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The COVID Class War Heats Up

It isn’t only about the virus, and will continue even after the lockdowns are lifted

by
Michael Lind
March 17, 2021
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Harvard University commencement, 2018Paul Marotta/Getty Images

The bitter debate over lockdowns and mask mandates in America is not just another polarizing culture war between left and right. It also has elements of a class war. But it’s not the class war you might think it is.

Some on the populist right and anti-capitalist left interpret the prolonged state lockdowns as a conspiracy by big business against small business. It is easy to see how people could reach this conclusion. Many small firms have been destroyed during the pandemic by government-mandated bans and social distancing rules, while some bigger firms have had an easier time. According to Inequality.org, between mid-March 2020 and February 2021, the wealth of U.S. billionaires grew by $1.3 trillion. But the wealth gains for the rich have come mostly from their disproportionate representation in the stock market, not from their ability to steal customers from small companies that have gone under.

The major debate over lockdowns has been between small-business owners, who form the political base of the Republican Party, and professionals, particularly in the educational, government, and nonprofit sectors, who provide the political base of the Democrats. Compared to the multiracial working-class majority of the United States, both small-business owners and professionals are in fact elite minorities—though clearly less elite and much more numerous than billionaires and the executives of major multinational corporations and banks and media companies and foundations.

As Christopher Caldwell noted in a recent article, the three occupations with the greatest proportion of donors to the Democrats in 2020 were professors, librarians, and therapists, joined by nurses and teachers. Call them the book people. In contrast, Republicans rely on small-business owners, including many of the “boat people” who took part in the local boat parades in favor of Trump in the summer of 2020. The COVID class war is an intra-elite power struggle between progressive professionals and conservative small-business owners—a clash between the book people and the boat people.

In early 2020, the debates over the appropriate responses to the global pandemic did not fall along partisan lines. Lockdowns were initially justified as temporary measures that would last only a few weeks, until hospitals could obtain enough equipment and were safe from overcrowding. The lockdowns would end as soon as state and local governments set up contact tracing programs. But contact tracing proved unwieldly, and the lockdowns became a preferred policy instrument looking forward to the development of vaccines. Lockdowns then became a partisan issue, with Democrats and progressives favoring extended lockdowns, stringent social distancing, and mask mandates that were resisted by many though not all Republicans and conservatives.

The support for “reopening” on the part of the boat people is obviously rooted in self-interest. Small business owners often face personal financial ruin because state and local governments have taken away their customers and sometimes their workers. In contrast, many progressive professionals who worked for government agencies, school districts, universities, nonprofits, large corporations, and banks enjoy formal or de facto tenure, allowing them to work remotely from home and have groceries delivered to them indefinitely. Small wonder, then, that conservative small proprietors have opposed sweeping lockdowns, while progressive professionals are overrepresented among those who argue it is not yet safe enough—if it ever will be—to compel them to go back to their workplaces.

But there is more to the support for strict and extended lockdowns than mere economic self-interest on the part of the book people who do not mind collecting guaranteed salaries while working from home in their public sector, academic, or nonprofit jobs. Ideology also plays a role—in particular, the technocratic political culture of progressive intellectuals and activists.

What I describe in The New Class War as America’s dominant public philosophy of “technocratic neoliberalism” is a synthesis of two distinct traditions: pro-market neoliberalism in economics, and technocratic progressivism in political culture. While economic neoliberalism is a moderate form of right-wing libertarianism, the second strain of this hybrid ideology, technocratic progressivism, can be traced back to the original American progressives of the 1900s. Inspired by Imperial Germany’s Kathedersozialisten (socialists of the professorial chair) and Britain’s New Liberals and Fabian socialists, many early American progressives believed that U.S. society was threatened from above by rapacious capitalists and from below by the ignorant, dangerous masses. What was needed was a third way between plutocracy and mobocracy—a planned society guided from above by highly educated, nonpartisan, altruistic experts informed by the truths of social science.

The COVID class war is an intra-elite power struggle between progressive professionals and conservative small-business owners—a clash between the book people and the boat people.

