Update: for a foreign perspective that reinforces this, go read this Spengler column in the Asia Times.
My piece on 9/11 is taking longer to write than I'd planned, and I'm working on two pieces on changes in the media and the assault weapons ban/the settlement by Bushmaster (gun manufacturer) in the DC Sniper case.
But the thing that's on the front burner of my mind right now are two columns by Joel Kotkin, one in the Washington Post, and one in the LA Times this Sunday. While security issues are at the top of my attention right now, just narrowly behind them is the crisis of what I call 'Skybox Liberalism', and the capture of the Democratic Party by this kind of leadership.
The first column, from the Post is about the Kerry campaign, and their reliance on the 'information elites' (hat tip to Daniel Weintraub's great California Insider - you should subscribe to this is you live in or are interested in California government).
Kotkin keys off the "Retro vs. Metro" ad campaign pushing the University of Phoenix's octogenarian founder John Sperling's book "The Great Divide". (Note that Captain Ed has an even harsher view of this on his blog...)
In the book Sperling offers (as Kotkin describes it) a prescription for the resurgence of the Democratic Party that sounds suspiciously close to Ruy Teixeira's. Here's Kotkin on Sperling:
It suggests that Sen. John Kerry can ace the election this fall by taking advantage of a growing conflict between what the book describes as a highly sophisticated, productive "metro" economy based largely in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and a troglodyte, parasitic "retro" economy located in the South and parts of the West and Southwest. In the book's analysis, the famous Republican "red states" of 2000 are socially and culturally regressive and economically backward. Meanwhile, the Democratic blue states are the "economic engines" of America, the incubators of new industries and bastions of financial brilliance and global savvy. Kerry's challenge, Sperling and his three co-authors declare, is to convince voters in swing states such as Arizona, Colorado and the industrial Midwest that they should get hip by becoming more "metro" and less "retro."
The Emerging Democratic Majority persuasively argues a simple thesis, but one with profound implications: Demographic groups that tend to support the ideas and candidates of the Democratic Party are growing rapidly as a percentage of the electorate. Groups that support Republican ideas and candidates are growing slowly, if at all. Not only are traditionally democratic voters such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and single women becoming a larger part of the voting public, but democratic-leaning white-collar professionals and the highly educated are increasing as well. At the same time, many blue-collar voters who defected to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in the 1980's returned to the Democratic Party in the 1990's to vote for Bill Clinton. By the end of the decade these groups will provide the basis for a broad majority coalition, one rooted in the growing post-industrial metropolitan areas that the authors call "ideolopolises". The book outlines the case that democrats have the opportunity to build an enduring electoral majority.
Here's Kotkin's take on it:
Memo to Kerry: If only it were that easy.
There are lots of reasons why this analysis is wrongheaded. It's based on a significant misreading of many key economic indicators. And it doesn't recognize where Americans who aspire to upward mobility make their homes. But it's easy to see why it plays with the pro-Kerry crowd: In recent years, the Democratic Party has shifted away from its working- and middle-class roots to identify more and more with the rising elites of the information age. Yet this shift could cost it an election where economic issues may still prove decisive.
Look at Kerry's chief supporters and you see a new kind of elite, a veritable "hip-ocracy" of high-tech tycoons, Hollywood moguls and celebrities, and a bevy of Wall Street financiers. This group is bolstered by Americans with graduate degrees and a growing number of college and university faculty members.These core Kerry constituencies, the technical and professional intelligentsia, increasingly show signs of seeing themselves as a new social elite, what urban guru Richard Florida has anointed as the nation' s "creative class." Most make their homes in the peculiarly elitist economies of post-industrial metropolises such as greater Boston, Manhattan, San Francisco and the west side of Los Angeles, where the definition of middle class often comes with a million-dollar-plus mortgage, a PhD and, often enough, more than a few pence handed down from the parents. Kerry, a Yale graduate identified by Burke's Peerage as having more royal blood than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, educated in Swiss boarding schools and married to his second heiress, is an almost-too-perfect representative of this new class.
And here's mine (from an old post at Armed Liberal):
The New Deal Democratic alliance was shattered by George Wallace and Jane Fonda, and while the ex-partners eye each other with a mixture of melancholy and anger ... kind of like ex-husbands and wives ... the reality is that the issues which once held them together don't any more.
So the Democrats are left looking for a core constituency. But they have three: Rich liberals, who value their self-image as 'just', African-Americans who know that many of the programs designed for social redress have become giant patronage machines, and the public unions, as noted here by Rob Lyman.
The Democratic 'investors' (donors), invest to secure their own positions. The bigger voter audiences in the middle have interests that often conflict with the Democratic 'investors', and sadly, when put to the choice, the Party goes with the 'investors' almost every time.
Now I think there's a big constituency out there...the single moms making $30K and barely getting by, the two-income families who realize that they'll never make more than $25K together, all the way up to the middle-class families making $100K and happy to own a home, but who realize that they can save for retirement or send the kids to college, but not both.
