There is no “center”: Dems must focus on repairing elite-mass relations.

Okay, so Edsall is paying attention to the role that Boasian antiracism has played in the breakdown of elite-mass relations.

Putting together a broad enough coalition [will require] dodging the broadly loathed set of prohibitions that many voters, including many Democrats, file under the phrase “political correctness.” … John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist, tackles this issue head-on. He emailed in response to my query: “What should Democrats do?”:

“I would drop the elitist attitude that currently suffuses the Democratic Party which has morphed into an insufferable army of virtue-signaling know-it-all’s who spend all of their time looking down their noses at the unwashed masses in flyover country. It has less to do with specific issues and more to do with the unbridled arrogance that is currently deeply embedded in the DNA of the once great Democratic Party.”

I think that’s precisely right. The hatred is mutual. The breakdown of elite-mass relations is now complete — that’s why, despite the pro-working class rhetoric and policy proposals, the Dems have been virtually abandoned by White working class communities.

But then Edsall takes this to a different direction. He relays a GOP strategist:

[T]hree-fourths of the electorate is within shouting distance of the center, and only one-fourth is on the extremes. That tells you much of what you need to know about the “center” vs. “progressive” debate.

This is a bad way to interpret national polls. All you are telling me is that you are sampling from a bell-shaped curve. That’s virtually tautological. How could it be otherwise? Of course, if you quantitatively measure public opinion, the responses can be expected to obey the normal distribution simply due to the Central Limit Theorem. That does not tell you anything about either the right diagnosis or the right strategy.

Even so, you say, shouldn’t the Dems want to “seize the center”?


The idea that Dems can seize the center by positioning themselves in policy space, and in their rhetoric, close to the central tendency of Americans’ opinions, relies on a simplification of electoral competition known as the Median Voter Theorem. Is that where Trump positioned himself in 2016? Where was he in relation to the “center” of the GOP in the primaries when he dispatched all his focus-group and poll-disciplined adversaries with contempt? More generally, the idea that there is a linear space of concerns, of whatever dimension, is a bad way to think about both 2016 and the present impasse. You can’t fix it unless you understand what has gone wrong. It is supremely important to zero in on the right diagnosis of our present predicament.

There is, in fact, only one way out of the present impasse. It is to reverse the breakdown of elite-mass relations — for otherwise, even if you win 2020, you’ll still be stuck. We need to change the political map. Dems should forget about so-called centers and pay attention to working class concerns — not just in rhetoric and policy, but in actual attention.

The Democratic Party, and social democracy in general, played their part on the wrong side of the one-sided class war that has devastated working class communities since the 1970s. The catastrophe of 2016, both in England and America, obtained precisely because social democracy capitulated upwards — to the so-called “center”. It is time to take responsibility for it, and articulate a path forward.

But you can’t begin to do that if you think the working classes are too stupid to be addressed seriously. The human species does not understand anything actually complicated. I am familiar with a dozen disciplines, from pure math to anthropology and history. I have yet to come across a single instance of anything complicated that is understood. It probably has to do with the structure of our minds — of the Boas-Chomsky universal — that we can only understand simple logics. Anything that elites understand, certainly anything of interest to the national conversation, can be communicated in plain English. People like Heidegger and all that fancy, continental stuff that no one understands is not high-fi theory; it is just snake oil. If you can’t speak it in plain English, you don’t actually understand what you are saying yourself.

So the first thing that elites need to let go of is their own contempt for the unwashed masses. The problem is not that they are dumb, the problem is rather that you are not smart enough to manipulate them to support the right policies. They can tell when you serve them bullshit. That’s why Trump crushed all the seasoned and disciplined political entrepreneurs with such ease.

Forget about the center. Speak honestly and plainly, and without fancy words. Tell us what went wrong and how you will fix it. You don’t need fabricated stories when reality is on your side — and you’re not smart enough to pull it off in any case.

10 thoughts on “There is no “center”: Dems must focus on repairing elite-mass relations.

  1. Given that a competing theory for 2016 is not the defection of the lower-income white votes, but rather disengagement from black and Latino voters in key states, where does your framework end up? Because to repair elite-mass relations by being less overbearing in “woke” politics (our modern variant of Boasian anti-racism, as you would have it), while being more even-handed in addressing the very real social disaster of these white communities, would risk further estranging those other great victims of the Neoliberal turn; voters of color.

    In addition – what if we are underestimating the role of deep American political culture? The decline of white working class support for the Democratic Party is a long-term trend, which many attribute to Civil Rights, what you term as the “anti-systemic turn” of the late 60s, and the general ascendancy of cultural liberalism. Anti-racism, feminism, etc. If this is indeed the case, then wouldn’t stemming that tide mean to talk down core tenets of the Democratic Party? What reason is there to expect that such vacillating would succeed against Republican inertia? Not to mention that other problem; the more basic morality of surrendering such key positions?

    1. Hispanic turnout did not decline significantly in 2016. Black turnout did decline compared to 2008 and 2012, when Obama was on the ballot, but it was similar to historical black turnout in 2004 and earlier.

      Whereas surveys suggest that a historically unusual number of non-college-educated former Obama voters voted for Trump in 2016.

    2. I think you’re alluding to the basic conundrum of Democratic party politics that stitches together a very fragile coalition of identity-based groups. Eventually, the groups come into conflict and the coalition disintegrates. Reminds me a bit of postwar Italian parliamentary politics.

      The only way forward for the Democrats is to abandon identity politics for a more unifying universal theme. This is what Bernie Sanders has been trying to do by reverting to class politics. Warren has taken up the charge, but she tries to have it both ways.