American progressivism was marked from the beginning not only by its fetishizing of social science but also by an irrational crusading streak inspired by Social Gospel Protestantism. As the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt declared, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Technocratic progressives a century ago pursued projects of top-down social engineering including the prohibition of alcohol, wilderness conservation (later “environmentalism”), eugenics and family planning (later limited to family planning), and urban planning—the latter three enthusiasms inherited by today’s center left. Then as now, progressives were disproportionately professors, many of whom were born into old local gentry families whose social status was threatened by nouveau riche upstarts. In addition, as the historian Dorothy Ross has shown, a striking number of American progressive leaders were the sons of mainline Protestant ministers.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the New Deal was not the sequel to Wilson-era progressivism. From Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic Party was a Jacksonian coalition of white Southerners, family farmers, and members of private sector trade unions (collective bargaining for public sector workers was only authorized on the federal level in the Kennedy years). The rural “courthouse gangs” and the urban working-class machine bosses made sure that the Johnny-come-lately progressives, many of them Ivy League eggheads from the Northeast, had little influence on Democratic policy. The mainstream New Dealers viewed the government as a pragmatic power broker among organized, negotiating interests—“interest group liberalism”—and rejected the progressive idea of government as expert technocracy.

Between the mid-20th century and today, however, college-educated, professional-class progressives went from being the least influential members of a New Deal Democratic coalition dominated by representatives of the urban working class and rural Americans, to being the social base of the Clinton-Obama-Biden Democrats. One factor has been population transfer among the parties, with former elite liberal Rockefeller Republicans joining the Democrats, while former working-class Reagan Democrats have become Republicans.

A more fundamental factor in the rise of the new progressivism that has captured the Democratic Party has been shifting educational and occupational demography. In 1953, private sector union membership peaked at 33% of nonagricultural employment, and 15.48% of Americans lived on farms. Meanwhile, in 1952 only 8.3% of American men and 5.8% of American women had completed four years of college.

Today, less than 7% of American private sector workers belong to labor unions—lower than the number under Herbert Hoover, before the New Deal—with collective bargaining chiefly surviving in public sector occupations like K-12 teaching. While agriculture and related industries now provide 10.9% of U.S. employment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, direct on-farm employment accounts for only 1.3% of U.S. employment today. Meanwhile, in 2019, 35.4% of men and 36.6% of women had completed four years of college.

Because American colleges and universities since the 1900s have been the main carriers of technocratic progressive culture, the expansion of college graduates from a tiny minority to a third of the population has massively expanded the social base for this worldview. As university graduates go into business and finance and media, they bring the technocratic progressive values they learned in college. This explains in part the phenomenon of “woke capitalism” driven by the younger generation in the private sector. At the same time, the nonprofit sector, which shares its early 20th-century culture of technocratic progressivism with the universities, has ballooned in the last few decades, as tech and finance billionaires have poured large fortunes into it.

The same four-part early progressive template tends to be applied by today’s progressives to a host of unrelated issues: delegation of power to technocrats insulated from the public; top-down, comprehensive plans; invention or exaggeration of emergencies to justify radical reforms; and justification of censorship in terms of a state of emergency.

Delegation of power to technocrats insulated from the public. From the 1900s to the 2000s, American progressives have looked for leadership to enlightened, nonpartisan technocrats instead of elected officials whom they fear are corrupted by special interests or demagogues who appeal to the dangerous and ignorant masses. Over the last century, progressives have favored different categories of technocratic saviors. The early progressives put great hope in civil servants; the utopian novel published in 1912 by Colonel Edward M. House, a close adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, is entitled Philip Dru: Administrator: A Story of Tomorrow, 1920-1935. After New Deal Democrats in Congress repeatedly rejected executive reorganization plans that would have maximized the power of the White House and career bureaucrats, progressives transferred their hopes to crusading Supreme Court justices and public interest lawyers like Ralph Nader. Recently, as CEOs have trended Democratic, many on the center left have come to view corporations and social media platforms as powerful, authoritarian bureaucracies that can be mobilized to impose progressive priorities on America, without the bother of persuading citizens, winning elections, or passing laws.

The cult of Dr. Anthony Fauci illustrates the mentality of technocratic progressivism. Indeed, in the past decade progressives have treated three figures who were ostensibly insulated from electoral politics—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former FBI chief Robert Mueller, and now Dr. Fauci—as secular saints, complete with their own votive candles. In each case, these beatified figures were said to be saving America from evil or misguided elected officials and misled majorities of the citizenry.

Top-down, comprehensive plans. As in the era of the progressive planners a century ago, today’s technocratic progressives never favor a simple, limited solution to a social problem if that problem can be used as an excuse for the radical reconstruction of American society from the top down by cadres of freshly minted experts. Many environmentalists, for example, reject two simple and straightforward approaches to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions—a tax on carbon and building more nuclear power plants—in favor of an incredibly complicated, Rube Goldberg scheme, the Green New Deal, in which governments would forward-plan the energy economy for decades on the basis of computer models, directly ban fossil fuels, discourage automobiles and single-family homes and meat consumption, and massively subsidize unreliable, intermittent solar and wind power and biogas generation.

The experiences of Black Americans in dealing with police in many American cities, and the use of incarceration as a one-size-fits-all crime prevention tool, were deservedly brought to public attention following the death of George Floyd. But instead of focusing on practical reforms to policing and court procedures, the center left has used the problem as an excuse for a radical, unrelated program of “equity,” restructuring all social institutions—governments at all levels, corporations, universities, media companies, even panels at conferences and classroom reading lists—so that their demographic composition approximates that of the U.S. population at the last census. Disguised as “anti-racism,” this version of “equity” is a profoundly illiberal form of social engineering which, if taken seriously, would require capping the representation of Jewish Americans in all organizations, publications, and syllabuses at no more than 2%—with Asian Americans capped at 7%—by imposing a system of race-based quotas of the type used in countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

Invention or exaggeration of emergencies to justify radical reforms. The “Extinction Rebellion” movement claimed that human existence on Earth itself is threatened by climate change—something that even credible scientists alarmed by global warming concede is not true. Nor is there any factual basis to claims by critical race theorists that existing statistical disparities among arbitrarily defined racial groups proves that there is massive “systemic racism” against Black and other nonwhite Americans—as distinct from the outcomes of a host of discrete if interconnected causes, including direct discrimination, socioeconomic class, levels of education and training, and different subcultures.

The COVID epidemic is the worst in a century, killing half a million Americans already. But context is necessary in every matter of public policy. According to WebMD, only 16.4% of fatalities have been among those aged 45-64, while under-45 victims amount to only 2.5%. The insistence by the mainstream center left on more than a year of strict on-again, off-again general lockdowns and the denunciation of those who questioned them never reflected “the science.” It merely reflected the nonrational preference of technocratic progressive political culture for more stringent and comprehensive government policies, rather than more limited and selective ones that still would have protected those members of society who were in fact at the greatest risk—namely, people over 65, and those with preexisting conditions that depressed their immune systems.

Justification of censorship in terms of a state of emergency. Today’s 21st-century technocratic progressives use the same excuse of a national or global emergency to shut down debate and dissent on the issues of climate change, race relations, gender identity, and COVID-19 policy: There’s no time to act, false information is dangerous, it’s an emergency, people are dying from [insert threat here—climate change, systemic racism, debating gender definitions, or questioning the efficacy of lockdowns]. It is no surprise that the “woke” apparatchiks at YouTube are pulling videos by doctors who question the “scientific” consensus—the questioning of received consensus through experimental investigation and interpretation of data being the foundations of the scientific method—while Amazon censors books on the pandemic, gender dysphoria in children and teenagers, progressive virtue culture, and other subjects that deviate from the ever-shifting Democratic Party line.

Today’s progressives often argue for canceling and deplatforming experts and pundits on the grounds that opinions deviating from progressive orthodoxy literally threaten the safety of individuals exposed to those opinions. Someone who disagrees with you, even someone who does not robotically recite the woke left formula of the day, is literally assaulting you and deserves to be fired and banned from the public square and erased from historical memory. Many on the right mistakenly attribute this mentality to “cultural Marxism,” which hoped to substitute college students and racial minorities for the working class as the agents of socialist revolution. But this is not 1960s-vintage cultural Marxism; it is 1900s-vintage Social Gospel Protestant progressivism, in a new, secular form.

Absent another lethal pandemic, at some point in the next year or two, thanks to a combination of vaccination programs and herd immunity, lockdowns will be ended by state and local governments that have not already done so. But sooner or later there will be another crisis, and the dominant culture of technocratic progressivism and its adherents will insist it can only be addressed by expert-led, top-down, centralized government allocation of resources or jobs. Once again, whatever the new problem happens to be, we will be told that it is an emergency, that democratically elected officials must defer to the policy views of unelected academics or career civil servants, and that disagreement and debate threaten the survival of America and the personal safety of us all.

Just wait and see.

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.

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