Why the right is eating the left’s lunch

Why the right is eating the left’s lunch

Progressives have abandoned the working class and embraced the oligarchs.

Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin

Topics Politics UK USA World

The Western world is experiencing the most dramatic political realignment since the rise of socialism over a century ago. The driving force then was the rise of the working class, created by the Industrial Revolution. Today, it is the shift to an economy dominated by information industries, technology, finance and media. This new economic order, just like that which arose a century ago, is creating a highly disruptive political dynamic and a shift in historic class allegiances.

The tech platforms, the financial giants and retail mega-corporations have formed a new economic oligarchy. In 2023, six of the world’s eight most-valued companies were tech firms. Apple, which sits at the top of the list, became the first $3 trillion company last year. It has a market valuation just below the GDP of India and the UK, and larger than that of Italy, Russia or Canada.

The oligarchs tend to back the so-called progressive agenda on issues like climate change, culture and immigration. Yet, unlike the progressives of old, they they have little interest in achieving greater income equality or spreading prosperity more widely, as they have become the primary beneficiaries of an increasingly feudalised economy.

The oligarchic agenda also draws support from a portion of the middle and upper-middle classes – those who either service the oligarchs in law or media, or who benefit from expanding government regulations and programmes. Indeed, under US president Joe Biden, most employment growth is now concentrated in government and in largely state-funded healthcare. Biden has also granted government apparatchiks their largest salary raises in half a century.

On the other side of the ledger sit the working class and the private-sector middle class – including shopkeepers, artisans, small property developers and skilled tradespeople. While larger firms continue to attract big capital investments and can cope with big government, smaller firms are imperilled by monopoly power and stringent regulations. Overall, the US middle class has shrunk from 61 per cent of the population to 50 per cent since the 1970s. Prospects for home ownership, good jobs and a secure retirement have all diminished across the West.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional working and middle classes in the West are increasingly alienated from the system. A recent poll found that only 34 per cent of Americans approve of so-called Bidenomics. Another survey found that nearly 70 per cent think the economy is worse now than in 2020. This isn’t just the case in the US. Ordinary workers are also suffering in the UK from stagnant wages, failing productivity and a diminished working-class presence in the woke-dominated national culture. As a consequence of all this, a huge political shift is taking place.

The wealthiest people today are no longer fans of the free market. Instead, they and their businesses are deeply tied to the progressive managerial state. Parties that once identified with working-class interests – like America’s Democrats, Canada’s Liberals, the Australian Labor Party and the UK Labour Party – all increasingly rely on well-educated professionals and the administrative class for support.

By contrast, many parties and movements that were once associated with the upper classes – such as the American Republicans, Canadian Conservatives and the British Tories – increasingly depend on working- and middle-class voters. These voters have been the force behind the rise of Donald Trump, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, France’s Marine Le Pen, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and various right-wing parties in Sweden, Finland, Spain and Denmark.

Three issues are accelerating this realignment – climate policy, immigration and divisions over cultural attitudes. Support for Net Zero is almost universal among establishment institutions. Billionaires like Elon Musk, green capitalists in Silicon Valley and Wall Street investors all seek great opportunities in what US treasury secretary Janet Yellen has called ‘the greatest economic opportunity of our time’ – namely, addressing the so-called climate crisis.

For the bureaucracy, this green drive – largely a product of government edict – provides opportunities to expand its power, as well as to swell its ranks. For them, any expansion of the regulatory state provides both psychic rewards and more power over citizens. This oppressive model emerged most clearly during the pandemic in virtually all major countries, with the exception of Sweden. Lockdowns and other Covid restrictions were celebrated by Lise Kingo, chief of sustainable development at the United Nations, as ‘a fire drill’ for regulating life according to the Net Zero principles of the global elite.

For the working class and much of the middle class, on the other hand, these policies could prove catastrophic. This explains why working-class French gilets jaunes, farmers in the Netherlands and New Zealand, and factory hands in rapidly deindustrialising countries like Germany, are all turning out on to the streets or are voting for anti-establishment parties. In the US, those involved in the material ‘carbon’ economy – truck drivers, loggers, oil workers, farmers, plumbers and construction workers – tilt toward the Republicans. Meanwhile, those professions such as teachers, environmental workers, yoga instructors and psychiatrists overwhelmingly back the Democrats.