Social and economic policies aren't aimed at these people. And yet, they are the ones who the 'invisible hand' of globalization is hitting the hardest ... by limiting opportunity, by exporting jobs, by capping salaries.I'm not an isolationist. King Canute's lesson to his advisors has sunk in. But we have to look at how we will manage the changes in the economy, if in no other way than by cushioning the impacts on those who can least afford it.
I think that Sperling's core strategy - of remaking the Democratic Party as the party for people like me - is going to be a train wreck, both in terms of where the part ought to be going, and in terms of political effectiveness.
It's not an immediately obvious train wreck because the lens that we look at politics through - the media - is firmly on the side of the 'hip-ocracy', and refuses to acknowledge the ruins of the bridge just up ahead.
I also think that it's a moral train wreck because it implicitly abandons the vulnerable - the workers in the 909 - in favor of the secure - the wealthy and the public sector employees (see David Friedman's great piece in the LA Times - it's gone from the archives, but here's a link to my post on it) - and the already damaged - the clients of the welfare state and their allies. Me again:
The problems of the very poor are equally real, and in many ways, more wrenching. But they don't have far to fall, and the mere ability to get and hold a job gets them through their worst problems.
And, cynically, they don't vote.
The working classes do. And they are righteously afraid of falling down a level, with all the reason in the world.
That’s the face of the New Model Democratic Party. When we figure out how to make the lives of working Americans better...by getting out of the way and letting entrepreneurs create jobs, while keeping the scam artists from looting the banks and corporations...by designing tax policy that is simple, fair, and tilted toward those who work rather than those who invest (yeah, this is going to be an issue...)...and by figuring out how to provide the public goods and how to get out of the way and let the market provide the private goods these people need to have decent lives.
A long time ago, I became convinced that what most people want...whether they grew up in Oxaca, Compton, or Brentwood...is a decent house to raise their kids in, a meaningful and reasonable secure job, and some sense that their children’s lives had a shot at being better than theirs.Deliver that, Democrats, and win.
But the Democrats aren't. Kotkin, again:
Nowhere have these trends been more pronounced, and less reported, than in Kerry's home state. Back in 1988, Michael Dukakis used his state's "Massachusetts miracle" -- its rise from industrial also-ran to high-tech bastion -- to help him win the Democratic nomination. Today, Kerry and many others still cite the Bay State as a case study in success.
Yet Massachusetts is very different now from what it was in Dukakis' day. Since 2000, the Boston economy has been among the worst in the nation in terms of job losses, many of them in higher-end business service and technology fields. Since 2002, nearly 40,000 Boston area residents have left the labor force. The city itself, after enjoying a small population gain in the 1990s, has been losing residents since 2000.Overall, notes Michael Goodman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts's Donahue Institute, the state is hemorrhaging young middle-class families -- largely to "retro" states such as Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, as well as neighboring low-tax New Hampshire.
Yet the Kerry camp and the Democratic Party leadership seem unruffled. In most of the country, such developments might have local elites in a state of panic. In the Bay State, though, the loss of middle-class families "is not defined as a problem," says Goodman.
This, suggests Doug Fisher, head of economic development for Northeast Utilities, a regional power company, is because things are generally jim-dandy for the hip-ocracy who now dominate the state's Democratic Party. Today, New England elites talk not about new jobs and opportunities, but about how rich those who can still afford to live there are becoming. The soaring housing prices chasing the middle class out of the state have proven a huge windfall for the Harvard professors who bought their homes a decade ago. "The real argument here is between jobs and income," suggests Fisher. "We still have plenty of money, and that's all that people think matters. We are becoming an economic-development cul-de-sac, and a lot of people like that."
Although the number of Massachusetts natives earning associate and bachelor's degrees has been dropping, there are still plenty of wealthy people around the world willing to pay huge bucks to get their offspring into Harvard. Not surprisingly, Harvard faculty are the second-largest source of direct campaign funds from employees -- behind the massive University of California faculty -- to the Kerry campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
The economic attitudes of these intellectual elites may help explain why the Democratic Party today can no longer do a convincing job of "feeling the pain" of the middle class. It also suggests a disconnect between the Democrats and those very places where Americans now go for opportunity.
Kotkin closes his Post piece with this, and I couldn't agree more:
Ultimately, the answer to the Democratic Party's democratic deficit won't be found among the dons in Cambridge, the patricians on Beacon Hill or the celebrities in Malibu. It will be found in identifying and understanding the strivings of middle-class people living in unfashionable tract suburbs, working-class city neighborhoods and small towns across the country. Until the Democrats find a way to connect with these people, they will find their own fortunes receding in the face of an enormous field of opportunity.
Kotkin amplifies that position, and offers some prescriptions, in this weekend's L.A. Times:
Not too long ago, U.S. elections were determined ... and sometimes stolen ... in cities. In the 21st century, however, the nation's major urban areas have become largely politically peripheral, except as stages for national party conventions.
As a result, neither major party makes a serious effort to address the crises affecting U.S. cities ... dysfunctional school systems, a declining middle class, eroding employment and rising populations of mostly poor, new immigrants. Instead, cities are essentially a kept constituency of liberal Democrats whose idea of an urban policy, aside from patronage, increasingly revolves around cosmetic face-lifts and the arts.
