These new liberals enshrined the meritocracy

Tom Frank says yes hooray but let’s not forget that it’s the Democratic Party’s move away from the working class to centrist pro-biz policies that got us to Trump. Me, I doubt that it’s quite that simple or direct or cut and dried, but on the other hand the move is undeniable.

Biden’s instinct, naturally, will be to govern as he always legislated: as a man of the center who works with Republicans to craft small-bore, business-friendly measures. After all, Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus. His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the “third way” right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.

Of course the years of everyone in the Senate overlap in the same way, because we all inhabit the same block of time. Biden has been in the Senate longer than most, because he’s a geezer, but still he’s not unique in his dates.

What Biden must understand now, however, is that it was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s, that set the stage for Trumpism.

Let us recall for a moment what that turn looked like. No longer were Democrats going to be the party of working people, they told us in those days. They were “new Democrats” now, preaching competence rather than ideology and reaching out to new constituencies: the enlightened suburbanites; the “wired workers”; the “learning class”; the winners in our new post-industrial society.

… In the place of the Democratic party’s old household god – the “middle class” – these new liberals enshrined the meritocracy, meaning not only the brilliant economists who designed their policies, but also the financiers and technologists that the new liberalism tried to serve, together with the highly educated professionals who were now its most prized constituents…

However, there are consequences when the left party in a two-party system chooses to understand itself in this way. As we have learned from the Democrats’ experiment, such a party will show little understanding for the grievances of blue-collar workers, people who – by definition – have not climbed the ladder of meritocracy. And just think of all the shocking data that has flickered across our attention-screens in the last dozen years – how our economy’s winnings are hogged by the 1%; how ordinary people can no longer afford new cars; how young people are taking on huge debt burdens right out of college; and a thousand other points of awful. All of these have been direct or indirect products of the political experiment I am describing.

In short, it’s been a period of sharply rising inequality, and that’s not something to celebrate.

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