These patterns are already reshaping the political landscape. Even in ultra-green Europe, there is now a marked shift. Politicians in the UK, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany are inching away from extreme climate policies. Amid the spectre of job losses in factories and on farms, and despite the relentless propaganda in the media, climate scepticism is growing. Support for the once mighty German Green Party is also in freefall. Even ultra-liberal Berlin turned down a proposal last year that would have forced the city to reach Net Zero by 2030. In November, the Dutch voted for out-and-out climate sceptic Geert Wilders.

Of course, the mainstream media and the governmental bureaucracies will dismiss any scepticism towards Net Zero as extremism. But popular resistance and disinterest cannot be permanently ignored. Just one per cent of US blue-collar workers, according to a new Monmouth poll, consider climate a major concern. Even as the Biden administration spends hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds on green projects, most Americans don’t want to spend any more than $2.50 a week to combat climate change.

Mass immigration has also long been favoured by oligarchs. During the European migrant crisis of the 2010s, German industrialists lobbied for refugees to be let in en masse, as a solution to mounting labour shortages. For the upper classes, open immigration also provides a cheap source of low-end labour, largely in service industries. Migrants also constitute roughly three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce, largely coming from India, Pakistan, the Middle East and East Asia.

In the past, social democrats and trade unions saw mass immigration as a threat to the working class. But in recent years left-wingers have favoured boosting the number of newcomers. Some see refugees as a means to swell the ranks of aggrieved minorities who they expect to support their identitarian agenda. In the UK, Labour has even proposed allowing non-citizens to vote.

Yet here’s the rub: uncontrolled immigration is fuelling resentment throughout the West. Even in traditionally open societies like the Netherlands and Denmark, there is widespread concern that unintegrated immigrants, particularly from the Middle East, are indifferent to the rules and folkways of liberal-democratic societies. Long before Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, France faced a panoply of terror attacks and rioting that turned parts of their cities into no-go zones. In Sweden, the army has had to be called out to deal with a surge of gang killings in migrant-dominated suburbs.

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism is widely seen as a profound threat to liberal societies. The seemingly never-ending ‘pro-Palestine’ demonstrations have allowed anti-Jewish racism to flourish openly in European cities. More worrying still, German and Dutch officials recently uncovered a plot by Hamas operatives to attack Jewish sites in their countries.

All this is feeding anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant parties, as well as neo-fascist movements in countries like Germany, where upwards of 60 per cent of the population support a ban on immigration from Muslim countries – a proportion that has been increasing for a decade. In America, the uncontrolled southern border plays straight into Donald Trump’s re-election drive.

The economic ramifications of mass immigration are significant. The cost of housing and caring for poor refugees has led some countries to find ways to send them elsewhere. The British Tories, for instance, want to process and resettle asylum seekers in Rwanda in central Africa. Yet these costs don’t matter much to the cognitive elites, who are not the ones who find themselves in competition with undocumented migrants for housing, public services and medical care.

In the US, with illegal crossings at record levels, the porous border is alienating not just workers but legal immigrants, too. Working-class voters of all backgrounds now feel abandoned and are loosening ties with Democratic politicians who are unwilling to slow down the massive inflow. The shift can be seen in the predominantly Latino, historically Democratic stronghold of South Texas, which has borne the brunt of Biden’s loosening of the American border.

Cultural issues constitute the third driver of the new realignment. Even many long-time Democrats recoil from their party’s embrace of woke ideology, which seems primed to stoke ever more ethnic tensions.

By dividing the world into ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’, progressives demand that society restructure itself in favour of ethnic minorities and other former out-groups. They assault the idea of merit, essentially undermining the very basis of liberal society. According to this worldview, even criminal violence is excusable if it is committed by someone from a historically marginalised group.

