The Delusions of the Radical Centrist

The radical center does not hold. Photo: Maranie Staab/REUTERS

Thanks to various defects in our system of government, there are only two viable political parties in the United States. The leadership of one is currently trying to take money away from capitalists and invest it in public infrastructure, domestic manufacturing, at-home care for the elderly, and a monthly child allowance for all non-rich families (among other things). This party has also advanced legislation that would make it easier for working people to vote in elections and organize their workplaces.

The other party opposes all of this. In the wake of an economic crisis that brutalized America’s underclass — while swelling the outsize fortunes of its upper crust — it demands “relief” for the long-suffering heirs of $12 million estates and austerity for the long-term unemployed. It deems our nation’s historically low tax rates sacrosanct, and thus, any major expansion of social welfare untenable. Its opposition to organized labor and popular democracy is unabashed. And in states across the country, the party is making it harder to cast a ballot, and easier for partisan officials to invalidate unfavorable election results.

And yet, some American intellectuals — who style themselves as champions of greater economic equality and political democracy — insist that workers have no interest in which of these two parties holds power.

This iconoclastic brand of post-partisanship isn’t the exclusive property of revolutionary communists, or left-libertarian Fox News personalities. The viewpoint is also upheld by at least one “radical centrist”: a man who dreams of a cross-class coalition for expanding the welfare state, collective bargaining, and public investment in manufacturing — and has, nevertheless, spent the past few years arguing that the working class has no interest in seeing Democrats defeat Republicans, and that the Democratic “Establishment” poses a greater threat to democracy than Donald Trump does.

That man, Michael Lind, has long been a heterodox presence in the American commentariat. A professor at the University of Texas and founder of the center-left New America Foundation, he has, at various points in his career, been a neoconservative apologist for the Vietnam War, centrist proponent of entitlement reform, and arch critic of the libertarian right. In recent years, however, he’s become an intellectual guru to the minority of American conservatives who are genuinely interested in formulating a new economic orthodoxy.

Lind makes routine contributions to American Affairs, a journal of the nationalist right, and American Compass, a putatively pro-worker conservative think tank that champions collective bargaining and industrial policy. The fullest expression of Lind’s current worldview can be found in his 2017 book, The New Class War, in which he argues that the ascent of the populist right in the U.S. and Europe is a symptom of the de facto disenfranchisement of the Western working class during the neoliberal era.

If Lind’s account of globe-spanning political trends rests on an idiosyncratic reading of history, his analysis of contemporary American politics is rooted in a banal prophecy: The U.S. is undergoing a partisan realignment that will render “the old spectrum of left and right” obsolete. In 2016, Lind argued that Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong primary campaign did not represent a “repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton,” and would have no durable influence on Democratic policy. Rather, as the Democrats grew more reliant on college-educated voters, the party would grow more solidly committed to neoliberal economic policy. The increasingly proletarian GOP, meanwhile, was poised to “move left on entitlements” as the populism of its voters prevailed over the libertarianism of its donors.

America could use more incisive critics of professional-class liberalism. But only the GOP has use for intellectuals who preach “bothsideism” in populist tones. Unfortunately, Lind’s penchant for doing the latter mars his efforts to serve as the former.

The class war according to Michael Lind.

Lind opens the The New Class War with a thumbnail sketch of the old one. This “first class war” pitted blue-collar workers against bourgeois capitalists, and it wasn’t a fair fight. For the first decades of the industrial era, plutocrats dominated the proles, who led nasty, brutish, and often short lives performing back-breaking, lung-blackening work. But world wars fostered class peace. Elites couldn’t mobilize nations for geopolitical blood baths without making concessions to mass interests. Out of the crucible of global carnage came a lasting class settlement: “democratic pluralism.”

The details of this new dispensation varied across national contexts. But in just about every Western country, Lind writes, “power brokers who answered to working-class and rural constituencies — grassroots party politicians, trade union and farm association leaders, and church leaders — bargained with national elites in the three realms of government, the economy, and the culture, respectively.”

Such power brokers — and the mass-membership groups they answered to — were preconditions for working-class power. As atomized individuals or households, workers have little capacity to participate in self-government. Ballots are a weak currency; unless you assemble a giant stack of them, they’ll buy you nothing. Effective political engagement requires organization. Only by establishing a bloc vote — and/or pooling the resources necessary for diligent lobbying — can workers exercise meaningful influence over the rules that govern their lives. A similar principle holds for the workplace: Only collective action can secure labor a modicum of power on the job.

