The Magazine

Opiate of the Elites

The gentrification of the American left.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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The social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s put forward both the radical libertarian and antibourgeois aspects of liberalism, while the economic problems of the 1970s undermined Keynesianism and diminished the attractiveness of central planning. Politically, this was problematic for American liberalism, yet the outlines of future successes appeared. New York mayor John Lindsay would craft a “top-down” political coalition out of affluent white liberals and blacks and Hispanics, while the concerns of middle-class New Yorkers were ignored. It would take 40 years for that political coalition (and an economic collapse in 2008) to put Barack Obama in the White House.

Siegel loses focus a bit when he gets to recent political history. The book could have done more to dissect modern liberalism’s uneasy alliance of upscale whites with postgraduate degrees, public-sector unions who provide millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns, and lower-income minorities. Siegel also fails to try to make sense of the liberal economic populism peddled by the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren, a “gentry liberal” if there ever was one. 

President Obama often speaks of the need to strengthen the middle class, and his administration even created a “Middle Class Task Force” chaired by Vice President Joseph Biden. (Perhaps to show the true importance the administration places on the project, the last activity listed on the task force’s website was in July 2012.) Such plans usually call for expansions of government spending and programs to (supposedly) help the middle class; but, rhetorically at least, liberals like Obama and Warren realize they cannot completely forsake the middle class.

Which brings us back to Obamacare. Its success or failure will ultimately hinge on whether middle-class Americans either benefit or are hurt by the new law. If the latter occurs, popular support will continue to plummet, and Democrats will suffer. Modern liberalism makes claims to technocratic superiority, believing that enlightened elites can make choices in a planned economy on behalf of the benighted. That proposition is being tested in the health care debate, but its fate will ultimately be in the hands of middle-class Americans. 

Vincent J. Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York.