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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Gentry Liberals’ Influence on Dems Overstated

Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel have a L.A. Times op-ed “The Gentry Liberals,” arguing in essence that the Democratic Party is being taken over by wealthy liberal elitists who care little about the concerns of the working class. As the article’s subtitle states “They’re more concerned with global warming and gay rights than with lunch-pail joes.” Kotkin and Siegel explain it this way:

But what kind of liberalism is emerging as the dominant voice in the Democratic Party?
Well, it isn’t your father’s liberalism, the ideology that defended the interests and values of the middle and working classes. The old liberalism had its flaws, but it also inspired increased social and economic mobility, strong protections for unions, the funding of a national highway system and a network of public parks, and the development of viable public schools. It also invented Social Security and favored a strong foreign policy.
Today’s ascendant liberalism has a much different agenda. Call it “gentry liberalism.” It’s not driven by the lunch-pail concerns of those workers struggling to make it in an increasingly high-tech, information-based, outsourcing U.S. economy — though it does pay lip service to them.
Rather, gentry liberalism reflects the interests and values of the affluent winners in the era of globalization and the beneficiaries of the “financialization” of the economy. Its strongholds are the tony neighborhoods and luxurious suburbs in and around New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and West Los Angeles.

The authors roll out some income by party-i.d.statistics that support their argument and note that “Democrats now control the majority of the nation’s wealthiest congressional districts.” They also point out that Dems now get more than the GOP in financial contributions from the securities industry, including hedge fund managers. Their argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that no current Democratic presidential candidate can fairly be identified as the standard-bearer for “gentry liberalism.” All of the current Democratic field have strong cred with labor unions, and all are protectionist on trade to one degree or another. Even at the congressional level, the Dems who won Senate seats in ’06 are all strong protectionists. Gentry liberals have been around for a long time in the Democratic Party, but the evidence that they are “ascendant” in running the Party is pretty thin.
Siegel and Kotkin venture out on to even thinner ice in describing the role of the internet as a vehicle for “gentry liberalism”:

Gentry liberalism has established a strong presence on the Internet, where such websites as MoveOn.org and the Huffington Post are lavishly funded by well-heeled liberals. These and other sites generally focus on foreign policy, gay rights, abortion and other social issues, as well as the environment. Traditional middle-class concerns such as the unavailability of affordable housing, escalating college tuitions and the shrinking number of manufacturing jobs usually don’t rank as top concerns.

Here the authors overstate their case. The issues they cite, especially foreign policy, do have a significant impact on the quality of middle class life. I mean, hello, Iraq is kind of important to the middle class. And while both of those websites may not emphasize ‘lunchpail’ concerns as a central theme, they do run some articles on bread and butter issues of interest to working people. In addition, suggesting that HuffPo and MoveOn adequately represent the focus of liberal/progressive websites in general indicates that the authors’ net-surfing habits are a little on the narrow side.
Kotkin and Siegel do better when they turn their focus on the conflict between environmentalists and the economic interests of working people:

But gentry liberalism’s increasingly “green tint” distances it the furthest from the values and interests of the middle and working classes…The gentry liberal crusade to tighten U.S. environmental regulations to slow global warming could end up hurting middle- and working-class interests. U.S. industry needs time and incentives to develop new technologies to replace carbon-based energy. If it doesn’t get them, and an overly aggressive anti-carbon regime is instituted, the shift of manufacturing, energy and shipping jobs to developing countries with weak environmental laws and regulations could accelerate.
Ignoring these potential Third World environmental costs would result only in shifting the geography of greenhouse gas emissions without slowing global warming — and at a terrible cost to jobs in the U.S.

As the environmental crisis accelerates, so will the clamor for action. Democrats will be expected to provide the needed leadership to address global warming and our dependence on mid-east oil with policies that don’t decimate jobs in the process.
Environmental advocates and unions have engaged in conflicts over the employment effects of environmental reforms for decades. Timber workers, auto unions, oil industry employees and other workers have clashed with Greens over environmental reforms, and Democratic unity has too often suffered as a consequence. Environmentalists often argue that reforms they champion produce net job creation. But they miss a key distinction — workers affected by reforms need to know that jobs at an equivalent wage will be secure for them when the reforms are implemented. The smarter Democratic leaders are well-aware of this challenge. Making it policy should be a top priority for Democratic candidates at every level.

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