Trade unions were therefore indispensable to the democratic pluralist order, as they facilitated the solidarity necessary for checking the power of bosses and political elites alike. Meanwhile, religious institutions, as well as other organizations responsive to working-class traditionalism, tempered the cosmopolitanism of the cultural elite. Moral codes forced Hollywood’s avant-garde to work within the boundaries of middle American sensibilities.

But between the 1960s and the present day, this class compromise unraveled. No longer reliant on mass conscription armies for their social order’s preservation, elites began reneging on their commitments to working people. At the same time, the social stratum of educated professionals exploded in size. Together, these developments produced a “college-educated minority of managers and professionals,” Lind writes, with the numbers, skills, and social power to execute a “revolution from above” — one that reorganized Western societies around “their material interests and intangible values.” Corporate managers broke unions, secured labor market deregulations, and off-shored production. Affluent donors and consultants let the nation’s major political parties — once federations of local, mass-membership organizations — wither into husks subject to their domination. Highly educated judges diminished the clout of churches and civic watchdogs in the spheres of culture and the media, forcing them to acquiesce to the libertarian social views of an Ivy League milieu.

Thus, democratic pluralism gave way to “technocratic neoliberalism.” Western society was remade in the image of the managerial class. Trade liberalization meant ruin for the industrial working class, while mass immigration meant heightened competition for what remained of good blue-collar employment. Yet such policies also meant profits for corporate elites and cheaper goods and services for their less well-off university mates, whose white-collar jobs could not be off-shored (and were also, in many cases, protected from immigrant competition by occupational licensing). So globalization proceeded apace. And for the working class, the injury of economic dispossession was compounded by the insult of their cultural marginalization.

According to Lind, social disempowerment constitutes the kindling of populist conflagrations. Demagogues are the spark. Figures like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Matteo Salvini are good at identifying the sources of working-class disempowerment, Lind contends, but are poor at actually redressing them. A truce in the new class war will require more than a few tariffs here, a few immigration restrictions there. What’s needed is a 21st-century version of democratic pluralism.

One cheer for Lindism.

Lind’s worldview has its insights. His contention that democracy is hollow in the absence of working-class organization is empirically sound and badly underemphasized in elite discourse. His insistence that America’s “meritocracy” is a “mostly hereditary class system” is similarly well-founded. And his account of the college-educated’s near-monopoly on social power in contemporary society is edifying. It is easy for urban professionals to take our preeminence in the mainstream media, popular culture, and Democratic Party for granted. But our disproportionate cultural and (within blue America) political power is real and historically novel.

In the postwar period, the news industry was heavily localized and designed to reach a mass readership. Today, the mainstream media is overwhelmingly concentrated in high-cost coastal cities, and major publications are increasingly reliant on subscription revenue. These realities have increased the class homogeneity of major newsrooms, and led their outlets to cater (even more) to college-educated urbanites, who are uniquely willing and able to pay for journalism. The result is a mainstream discourse that privileges the perspective and sensibilities of urban professionals.

Meanwhile, the extraordinary growth in America’s college-educated population — along with its wildly disproportionate share of disposable income — bends popular culture and corporate messaging towards professional-class sensibilities. And as blue-collar trade unions declined, and progressive nonprofits proliferated, professionals have assumed unprecedented influence over the Democratic Party in general, and its left flank in particular. This is a political liability for Democrats. A majority of voters remain non-college-educated, and that majority is overrepresented in Congress and the Electoral College. In the aggregate, urban professionals and non-college graduates have disparate discursive norms (a.k.a. “ways of speaking”), attitudes, and issue preferences. To the extent that non-college-educated voters come to see Democrats as the party of the professional class — and the professional class as unjustly lording over media, pop culture, and the economy — an increasingly authoritarian GOP will stand to benefit. One need not endorse Lind’s prescriptions for diminishing the professional left’s outsize power to find value in his diagnosis.

Nevertheless, Lind’s insistence that America’s dominant class is a (vaguely defined) professional elite — rather than a smaller cohort of ultrarich capitalists — is tendentious at best. And this is far from the only defect in his political analysis. Its fundamental flaw is a kind of Manichean materialism that casts the aspirations of working-class Trump voters as presumptively righteous, and those of self-styled “progressive” professionals as uniformly exploitative.