This supposedly anti-racist ideology draws support from cultural arbiters as well as corporate human-resources departments and non-profits, like the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Open Society Foundations and many others funded by the billionaire class.

These attitudes are nonetheless widely rejected by the vast majority of Americans, even among minorities. Blacks and other minorities do not favour defunding the police or abolishing prisons, even as these policies are pushed in their name. Barely four per cent of US Latinos have adopted the term ‘Latinx’, which the academic / media duopoly has applied to them. The idea that people should be judged on their degree of victimhood – based on their gender, race or national origin – for such matters as college admissions and job applications strikes most people as manifestly unfair.

One overlooked factor is the conservative cultural leanings of many immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. According to one recent survey, immigrants are twice as conservative in their social views as the general US public. They also widely reject the identity politics that has become central to the current Democratic belief system. Immigrants also tend to be more religious than American whites. New sex-education lessons, which sometimes include graphic representations of carnal acts, have provoked opposition from the Latino, Asian, black and Muslim communities. Latinos are even more likely to favour restrictions on abortion than other ethnic groups by a 10-point margin, notes Pew.

As Ruy Teixieira and John Judis point out in their important new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, Democrats are now suffering a perceptible erosion of support among the working class, Latinos, youth, women and some African Americans. Even Donald Trump – a man who is regularly labelled ‘racist’ in the mainstream media – won a significantly larger Latino vote, particularly in Florida and Texas, in 2020 than in 2016. He is doing even better among these groups in the 2024 campaign so far. He also shows signs of building on his gains with African Americans, in large part due to the impact of inflation and crime.

Then there are the sentiments of non-Hispanic whites, who still constitute some 57 per cent of the US population (many American Hispanics also identify as white). To a large extent, the progressive left regards this population as toxic. As one Washington Post writer puts it: ‘Because white people are likely to be the majority of voters for at least two more decades, America is in trouble.’

Given these attitudes, it’s no shock that working-class whites have moved to the right in response. In 1968, 52 per cent of white non-college graduates backed the Democrats. Now, barely a third do. Woke ideas may be dominant among the recently college educated, but white youth, particularly males, are clearly headed to the right. After being trounced in this demographic in 2020, Trump is now neck and neck with Biden, and is beating him in some polls. Meanwhile, the unconventional Robert F Kennedy Jr outpolls both Trump and Biden among younger voters. This shift parallels developments in Europe, including Germany, Italy, Finland, Sweden and most recently the Netherlands, where the youth are increasingly backing populist movements.

This shift to the right should not be taken as support for the traditional free-market agenda of conservative parties. It is better understood as a massive, but often ambiguous, pushback against the oligarchic order. Nearly two-thirds of Americans dislike the political status quo, and barely four per cent think the system is working well, according to Pew Research. Nearly two-thirds of American young adults view capitalism negatively – this is the highest share of any age group, 33 percentage points higher than those aged 65 and older. Similar attitudes are common in Europe and other democracies.

Rather than yearning for a return to Thatcherism or Reaganism, younger voters seem more amenable to expanded government. Indeed, with the exception of Argentina, ascendant right-wing parties do not generally want to limit the welfare state, at least for their existing citizenry. In the recent Dutch election, Wilders suggested that limiting migration would help shore up the country’s generous welfare state. Similar sentiments have been expressed by rising figures on the European right, such as Giorgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen. Nor does Trump have any plans to scrap benefits for US citizens or reduce the scope of the state.

Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has urged left-wing parties to focus more on bread-and-butter issues like the cost of living. His own polling shows this is the top concern of voters in US battleground states by a 30-point margin. If blue-collar workers in places like Michigan and Georgia feel there’s nothing much for them in ‘progressive’ policies, then the Democrats will struggle to beat the odious Donald Trump.

Can the Democrats and other formerly left-wing parties make the changes necessary to win back working-class voters? This will be tough to pull off when these parties are financed largely by oligarchs – and when their activists are so wedded to unpopular positions, like identity politics, genderfluidity and climate apocalypticism. But if they fail to make this shift and continue to ignore the voters, then they will only have themselves to blame when the populist right eats their lunch.

Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK USA World


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