Most of us, I imagine, are not consistent political optimists or pessimists. We instead react – and usually overreact – to the short-term political trends before us, unable to look beyond the next election cycle and its immediate impact on ourselves and our political movements. I remember, immediately after the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, a particularly voluble conservative blogger arguing that it was time for conservatives to “curb stomp” the left, to secure the final victory over liberals and Democrats. Four years later, of course, a very different political revolution appeared to be at hand, and some progressives made the same kind of ill-considered predictions. Neither permanent political victory has come to pass, with Democrats enjoying structural advantages in presidential elections and Republicans making hay with a well-oiled electoral machine in Congressional elections. How long those conditions persist, who can say.
But partisan politics are only a part of the actual political conditions that dictate our lives. Politics, culture, and economics fuse together to create our lived experience. And that experience is bound up in vague but powerful expectations about success, what it means, and who it’s for. There is a future that appears increasingly likely to me, a bleak future, and one which subverts traditional partisan lines. In this future, the meritocratic school of liberalism produces economic outcomes that would be at home with laissez faire economic conservatives, to the detriment of almost all of us.
The future that I envision amounts, depending on your perspective, to either a betrayal of the liberal dream or its completion. In this future, the traditional foundations of liberalism in economic justice and redistribution are amputated from the push for diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual identity, and related issues. Our elite institutions such as exclusive universities, large corporations, and political bodies come to recognize that the dearth of diversity within their halls makes the lie of meritocracy too obvious. It’s not difficult, after all, to look at the Fortune 500 companies and note the great paucity of women and people of color in the executive ranks. This lack of diversity is clear on its face. This is an embarrassment to these institutions, and helps to demonstrate that the great American story of equal opportunity and the self-made man is a myth. This obvious injustice prompts scrutiny, criticism, complaint, even while these institutions have demonstrated their ability to resist reform.
In the future I imagine, these elites essentially “get smart” about their lack of diversity. They endeavor to make their institutions more diverse, not out of any principled attachment to the moral case for diversity, but out of a self-protective need, an understanding that they have to get more diverse in order to preserve the status quo. They thus set about to achieve superficial diversity within their ranks. They probably won’t ever achieve true proportional representation, but will improve sufficiently to quell much of the criticism they’ve engendered. Note that this doesn’t require conspiracy or coordination; it could simply happen over time through the increasing prevalence of diversity discussions in our national conversation, as the savvier among our elite classes realize that they can’t ignore these criticisms forever.
It’s essential to say that this new diversity still represents a terribly bad deal for most people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. The entire purpose of the elite-building mechanisms of our country is to keep that elite small. There’s only room for 1% of people within the 1%, after all. So even if we achieve perfectly proportional racial and gender representation in our elite strata, we’re still talking about only a tiny percentage of these groups enjoying the fruits of their elite status. But those at the top in our country will still point to the diversity within their institutions and insist that this shows that anyone can get ahead in the United States. The social defense of our system will thus be strengthened, despite the fact that this greater diversity will do nothing to address the received advantage and chance that play a large role in ascending to the top. This increasing superficial diversity accelerates an already-existing trend: the tendency of elites to espouse cultural and social liberalism detached from their foundations in economic justice.
Raised in an environment of constant competition to climb the status ladder, from preschool to high school honors society to Stanford to throwing sharp elbows in their entry level jobs, the winners in our social hierarchy are conditioned to believe in their own merit – that they are deserving. The obvious counterpart to this belief is that those who are not winners are undeserving. Such feelings become socially reinforced; the more that this attitude becomes a part of elite culture, the harder it is for individual members of that strata to differ with it. With liberalism increasingly indifferent to economic security and redistribution for all, the ideology becomes defined by the cultural and social cues that are already obvious: an idiosyncratic political vocabulary derived from cultural studies and online media, attachment to certain communally-celebrated pop culture, sexual libertinism, and an obsessive interest in weighing the moral value of all other people through a narrow political lens. Disconnected from the economic underpinnings that were once its foundation, the broad liberal coalition becomes even more associated with vague tribalism, a political movement reduced to a social circle.