      The conundrum is that the party cannot do this without discouraging large groups within their base, so the immediate result would be to lose election after election. That’s not a survival strategy for the party so I expect it will continue to try to stitch together diverging interests with Orwellian rhetoric and Republican demonization. Our dysfunction will rise a few more degrees until one of the parties self-immolates.

    3. I’m not persuaded that the Democratic Party is at risk of losing racialized minorities. In any case, I’m not suggesting that we should play to the (racists’) gallery. What I am suggesting is that we stop assuming that people who voted for Trump are automatically bigoted. Or that the blue collar way of talking and making meaning is beyond the pale. Part of what I have argued is that Boasian antiracism is much more recent than we imagine. Despite rumors to the contrary, it was not until the 1990s that the discourse began to spread across elite culture. Why should this happy development have led to the breakdown of elite-mass relations? What has happened, I have suggested, is that Boasian antiracism began to function more and more as an ideology of elite self-congratulation and class oppression. And precisely while this was going on, social democracy abandoned custody of working class interests. The ‘great victims’ of the neoliberal turn (consolidated by Clinton and Blair) was the entire working class — not just poc. People may not realize who or what screwed them over when. But they know it’s been strictly downhill for their communities for decades. All the while, coastal elites have set themselves up to the task of righting historic wrongs (nyt’s 1619 project is a major escalation) and basically ignored their trauma. It is telling that a blogger (me) stumbled upon the tight relationship between overdose death rates and the Trump swing. It seems that no one even bothered to check.

  2. Randomly, regarding the “center”: is there really that strong a reason not to expect bimodal distributions in political surveys of a quantitative variable? (like, say, “do you support the 2nd amendment, on a scale of -10 to +10” as opposed to something like “do you feel like your finances have improved since 2016?” ….)

    And yes, Democrats do seem determined to permanently alienate voters who don’t care for Trump but voted for him or a third party only because they didn’t like Clinton in 2016.

    Watching the party leaders flee any discussion of issues that could easily establish them as the less-pro-inequality-party is painful.

  3. What troubles me about your analysis PolicyTensor, is that you assume that it is the Democratic Party’s natural state to be the governing class of our Country. Now it is true that the Democratic Party is the main locus of power of Elite culture, although the Elites inhabit both the Democratic Party and the Republican party. That in no way confers either party any status as the natural governing class. The genius of the American system is that there is NO natural governing class (or Party), except THE PEOPLE. And The People will voluntarily consent to be governed (not ruled, contra the current Democratic Party), contingent on the fact that those whom The People have chosen to (temporarily) govern them do so in a way that The People view as in their own best interests. In other words, the policies of the American Government should be primarily of benefit to America (in general) and to Americans (in particular) first.

    I don’t see a way for the Democratic Party (in particular) and Elite Culture (in general) to fix there way out of the hole that they have dug themselves into with their Boasian Anti Racism shovels. As you stated:

    ” What has happened, I have suggested, is that Boasian antiracism began to function more and more as an ideology of elite self-congratulation and class oppression.”

    In fact what they have done is turn it into a religion, (like most all Socialists and Marxists have done over the past 100 years or so). However it is not just a religion, but a very fundamentalist or “Puritanical” one at that. This is why I can see no course correction from the Elites in the near future. To disagree with them on any issue is not to mark oneself as someone with a differing viewpoint or opinion, but rather, to brand yourself with the Scarlet letter “H” for Heretic. One thing that has become obvious over the past 20 years or so is that the Progressive, or Elite god is a very jealous god indeed. And that god brokers no dissent. The Elites will not willingly give that up.

    1. Um, so complex society is literally impossible without social stratification and differentiation. The United States, like all other countries, has always had elites and masses. That’s not going to go away. The issue is the breakdown of elite-mass relations. I agree with your sentiment that the US government should follow policies for the benefit of the people. The problem is that Washington has been captured by moneyed interest. At this point, it is hard to see how the GOP can be revived or how in its present state it can serve as the vehicle for working class interests. So we are left with the Dems. You’re quite right about the rigidity of the discourse — particularly the intolerance of the “woke” and their utter unwillingness to look beyond their pious self-congratulation. But it is not impossible. A number of things make me cautiously optimistic. I have been contacted by people at the New York Times, a progressive women’s magazine, advocacy groups including MoveOn, and researchers at Harvard. And then there was the recent intervention by Obama. Did you see that? ( Guess I am still waiting to hear from the progressive campaigns. They should get the memo soon enough if they haven’t already. But, then again, this is not the sort of thing that admits a tactical solution. There may not be enough time for elite culture to self-reform.

      1. No, I am not saying that social stratification and differentiation are impossible or even an undesirable occurrence. Indeed, as a capitalist, I believe that some degree of social stratification is inevitable and should be welcomed as reward for hard work and effort. There are two areas where I think the difference between you and I lie. The first is that due to the fact that some people belong to the “Elite” class, that confers upon them some “right” to be the natural leaders of the Political life of the Nation, and that once the “Elite Mass relations” has been repaired, then things will go back to their “natural state” of the “Elites” leading (or really “ruling” the masses). The second is that the Democratic party is somehow better suited or positioned to be the champion of the masses. Both of these assumptions are highly questionable.

        And yes, I am aware of BHO’s belated attempts to put the brakes on “woke” culture. I am not sure how serious and sincere he is being now. He spent the better part of eight years playing the role of the “Elitist of Elite University Professor” lecturing the masses on all of their various sins and superstitions, (remember the “bitter clingers” lecture, and how soon there would be a “permanent Democratic majority?). So I think that question of which is the real Obama and which is the pragmatic, situational and tactical Obama is quite relevant.

        My bottom line is that I do not believe that Elite culture wants to self-reform, and therefore cannot and will not self-reform.

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