If Republicans and Democrats talk as though they are living in different realities – it is because they are.
“The retreat of the West began with the fall of communism in 1989”, the political philosopher, John Gray, writes. “Our triumphal elites lost their sense of reality, and in a succession of attempts to remake the world in their image [… they have brought about] the result that Western states are weaker, and more endangered than they were at any point in the Cold War”.
The West’s decomposition, Gray outlines, is not only geo-political; it is cultural and intellectual. Western countries now contain powerful bodies of opinion that regard their own civilisation as a uniquely pernicious force. In this hyper-liberal view, which is heavily represented in higher education, Western values of freedom and toleration are now understood to be little more than code for White racial domination.
Whether Western élites are now capable of transforming their vacuum-sealed zeitgeist is questionable. Rather, the underlying, deeply moralising approach of this hyper-liberalism limits discourse to moral stances that are simplistic, held to be self-evident, and morally-impeccable. Arguing realpolitik pros-and-cons today is not far from being a prohibited enterprise. Indeed, shifts in the global strategic paradigm, or indeed of the wider challenges that it faces, are not addressed in any serious fashion. For, that would demand a realism and a strategic grasp, which mainstream western opinion-leaders reject as defeatist – if not immoral.
The U.S. Metro-élite has converted cultural attainment into economic privilege and vice versa. It controls what Jonathan Rauch describes in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, as the epistemic regime—the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true. Most of all, it possesses the power of consecration; it determines what gets recognized and esteemed, and what gets disdained and dismissed.
Just to be clear, this dynamic is on course to become the biggest dividing line in global politics – as it already is in U.S. and EU politics. It is getting worse both in the U.S. and Europe, and it is going to leach out into geo-politics. It already has. “It’s not what you want; but it’s coming anyway”. And if the long drift of history is any guide, it will bring increased tensions and the risk of war.
Here is one sample (taken from Ishaan Tharoor’s daily column in the Washington Post):
It’s one of the least surprising convergences on the planet. Fox News host Tucker Carlson — arguably the most influential voice on the American Right, absent a certain former president — is in Hungary. Every episode of his prime-time show this week will be televised from Budapest.
Carlson, as my colleague Michael Kranish charted in a probing profile last month, has become the “voice of White grievance”… the most well-known proponent of a brand of far-right, nativist politics, popularized by Trump, and now pushed further by a coterie of pundits and politicians who are steadily taking hold of the Republican Party … They are virulently anti-immigrant and sceptical of free trade and corporate power … They embrace an often religious and implicitly racist brand of nationalism, while waging a relentless culture war against the perceived threats of multiculturalism, feminism, LGBT rights – and liberalism writ large.
The Fox News host is hardly the only right-wing American pointing to Orban’s example. In a recent speech, J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist campaigning on a folksy, nationalist platform in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio, derided the “childless left” in the United States as agents of “civilizational collapse”. He then pushed for Orban’s agenda: In Hungary, “they offer loans to newly married couples that are forgiven at some point later if those couples have actually stayed together and had kids,” Vance said. “Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we actually promote family formation”?
Our point here is not political. It is not about the Washington Post’s or Orbàn’s perceived merits. It is about ‘otherness’. It is about the refusal to concede that the ‘other’ may hold an authentic alternative view (and identity) – even if you disagree with it, and do not accept its premise. In short, it is about absence of empathy.
The ‘creative class’ (a term coined by Richard Florida), didn’t set out to be an élite, dominating class, David Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise, (himself a liberal NY Times columnist) claims. It just happened. The new class was supposed to foster progressive values, and economic growth. But, instead birthed resentment, alienation, and endless political dysfunction.
The ‘bobos’ didn’t necessarily come from money, and they were proud of that; they had secured their places in selective universities and in the job market through drive and intelligence exhibited from an early age, they believed. But by 2000, the information economy and the tech boom were showering the highly educated with cash.
Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class lauded the economic and social benefits that the creative class had brought – by which he meant, more or less the ‘bobos’ of Brooks’ earlier christening (the Bourgeois Bohemians – or ‘bobos’. ‘Bohemian’ in the sense of coming from the narcissistic Woodstock generation; and ‘bourgeois’ in the sense that post-Woodstock, this ‘liberal’ class later evolved into the mercantilist top echelons of cultural, corporate and Wall Street power paradigms).
Florida was a champion of this class. And Brooks admits that he looked on them benignly too: “The educated class is in no danger of becoming a self-contained caste”, he wrote in 2000. “Anybody with the right degree, job, and cultural competencies can join.”
That turned out to be one of the most naive sentences he had have ever written, Brooks admits.
Every once in a while, a revolutionary class comes into being which disrupts old structures. In the 19th century, it was the bourgeoisie, the capitalist merchant class. In the latter part of the 20th century, as the information economy revved up and the industrial middle class hollowed out, it was Creative Class people, Brooks argues. “Over the past two decades, the rapidly growing economic, cultural, and social power of [this class] has generated a global backlash that is growing more and more vicious, deranged, and apocalyptic. And yet this backlash is not without basis. The creative class, or whatever you want to call them, have coalesced into an insular, intermarrying Brahmin elite that dominates culture, media, education, and tech”.
