Long live the King

The current political dispensation in the United States resembles the last days of Roman Republic in more ways than one. Rome went from being a republic to a dynastic dictatorship within a few decades. Julius Caesar, the first ‘Emperor’ in the dictatorship era, lest we forget, was a democratically elected politician. Following the Presidential Elections, it is convenient to blame white women without college degrees or 18-29-year-olds changing their allegiance from Obama to Trump, for the victory of Donald Trump.

It does, however, take some effort to perform an autopsy of Democratic Party and how it has, over the years, abandoned the very people it claims to represent: the working classes; in favour of wooing the ‘professionals’.

This transformation was laid bare adroitly by Thomas Frank in his book, ‘Listen, Liberal: Or whatever happened to the party of the people’, which he calls “a book about the failure of the Democratic Party.” According to the sociologists Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks, ‘professionals’ went from being the most Republican social formation in the country in the 1950s to being the most Democratic by the mid-Nineties. Who are these Professionals? “Professionals,” are an enormous and prosperous group, the people with the jobs that every parent wants their child to grow up and get. In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and people who write books. Professionals are a high-status group, but what gives them their lofty position is learning, not income. They rule because they are talented because they are smart. A good sociological definition of professionalism is “a second hierarchy”—second to the main hierarchy of money, that is—“based on credentialed expertise.”

As a political ideology, professionalism carries enormous potential for mischief. For starters, it is obviously and inherently undemocratic, prioritising the views of experts over those of the public. The views of the modern-day Democratic Party reflect, in virtually every detail, the ideological idiosyncrasies of the professional-managerial class. Meritocracy is one of the great, defining faiths of the professional class. Meritocracy is about winners, and ensuring that everyone has a chance to become one. “The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress,” writes the journalist Chris Hayes, “—gay rights, the inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination—are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favour of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats—collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality—are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview.”

For successful professionals, meritocracy is a beautifully self-serving doctrine, entitling them to all manner of rewards and status, because they are smarter than other people. For people on the receiving end of inequality—for those who have just lost their home, for example, or who are having trouble surviving on the minimum wage, the implications of meritocracy are equally unambiguous. To them, this ideology says: forget it. You have no one to blame for your problems but yourself. There is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The very idea contradicts the ideology of the well-graduated technocrats who rule the country.

Professionals do not hold that other Democratic constituency, organised labour, in particularly high regard. This attitude is documented in study after study of professional-class life. One reason for this is because unions signify lowliness, not status. But another is because solidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence that every profession embodies. The idea that someone should command good pay for doing a job that doesn’t require specialised training seems to professionals to be an obvious fallacy.

Thomas Frank has identified four different pitfalls that are associated with the Professional Class (and thus the Democratic Party leadership). The first of these pitfalls of professionalism is that the people with the highest status aren’t necessarily creative or original thinkers. Although the professions are thought to represent the pinnacle of human brilliance, what they are brilliant at is defending and applying a given philosophy. In ‘Disciplined Minds’, an important description of the work-life of professionals, the physicist Jeff Schmidt tells us that “ideological discipline is the master key to the professions.” Despite the favourite Sixties slogan, professionals do not question authority; their job is to apply it. This is the very nature of their work and the object of their training, according to Schmidt; by his definition, professionals are “obedient thinkers” who “implement their employers’ attitudes” and carefully internalise the reigning doctrine of their discipline, whatever it happens to be.

The peril of orthodoxy is the second great pitfall of professionalism, and it’s not limited to economics. Every academic discipline with which I have some experience is similar: international relations, political science, cultural studies, even American history. None of them are as outrageous as economics; it is true, but each of them is dominated by some convention or ideology. Those who succeed in a professional discipline are those who best absorb and apply its master narrative. Our modern technocracy can never see the glaring flaw in such a system. For them, merit is always synonymous with orthodoxy: the best and the brightest are, in their minds, always those who went to Harvard, who got the big foundation grant, whose books are featured on NPR. When the merit-minded President Obama wanted economic expertise, to choose one sad example, he sought out the best the economics discipline had to offer: former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Larry Summers, a man who had screwed up time and again yet was shielded from the consequences by his stature within the economics profession.

A third consequence of modern-day liberals’ unquestioning, reflexive respect for expertise is their blindness to predatory behaviour if it comes cloaked in the signifiers of professionalism. Complexity is admirable in its own right. The difference in interpretation carries enormous consequences: Did Wall Street commit epic fraud, or are they highly advanced professionals who fell victim to epic misfortune? The final consequence of the ideology of professionalism is the liberal class’s obsessive pining for consensus. This obsession, so peculiar and yet so typical of our times, arises from professionals’ well-known disgust with partisanship and their faith in what they take to be apolitical solutions.

Another major issue that lies at the root of professional thinking is the belief that education is a panacea to all political and social problems. Educational achievement is, after all, the foundation of the professions’ claim to higher status. It should not surprise us that the liberal class regards the university as the greatest and most necessary social institution of all, or that members of this cohort reflexively propose more education as the answer to just about anything you care to bring up. College can conquer unemployment as well as racism, they say; urban decay as well as inequality. Education will make us more tolerant, it will dissolve our doubts about globalisation and climate change, it will give us the STEM skills we need as a society to compete. The liberal class knows, as a matter of deepest conviction, that there is no social or political problem that cannot be solved with more education and job training. To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future. Take inequality. The real problem, many liberals believe, is that not enough poor people get a chance to go to college and join the professional-managerial elite.

This way of thinking about inequality offers little to the many millions of Americans—the majority of Americans, in fact—who did not or will not graduate from college. It dismisses as though a moral impossibility the well-known fact that there have been and are places in the modern world where people with high school diplomas can earn a good living—like, say, the northern states of the USA between 1945 and 1980 or the Germany of today.

Thomas Frank has clearly identified where the Democratic Party faltered and left space for Republicans to trounce them in State Houses, Congress and Senate race. This polemical text, even if it goes overboard at a few instances, is critical in understanding why Donald Trump is going to be the next President of United States of America. However, this is not the complete story (it is a complex situation and requires more than one explanation). The issues of race, immigration and inequality have to be included in a detailed study on the rise of ‘Trumpism’ but Thomas Frank’s book is a good place to start.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter