For many years, Joel Kotkin has analysed what holds back the advancement of the American ‘middle’ class, which for him includes the working class, the self-employed and small business owners. In this pursuit, Kotkin’s willingness to look beyond conventional labels and challenge trendy theories has made him stand out. As a leading geographer, he has long defied fashionable criticisms of suburbs, highlighting how such criticisms are often thinly veiled attacks on the working families who prefer not to live in urban downtowns. Now, taking on a broader role as social commentator, he overturns received wisdom about the elites and the masses in his book, The New Class Conflict.
Right away Kotkin says that, to understand the dynamics of the current political era, we have to ditch traditional notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’. He takes as given that the old corporate ‘plutocracy’ remains behind the Republicans. But he finds that the Democrats — a party that many still uphold as being on the side of the people, or the ‘99 per cent’ — are equally elitist, not least because they are backed by Silicon Valley ‘tech oligarchs’ and Wall Street bankers, among other high-rollers. Indeed, the ‘1 per cent’ seems pretty solidly behind the Democrats: eight of the top 10 recipients of donations from the rich were liberal groups like Emily’s List or Moveon.org, and in the past two presidential elections, the wealthiest areas of the country voted for Obama.
Moreover, much of what is considered the left today has adopted an elitist outlook that is at odds with the masses. As Kotkin notes, ‘self-described progressives frequently side with policies that restrain middle-class upward mobility’. In the past, ‘socialists, liberals and conservatives’ shared the goal of broad-based economic growth, while debating how best to achieve that aim; today, influenced by environmentalism and anti-consumption views, many are opposed to ambitious, large-scale growth, which has been vital for working-class improvement historically. ‘Take up less space, make a smaller impact, consume less’ – that’s the new mantra. ‘For all the trappings of progressivism’, says Kotkin, ‘the current ideology is remarkably degenerative’.
According to Kotkin, a large group of opinion-formers based in the worlds of media, education, government and non-profits has emerged to play a central role in making modern liberalism the predominant ideology. Kotkin calls this group the Clerisy, borrowing a term first used by the British poet Samuel Coleridge in 1830 to describe a group of Anglican church leaders, along with intellectuals, artists and educators, whose mission was to transmit society’s values to the less enlightened, lower orders. In a similar way, today’s Clerisy derives its authority from ‘persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society’, says Kotkin.
There are a number of reasons why these groups constitute a distinct Clerisy, according to Kotkin, and are more than fellow intellectuals he simply doesn’t agree with. For a start, there’s the sheer size: employment in media, academia and foundations has expanded in recent decades, increasing these sectors’ weight relative to others. Furthermore, members of the Clerisy are ‘uniform in worldview, especially in political matters, their approach to environmental issues, and their social values’.