Missing today from national and local agendas is anything remotely resembling the progressivism that spurred the successful evolution of U.S. cities in the last century. Sometimes dubbed "sewer socialism," this program for development started at the municipal level and aimed to repair the legacy of the Industrial Revolution. From small, faded industrial cities like Bridgeport, Conn., to Los Angeles, enlightened administrations ... sometimes led by labor-oriented socialists, other times by business-oriented "progressives" ... cleaned up disease-ridden environments with new sanitation systems, created municipal-owned water and power systems, developed parks and upgraded education systems.
Cities' declining political clout is reflected in the state of urban policy. The focus now is on what sociologist John Kasarda calls "visual prosperity" ... the attempt to dress up urban areas with fancy edifices, cultural attractions and high-end housing.
"Patronage aside, Democratic Party policy in the cities," said Fred Siegel, professor of urban history at New York's Cooper Union, "often boils down to how to attract the beautiful people."The policies of many of the brightest stars in the Democratic firmament ... Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm ... seem predicated on this beautiful-people principle. All emphasize the creation of cafe districts, arts entertainment and culture palaces as the best means to revive urban centers. In Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn is similarly hitching his legacy to a $2-billion double feature for the leisure class ... the proposal for the ersatz Champs-Elysées on Grand Avenue and the glitzy LA Live project around Staples Center.
A few years ago, I described San Francisco to a Danish friend as "Disneyland for upper-middle class adults". The Bay Area model, in which information workers create 'New Economy' enclaves which produce no pollution, employ the socially conscious who bicycle to work from their nearby lofts, and engage in meaningful self-actualizing charitable work when they aren't appearing in beer ads in their off hours. (OK, perhaps I'm being hyperbolic here...) is the one that has been adopted by a number of other cities who want to create gallery/cafe/loft districts as their route to revitalization.
There are a number of problem with this approach; the primary one is that it's great for real estate investors, high-income information workers who can buy or rent real estate, and low-wage service workers (the number of low-end opportunities expands dramatically, which is a good thing for the very poor). But it's not quite so good for working families - for the 'New Model Democrats' I talk abut above. They get hammered by declines in employment opportunities - unless they can bridge up to the high-wage 'hip-ocracy' jobs, or scale down their lifestyle to the wages paid by the service jobs. Kotkin goes on:
There is an alternative to the culture-and-arts approach to revive declining cities. It's sewer socialism, a back-to-basics strategy that encourages business investment and the development of healthy neighborhoods.
Such an urban agenda has its origins in the early decades of the last century. In the West, it unfolded under the tutelage of business-oriented progressives who invested heavily in basic infrastructure — public education, transit, water and power systems — to encourage commerce and improve the living conditions for at least part of the middle and working classes. In Los Angeles, cheap water was brought to a dry city to benefit citizens and businesses. Nominally nonpartisan, but mostly Republican, city leaders fostered municipal ownership of utilities and worked to prevent the Southern Pacific Railroad from dominating the city's new port. They also zoned to create a multipolar city to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional industrial one.
The working-class political base that supported sewer socialism, as well as the collectivist ideology that underpinned it, has largely evaporated. Yet, development-oriented urban politics are still relevant. To some extent, a variant of sewer socialism was practiced in Los Angeles during the 1980s when Mayor Tom Bradley united labor and corporate interests. Together, they pushed for the development of a job-creating infrastructure — most notably at the airport and port complexes — that help lay the foundation for the city's ascendancy in the 1980s as the primary U.S. hub for Pacific Rim trade and commerce.
Such union leaders as the late Jim Wood of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor essentially cut a deal with business: Unions would support huge publicly funded projects with broad economic goals as long as their members got to work on them. In turn, many of the jobs created in business services, at the port, in warehouses and at import-processing factories generated relatively well-paying private-sector jobs.
A more recent example of modern sewer socialism occurred in Houston under then-Mayor Bob Lanier. His administration focused on improving neighborhoods by enhancing public safety and constructing new roads, lighting and sewers, the groundwork for private sector-led economic development.
"You need to look at every neighborhood as your own and start from there," Lanier explained after leaving office. "First, you bring back residents and then the commercial — and jobs will come back. That's what city governments should do. Play that role and things will happen on their own."
Under Lanier's administration, Houston rose from the wreckage of the 1980s oil bust to become one of the nation's fastest-growing economies and demographically diverse cities.Sewer socialism offers one possible direction out of the genteel, gradual decline that now threatens our cities. Any party or politician who embraces such a sensible, tried approach would deserve the grateful support of the beleaguered denizens of urban America.
It's not only the fortunes of our cities, but the fortunes of the Democratic Party that would be well-served by approaches like this. And to understand the dynamics of the Kerry campaign, it's important to understand the centrality of these issues.
Because it isn't only the struggle over a domestic policy that's causing Kerry's Swift Campaign to drift - it's the struggle over domestic ones as well.