Conservatism, of course, will endure, and continue to battle for control. With liberals less and less likely to engage in the kind of economic outreach that has traditionally united voters from across various demographic groups, conservative demagogues become more willing to engage in economic populism, reaching out to those left behind in the contemporary American labor market. Witness Donald Trump’s general indifference to conventional economic conservatism, his willingness to talk about regular people getting left behind, his vague waves to shared prosperity. This populism is empty, pure political posturing, and will be for the demagogues of the future. But for millions of people who are desperate to be told that their economic problems are real, to have a politician reassure them that relief is possible, this message will resonate. In the habit of conservative demagogues, they will marry this message to nativism and coded racism, telling their followers that their economic problems are caused by those who are unlike them. The case for class solidarity across racial and ethnic lines becomes even harder to make.
Nativist demagoguery, in turn, will simply deepen the liberal elite’s distaste for talking about economic issues as such. After all, it will be crypto-racists talking about economic populism the most. With politics devolving further and further into pure tribalism, this type of guilt by association becomes preeminent. The basic political argument, in such a landscape, amounts to “you sound like the bad guys.” Politics will continue to play out cyclically, with one party or the other winning presidential and congressional victories. But with conservatives paying only token lip service to economic populism and liberals increasingly uninterested in agitating for wide scale redistribution, the economic elite will have secured victory no matter what the outcome of any given election. The great promise of shared abundance, expressed most powerful and achieved most significantly in the great American labor and socialist movements of the early 20th century, will be dead.
As the writer Dan O’Sullivan once put it on Twitter, “Our political future: a snakepit of insane fascists on one side, & on the other, a Wall Street party that’s culturally liberal & nothing more.” Whenever I talk about this, I get people saying “lol that’s already here!” But their cynicism reveals a deeper naiveté. First, they overestimate how much work has actually been done to diversify the elite, which remains stubbornly male and white. Second, they don’t recognize how much worse this can all get. It can always, always get worse. Today, there is a least an ostensible connection between the liberalism of diversity and the leftism of equality. Tomorrow, even that thin thread might be cut forever, and so much the worse for us.
Traditionally, both equality and diversity have been important to liberalism. There are obvious reasons for this connection. To begin with, the persistent inequality and injustice that afflict people of color and women in our society are powerfully represented in economic outcomes, with black and Hispanic Americans and women all suffering from clear and significant gaps in income, wealth, and similar measures of economic success. Economic justice is therefore inseparable from our efforts to truly combat racial and gender inequality. What’s more, the moral case for economic justice stems from the same foundations as the case against racism and sexism, a profound moral duty to provide for all people and to ensure that they live lives of material security and social dignity. The traditional liberal message has therefore been to emphasize the need for diverse institutions and economic justice as intertwined phenomena.
In recent years, however, the liberal imagination has become far less preoccupied with economic issues. Real-world activism retains its focus on economic outcomes, but the media that must function as an incubator of ideas, in any healthy political movement, has grown less and less interested in economic questions as such. Liberal publications devote far less ink, virtual or physical, to core issues of redistribution and worker power than they once did. Follow prominent liberals on Twitter, browse through the world of social justice Tumblr, read socially and culturally liberal websites. You might go weeks without reading the word “union.” Economic issues just aren’t central to the political conceptions of many younger liberals; they devote endless hours to decoding the feminism of Rihanna but display little interest in, say, a guaranteed minimum income or nationalizing the banks. Indeed, the mining of pop cultural minutia for minimally-plausible political content has become such a singular obsession within liberal media that it sometimes appears to be crowding out all over considerations.
More disturbingly, it’s become common for economic justice issues to be posed as a distraction from feminist and anti-racist practices. In debates about reparations, for example, arguments that similar positive impacts on black Americans could be achieved through broader redistributive programs are frequently represented as an “All Lives Matter”-style derailing, a failure to “center” fighting racism specifically as the central cause of 21st century liberalism. The ugly Hillary Clinton – Bernie Sanders primary race has devolved, at least within the liberal media, into a stark economics-vs-identity fight, with Clinton’s supporters dismissing the economic reforms of Sanders as a “white dude thing.” The Clinton campaign has deliberately stoked this divide, making broad waves to vague cultural liberalism – having Clinton meet with the stars of Comedy Central’s Broad City, for example, or clumsily using Millennial slang – while undermining the actual substance of economic equality, such as in Clinton’s attacks on single payer health care systems and universal free college. For the long-term health of a functioning political coalition, this is catastrophic, suicidal. But it serves the Clinton political machine, and it suits the needs of Clinton’s many backers within the economic elite. And the most consistent argument you hear for Clinton’s candidacy – that a woman president is such a symbolically important victory that representation outweighs substance – is itself the triumph of representational thinking over mass thinking.