This class, who were accreting enormous wealth and were congregating into America’s large metro areas, created gaping inequalities within cities, as high housing prices pushed middle- and lower-class people out. “Over the past decade and a half,” Florida wrote, “nine in ten U.S. metropolitan areas have seen their middle classes shrink. As the middle has been hollowed out, neighbourhoods across America are dividing into large areas of concentrated disadvantage – and much smaller areas of concentrated affluence”.
This class also came to dominate left-wing parties around the world that were formerly vehicles for the working class. “We’ve pulled these parties further left on cultural issues (prizing cosmopolitanism and questions of identity), while watering down or reversing traditional Democratic positions on trade and unions. As creative-class people enter left-leaning parties, working-class people tend to leave”.
These polarising cultural and ideological differences, now precisely overlay economic differences. In 2020, Joe Biden took the votes of just 500 or so counties, yet together these 500 account for 71 percent of American economic activity. Trump, by contrast, won more than 2,500 counties. Yet, those 2,500 together generate only 29 percent of GDP. This is why the Dems taunt Republicans, who decline the Covid vaccine as ‘parasites’ – as those Blue counties are the ones that overwhelmingly pay the bills that result from infection.
An analysis by Brookings and The Wall Street Journal found that just 13 years ago, Democratic and Republican areas were at near parity on prosperity and income measures. Now they are divergent, and getting more so.
If Republicans and Democrats talk as though they are living in different realities – it is because they are.
“I got a lot wrong about the bobos”, Brooks says. “I didn’t anticipate how aggressively we would move to assert our cultural dominance, the way we would seek to impose elite values through speech and thought codes. I underestimated the way the creative class would successfully raise barriers around itself to protect its economic privilege … And I underestimated our intolerance of ideological diversity”.
“When you tell a large chunk of the country that their voices are not worth hearing, they are going to react badly—and they have. The working class today, vehemently rejects not just the creative class but the epistemic regime that it controls … This dominance however has also engendered a rebellion among its own offspring.
“The members of the creative class laboured to get their children into good colleges. But they’ve also jacked up college costs and urban housing prices so high that their children struggle under crushing financial burdens. This revolt has boosted Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, and so on.
“Part of the youth revolt is driven by economics, but part is driven by moral contempt. Younger people look at the generations above them and see people who talk about equality but drive inequality. Members of the younger generation see the Clinton-to-Obama era—the formative years for the creative class’s sensibility—as the peak of neoliberal bankruptcy”.
The resonance with Russia in the 1840s and 1860s, with the radicalisation of the offspring generation from their Liberal parents, is apt.
The wider geo-political point is that if Orbàn, the leader of a EU member-state is dismissed so peremptorily as a ‘Trumpist’, backward nativist bigot – we may easily predict the absence of empathy and understanding for other world leaders: whether they be Xi, Raisi or Putin.
We are dealing here with the ideology of an aspirant ruling class that aims to hoard wealth and position, whilst flaunting its immaculate progressive and globalist credentials. Intractable culture wars, and an epistemic crisis, in which key factual and scientific questions have been politicised, is essentially nothing more than a bid to retain power, by those who stand at the apex of this ‘Creative Class’ – a tight circle of hugely wealthy oligarchs.
Even so, schools are pressured to teach a single version of history, private corporations sack employees for deviant opinions, and cultural institutions act as guardians of orthodoxy. The prototype for these practices is the U.S., which still proclaims its singular history and divisions as the source of emulation for every contemporary society. In much of the world, the woke movement is regarded with indifference, or – as in the case of France, where Macron has denounced it as “racialising” society. But wherever this American agenda prevails, society is no longer liberal in any historically recognisable sense. Knock away the myth, and the liberal way of life can be seen essentially, to have been an historical accident.
“In 2007, Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, was asked which candidate he was supporting in the forthcoming presidential election. “We are fortunate that, thanks to globalisation, policy decisions in the U.S. have been largely replaced by global market forces,” he replied of the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. “National security aside, it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.”
(It was Greenspan’s policies that propelled the bobos to become the global elect, and which made them fabulously wealthy.)
“The complacency of Greenspan represented the apex of neoliberalism, a term often misunderstood and overused, but which remains the best shorthand for the policies that have shaped the global economy as we know it: privatisation, tax cuts, inflation targeting and anti-trade union laws. Rather than being subject to democratic pressures – such as elections – these measures were portrayed as irreversible. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation,” Tony Blair declared in his speech to the 2005 Labour Party conference: “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”
But this proved a false dawn. “I’ve found a flaw [in my ideology],” Greenspan told a Congressional hearing during the 2008 Great Financial Crisis. “I don’t know how significant, or permanent it is.