The New Class War has little patience for the idea that racial identity or xenophobic prejudice fuel popular support for rightwing nationalists. Lind barely engages with the large body of research demonstrating the salience of regressive racial attitudes to Trump support. He does cite Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift at one point, but ignores that book’s central argument: that rightwing nationalism in the West is fueled by white anxiety over demographic transformation. Lind derides such explanations for “the opposition of native workers to immigrant rivals” as “simpleminded” at best, and expressions of professional-class contempt for workers’ material interests at worst.

Instead, Lind insists that the bulk of popular resistance to mass immigration (and thus, support for xenophobic demagogues) is rooted in the native working class’s accurate belief that low-skill immigrants are a top-tier threat to their economic well-being. Here too, Lind declines to engage with the vast empirical literature that contradicts his premise. Researchers have looked for a negative impact on wages or employment from the mass influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey; from refugee migration to Sweden between 1999 and 2007; from refugees immigrating to Denmark in the 1980s and 1990s; from the mass migration of Russian Jews to Israel after the USSR’s collapse; and from Dust Bowl migrants dispersion to other parts of the U.S. during the Great Depression — and, in every case, found none. Meta-analyses of the literature on immigration’s labor market effects have found little to no negative consequences for native workers. There are some individual studies consistent with Lind’s view. And it’s true that native workers in discrete subsegments of the labor force can suffer a loss of bargaining power due to competition with disenfranchised migrant laborers. But Lind’s routine equation of immigration restriction with “tight labor markets” is, to use his own epithet, simpleminded. Immigration increases labor supply, but it also increases labor demand. Fiscal policy, central-bank priorities, and labor regulations do far more to determine workers’ bargaining power and living standards than immigration policy does.

Lind evinces an awareness of this fact. His own economic program would provide legal status to undocumented workers (thereby limiting their exploitability), while establishing sectoral wage boards that set minimum compensation and benefits for all laborers. If these aspects of Lindism were enacted, the purported threat that immigration poses to native living standards — which looms so large in the author’s critique of “technocratic neoliberalism” — would seemingly be nullified. Lind tries to hide this contradiction behind a straw man, writing:

The new open-borders left might reply that unlimited immigration would not be a problem if all workers in a country were unionized, including immigrants who joined unions on arrival…Perhaps the open-borders left is correct. But shouldn’t such a radical proposition be tested first in one or two countries, before other democratic nations take a chance on it?

Of course, “open borders” is not the status quo immigration policy of the United States. And The New Class War is a critique of status quo American policy. Lind’s invocation of open borders is therefore a non sequitur; caught in a contradiction, the author turns his fire at a soft target. The relevant question for Lind’s argument isn’t whether completely unrestricted immigration is compatible with worker power, but whether sectoral bargaining can reconcile a high level of immigration with high wages. And that proposition has already been tested. As a percentage of the country’s workers, Sweden has one of the largest foreign-born populations in the developed world — and its native laborers enjoy some of the highest living standards of any on Earth.

There’s a fine line between materialism and conspiracism.

If Lind sanctifies working-class nativism by insisting on its economic rationality, he indicts professional-class cosmopolitanism through the very same means. In his telling, urban professionals do not support liberal immigration policies for ideological or humanitarian reasons, but merely out of vulgar material self-interest. He claims that “sanctuary city” laws, for example, “save money for managers and professionals by maintaining their access to local pools of low-wage, untaxed, unregulated, off-the-books nannies, as well as other luxury service labor that allows college-educated professionals to maintain their privileged lifestyles.”

If such material interests were the true wellsprings of urban cosmopolitanism, then one would expect liberal professionals to oppose the extension of legal and political rights to the undocumented. After all, such policies would effectively drain their precious “pools of low-wage, untaxed, unregulated” labor. Yet this is not the case. College-educated Democrats overwhelmingly favor citizenship for the undocumented in opinion polls. And the “sanctuary cities” (whose politics they dominate) provide immigrants with a wide array of social rights. In New York, the undocumented don’t just have a right to paid leave, overtime protections, a $15 minimum wage, and myriad social services; the state has also directed $2.1 billion in cash aid to undocumented workers, as compensation for their exclusion from federal unemployment benefits.

At times, the line between Lind’s brand of materialism and crackpot conspiracies grows thin. In a 2020 column on the George Floyd protests for the “post-left” publication The Bellows, Lind wrote, “The slogan ‘Defund the police’ is interpreted by the bourgeois professional left to mean transferring tax revenues from police officers, who are mostly unionized but not college-educated, to social service and nonprofit professionals, who are mostly college-educated but not unionized,” meaning the seemingly heartfelt protests against police brutality were really a way to create more jobs “for members of the professional bourgeoisie in their twenties and thirties.”
This is absurd. There just can’t be many white police abolitionists who came to that position after thinking, “You know, my surest route to a cushy government job would be to march in support of radical criminal justice policies that have little hope of near-term passage, but which would, in theory, free up fiscal space for investment in social services.”

Lind’s use of crackpot materialism to cast xenophobic backlashes as proletarian uprisings — and progressive social causes as bourgeois counterrevolutions — are not minor aspects of his thought. Like other “post-left” iconoclasts, Lind uses such strained arguments, and the crass political sociology they rest on, to rationalize his antipathy to the left — if not, de facto alliance with the American right.

Lind’s most direct intervention in the 2020 election was a column titled, “Would a Biden Victory Be a Win for the Working Class?” In it, he made a series of proclamations about what Americans should expect from a Biden presidency. These included “fiscally conservative” policies designed to “bring well-heeled Bloombergian independents and country-club Bush Republicans permanently into the Democratic coalition”; the reappearance in Biden’s cabinet of “conventional, conformist, careerist retreads from the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, representing the pro-Wall Street, anti-labor wing of the Democratic Party”; a rejection of “a much more generous child tax credit”; no “large-scale effort to relocate strategic manufacturing to the United States”; and headlines like “Democrats Plead with Biden to Abandon Social Security Cut.”

None of these predictions have panned out. Biden’s critics on the right and left have called his agenda many things, but “fiscally conservative” is not one of them. The White House economic team is composed almost entirely of thinkers in Jared Bernstein’s “pro-labor” mold, and their influence on the president’s policies was plainly apparent in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. The president has already enacted a “much larger child tax credit” for a single year, and will soon propose an extension. He has already overseen the passage of bipartisan legislation aimed at relocating strategic production to the U.S., and is calling for an additional $300 billion for the promotion of domestic manufacturing. Finally, far from pushing for entitlement cuts, Biden is calling on Congress to spend $400 billion extending at-home care to every senior citizen on Medicaid’s wait list.

So, the reality of Bidenism has already roundly contradicted Lind’s expectations of it. In fact, it has demonstrated that Lind’s entire framework for understanding American politics is fatally deterministic: The Democratic coalition in 2020 was less working-class than at any time in modern history, yet the Democratic Party is, nevertheless, more pro-labor than it’s been in many decades.

Lind has not offered any public reflection on why his expectations for the Biden presidency proved faulty. Nor has he revised his basic account of American politics, in light of Trump’s insurrection or Biden’s governing agenda. He has not retracted his claim that the “Establishment response to populism [i.e., Trumpism] threatens democracy more than populism itself.” Instead, he has carried on maligning the Democratic Party as a vehicle of professional-class tyranny, while saying precious little about the GOP’s pathologies.

It’s time to cancel bogus theories of partisan realignment.

The Democrats’ failure to become a party of, by, and for “Davos man” has inconvenienced Republican propagandists. If Biden were fighting for Social Security cuts, as Lind had predicted, then the Democrats’ perennial advantage on questions of the safety net and top tax rates would be diminished. In such a scenario, the GOP would also have an easier time camouflaging its fealty to capital behind culture-war histrionics. As is, Republican efforts to portray the Democrats as “coastal elites” in bed with “woke” corporations — and themselves as “the party of steel workers and construction workers” — keep crashing into the reality of their own fiduciary commitment to the wealthy. Thus, to sustain the party’s pseudo-populism, GOP operatives have been forced to ignore most of Biden’s governing agenda, and pretend that the best metric we have for discerning whose interests the Democratic Party serves is still the demographic composition of its voting base.

And Lind has done much the same.

In one recent column, “The COVID Class War Heats Up,” he argues that the Democratic Party has abandoned the New Deal liberalism of FDR for the “technocratic progressivism” of Woodrow Wilson. Lind explains that, unlike New Deal liberals or Jacksonian conservatives, today’s progressives prize the “delegation of power to technocrats insulated from the public” (never mind that progressives spent the past decade successfully trying to politicize the Federal Reserve, or that the conservative movement wishes to delegate a vast array of powers to technocrats in judicial robes) and routinely deploy the “invention or exaggeration of emergencies to justify radical reforms” (never mind Bush’s War on Terror, Trump’s migrant caravan, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans). Having declared the Democratic Party’s dominant ideology uniquely authoritarian, Lind proceeds to accuse its college-educated base of waging a “class war” against small-business owners by subjecting them to “non-rational” COVID health regulations, including strict lockdowns.