As The American Conservative’s Noah Millman once wrote, “the culture war turns politics into a question of identity, of tribalism, and hence narrows the effective choice in elections. We no longer vote for the person who better represents our interests, but for the person who talks our talk, sees the world the way we do, is one of us…. And it’s a good basis for politics from the perspective of economic elites. If the battle between Left and Right is fundamentally over social questions like abortion and gay marriage, then it is not fundamentally over questions like who is making a killing off of government policies and who is getting screwed.” The point is not that those culture war questions are unimportant, but that by treating them as cultural issues, our system pulls them up from their roots in economic foundations and turns them into yet another set of linguistic, symbolic problems. My argument, fundamentally, is that we face a future where strategic superficial diversity among our wealthy elites will only deepen the distraction Millman is describing. Such a future would be disastrous for most women and most people of color, but to many, would represent victory against racism and sexism.
How likely is this scenario, this liberal embrace of diversity within the elites to the detriment of economic justice? Who knows. Predictions are hard, especially about the future. Economic justice retains its great potential to unite people from across broad demographic groups, even though current liberal political practice does everything possible to waste that advantage. People have a natural drive towards greater equality and for better material conditions; people feel, deep within themselves, that the American way has stopped working for most people. That animus can be tapped. Sanders has run as an explicit socialist, and he has generated incredible passion, though our media has worked with equal passion to attack his campaign and belittle his followers. The potential for change remains.
But I cannot stress enough to you how vulnerable the case for economic justice is in this country right now. Elites agitate against it constantly, and they do so even if they like the right music, watch the right TV shows, and change their Facebook profile picture to support gay marriage. It is not a coincidence that these issues have come to a head so directly in the Clinton campaign. She is a creature of the 1%, an impossibly wealthy woman who earns millions from Wall Street and who protects their interests. The attempt to quiet calls for shared prosperity through appeals to the increasing diversity of the fabulously wealthy did not arise from nowhere. This is a movement, coordinated from above, and its intent is to solidify the already-vast control of economic elites over our political system.
The days to come will be ugly. The stark conflict between diversity at the top and economic justice for all within the Democratic primary will play out again and again in the years to come. The recrimination and personal attacks will continue to be brutal. But we must recognize the potential that exists in this ugly divorce. We should understand this moment, fundamentally, as liberalism going through its long death throes. Liberalism, after all, is a compromise, neither the embrace of markets or the willingness to abandon them. It is an attempt to ameliorate the inequality and immiseration of capitalism, when inequality and immiseration are the very purpose of capitalism. Liberalism has been a deal made with elites, a project of pity-charity welfare programs that the plutocrats traded in exchange for protecting capitalism from the muscular advance of the labor movement in the early 20th century. Depending on your point of view, this was a principled deal made to ensure the material security of destitute people in a terrible depression, or a cynical capitulation to the economic aristocracy. Either way: that moment is over, and liberalism is breaking apart. The compromise cannot be maintained any longer; capitalism’s ever-deepening inequality cannot be arrested.
So the question ahead of us is, what type of world will we build? Will it be a world of Elois and Morlocks, a sea of vast inequality, where winners float above the dirty masses on piles of impossible wealth, and where the very idea of shared political power is rendered a joke? Or is it a world where all people own the productive apparatus of society, and where the great bounty of that apparatus is spread to all who need it? The question today, growing louder by the minute, is the same one we’ve been asking for decades: will it be socialism or barbarism? Will the left be a movement of the people, working to build solidarity across racial, gender, religious, and social lines to build a movement of and for regular people who are being run over by neoliberal capitalism? Or will it be a 22 year old with an Ivy League degree lecturing the poor about their failure to speak in the rarefied vocabulary of intersectionality? And if it’s the latter, who will be left who can tell the difference?