and Breitbart. During the Trump years, when the trash-talking Fox commentators in his administration came up against the buttoned-down establishmentarian Republican appointees, the result was usually a rout of the amateurish conservatives. The Never Trump movement, while entirely irrelevant to Republican electoral politics, was a very powerful intra-elite instrument designed to make it impossible for Trump to govern by denying him access to the Republican bench by threatening anyone who took a job in his administration with social and professional ostracism. It worked.
Which brings us to the meaning of the recent elections.
For a brief moment in 2015-2016, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeared to offer real alternatives to a future of neoliberal techno-oligarchy under alternating Clintons and Bushes. Sanders was a Democratic socialist whose program was more or less a restoration of pro-labor, pro-social insurance New Deal liberalism—not socialism, but still too radical for post-’80s Democratic and Republican neoliberals. Trump broke with right-neoliberal orthodoxy not only on trade and immigration but also on the need to tax the rich and protect Social Security and Medicare from cuts.
The challenges to establishment neoliberalism from the left and the right soon failed. Sanders lost the 2016 presidential primary contest to Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of neoliberalism. Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton and won only because of the Electoral College. But congressional Republicans under Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell ensured that none of Trump’s deviations from Bushite orthodoxy would get any traction, while pushing through their main goal—a tax cut for the rich and corporations. Trumpian “populism” expired virtually from the moment that Trump assumed office.
Not that Trump cared. He delegated power to “Javanka” and was more interested in pro-wrestling-style media beefs and running for reelection than governing. Even if he had been a serious challenger to neoliberalism, his personal circle—Rudy Giuliani, Michael Lindell, Sebastian Gorka—was easily thwarted by the mainstream Republican in-and-outers who joined the administration in order to “moderate” it—that is, subvert it—from within, while loudly broadcasting their intentions to the media to avoid being blackballed.
In the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, most of the presidential candidates campaigned as progressives, as though they were running for president of a university social justice league. Alarmed, neoliberal Democratic bigwigs from Obama down rallied behind Joe Biden, the least progressive plausible candidate, and pressured other progressives to end their campaigns to block Sanders and clear the way for a Biden coronation.
Unexpectedly, in its first year the Biden administration was not the neoliberal restoration that many people (including yours truly) expected. Instead of Clintonian or Obama-style triangulation, marginalizing the left while reaching out to Republicans, Biden turned over most areas of public policy to progressives, many of them with views well to the left of most Democrats, to say nothing of most Americans. Even though Democrats lost seats in the House and relied on Vice President Kamala Harris as tie-breaker in a 50-50 Senate, the Biden administration acted as though the 2020 election had delivered a mandate for various kinds of boutique campus-NGO leftism. The administration declared a national “gender policy,” promoted a radical and expensive Green New Deal, and shifted toward a much more lenient approach to illegal immigrants while focusing on manipulating the Earth’s temperature in 2100 CE and replacing the term “mother” with “birthing person.”
Focused on their long-term goals, progressives neglected the more pressing concerns of voters upset with pandemic-induced inflation and supply chain shortages, chaos at the southern border, and the biggest spike in homicides in decades, in the apparent belief that they had an inherent right to rule. The most likely outcome of progressive arrogance and overreach will be Republican recapture of one or both houses of Congress in 2022 and perhaps a Republican president in 2024. Pundits are now speculating that the surprise victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race shows the way to a possible synthesis of Bush-style establishment-right neoliberalism and Trumpian “populism.” Yet there is nothing remotely Trumpian about Youngkin, a former Carlyle Group financier who exploited the culture war issue of progressive ideology in public schools to win a convincing victory in a suburban blue state.
The combination of neoliberal economic orthodoxy and inflammatory culture-war politics that propelled Youngkin to victory is Bushian, not Trumpian. In 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush, advised by Lee Atwater, used the Willie Horton issue and the Pledge of Allegiance to portray his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime and unpatriotic. In 2004, George W. Bush, advised by Karl Rove, cynically adopted opposition to gay rights and gay marriage as a culture war issue to mobilize working-class Republican voters. Neither man is remembered as a particular friend of the American working class.
Trump did not invent the techniques of right-wing culture war; Bush Republicans perfected it long ago. What made Trump unusual were his deviations—during the campaign, though not during his bumbling, disjointed presidency—from Republican neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Unless Youngkin has successfully disguised his pitchfork-wielding populist impulses through a long career in the establishment, he and similar post-Trump Republicans are more likely to serve up the old menu of Chamber of Commerce Republicanism with a side helping of culture-war electoral politics.
Of the two coalitions—the Democratic coalition of neoliberals and progressives and the Republican coalition of neoliberals and pseudo-populist petty bourgeois conservatives—the Republican coalition seems likely to continue its winning ways in the near future. The reason is that progressives frighten more Americans than conservatives do.
Progressives are cultural aggressors. They favor radical social engineering to change America and the world for the better: racial quotas in all jobs and school curricula; diversity training and indoctrination for all; massive increases in immigration; taking down statues of historic figures who do not meet today’s woke standards and changing the names of institutions named for them (goodbye, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs); hostility to nonprogressive religious traditions; banning fossil fuels; forcing people out of their cars into mass transit and replacing suburbs with high-density apartment blocks; discouraging meat consumption. In every area of American social life, no matter how minor, there are progressive NGOs and university professors and their donors pushing some radical transformation that most Americans either don’t care about or strongly oppose.
The American right, in contrast, has been well-described by Grover Norquist as the “leave-us-alone” coalition. Unlike progressives, who tend to be a homogeneous counterculture—those who defend critical race theory may well be into veganism and mass transit and defunding the police, too—the right is not a single group, but simply the sum of various occupations and subcultures that feel threatened by aggressive, top-down progressive social engineering programs: some who do not believe there are more than two genders, others who like their suburban single-family neighborhoods, and yet others who enjoy a good, juicy steak or cheap gasoline to power their campers and ATVs, or heat their homes in the winter.
This makes it pretty easy for Bush-style Republican establishment neoliberals to win elections. At any given moment, irritating progressive crusaders are aggressively alienating some large segment of the American electorate and provoking angry backlashes that establishment Republicans can easily exploit. The losers are the centrist Democratic neoliberals, who have to triangulate between the progressive zealots who increasingly own the party’s NGO and media complex and moderate swing voters, which is a much more difficult task.
For a while it appeared that the shrinking share of the non-Hispanic white population could counteract the alienating effects of unpopular progressive crusades and guarantee an inevitable Democratic majority. But most African American and Hispanic voters are turned off by the progressive cultural agenda. Most Black Americans do not want to “defund the police.” Most Hispanic Americans reject the term “Latinx.” Both groups are more inclined to be skeptical about government-mandated vaccines than to fetishize them.
This may explain why, in the last three national elections, Republicans have picked up more and more Hispanic and Black voters (in the case of Black voters, from a very low base) while Democrats have gained elite, college-educated whites, the true social base of progressivism. Sharing in Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia were Winsome Sears, a Black female Republican elected as lieutenant governor, and Jason Miyares, a Hispanic Republican elected as attorney general. The theory peddled for the last decade by most Democratic pundits and academics that Republican partisanship is motivated by white resentment of nonwhites lies in smoldering ruins, as does the theory that Trump-style economic populism is a necessary instrument for Republicans to win elections.
The restoration of Bush-style Republicanism bodes ill for the American working class, who cannot expect anything more than a few tax credits tossed at them by a Republican coalition united by hostility to worker power on the part of big business and small proprietors alike. But the Republicans are at least helped by the fact that their party does not openly despise or want to change the values and traditions of socially conservative members of the working class.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.