There are two obvious problems with the claim that America’s lockdowns were motivated by the “non-rational” preferences of technocratic progressives: (1) Those preferences were shared by a supermajority of the American people in virtually every poll taken over the past year, and (2) general lockdowns were the preferred policy response in virtually every country that developed a COVID outbreak (the one Western European nation that opted for Lind’s preferred “limited” policy over a general lockdown, Sweden, has suffered far more deaths than any of its Nordic neighbors). Thus, for Lind’s argument to hold water, it would have to be the case that Wilsonian progressivism enjoys hegemony in most of Western Europe, India, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, and South Africa, among many, many other countries. It seems somewhat more likely that the transnational deployment of general lockdowns was motivated by the best-available epidemiological science. To Lind, however, the fact that progressives favored public-health restrictions endorsed by epidemiologists the world over — and by a majority of voters in the U.S. — proves that contemporary Democrats are irrational and contemptuous of democracy.

Lind followed this jeremiad against progressivism with another entitled “Is It Time to Cancel FDR?” In it, he elaborates on his claim that Democrats have betrayed Roosevelt’s political creed for one oriented around the eccentric preoccupations of college-educated professionals (who might be well-advised to “cancel” Roosevelt for his hostility to technocracy). Lind writes that the working-class voters “who supported populist candidates from Jackson to Jimmy Carter are now the backbone of the Republican Party,” while “the Democratic Party has been transforming itself into the older Republican Party under a new, ostensibly progressive label.” Lind’s evidence for the latter assertion: Today’s Democrats support “the causes of the liberal, old-money Republican Establishment of Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay: conservationism (now ‘environmentalism’), family planning (now abortion rights and gender fluidity), and support for civil rights for racial minorities (now racial quotas in firms, government offices, university curricula, and literary and artistic canons).”

It’s a bizarre column. Environmentalism has never been the special property of Rockefeller Republicans; trade unions affiliated with the Democratic Party fought for many of the postwar era’s environmental regulations. Old-money WASPs did not turn the Democrats into the party of civil rights; working-class African Americans did. As for gender equality, the major parties simply were not polarized on such matters in the New Deal era, but LBJ’s “Jacksonian” party was home to plenty of feminists. The notion that contemporary Democrats’ social liberalism makes them heirs to the old GOP is an argument fit for a Dinesh D’Souza documentary.

Lind finally acknowledged the existence of Biden’s agenda in his next column, “Joe Biden’s German Green Deal.” And he devotes an entire two sentences to the fact that the president’s infrastructure plan includes several policies that Lind himself has long endorsed. Alas, he goes on to argue that there is not actually a “climate crisis” — Democrats just exaggerate the costs of carbon pollution to justify electrification schemes that benefit their “rich green donors” at the expense of “working class Americans of all backgrounds.” The column is finely ornamented with advertisements for Lind’s doubtless erudition. But at its core is the tin-foil-hat materialism of a Tucker Carlson monologue.

American politics needs more heterodoxy. In an age of polarization — when the bulk of political discourse is conducted on platforms more or less designed to cultivate groupthink — politically homeless heretics have a role to play in challenging the ossified assumptions of each partisan camp. The Democratic Party, and the professional-class liberals who increasingly dominate it, merit criticism. Blue America’s class contradictions are real; moderate Democrats in Congress are currently mobilizing against Biden’s proposal for raising capital-gains taxes on Americans who make more than $1 million a year. While the party’s reliance on affluent voters has not yet pulled it in Lind’s prophesied direction, that reliance may well place hard limits on the party’s capacity to aid the working class, especially if fiscal constraints start to reassert themselves. There is much worth critiquing, meanwhile, in the political culture of highly educated progressives. We do sometimes fall prey to forms of myopia rooted in class privilege, or else, a self-righteous moralism that discourages internal dissent and sanctions performative cruelty on social media.

But America does not need more highbrow apologetics for the conservative movement, nor sophistry that conflates the pathologies of each major party. And unfortunately, this era’s most prominent iconoclasts seem less interested in honestly criticizing America’s lesser evil, than running interference for its greater one.

The Delusions of the Radical Centrist