Look Out for Obama's Legacy


With public support for Barack Obama recently at low ebb, some might suggest that his will be a weak political legacy. But, in reality, the president’s legacy may prove profoundly important in having helped usher into power a new dominant political configuration whose influence will survive for decades to come.

In “The New Class Conflict,” I describe this alliance as the New Clerisy, which encompasses the media, the academy and the expanding regulatory bureaucracy. This Clerisy already dominates American intellectual and cultural life and increasingly has taken virtual control of key governmental functions, as well as the educations of our young people.

The Clerisy’s ascendency was predicted more than 40 years ago by the great sociologist Daniel Bell. The rise of knowledge-based industries, he predicted in his landmark 1973 book, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,” would establish the “pre-eminence of the professional and technical class.” This new “priesthood of power,” he suggested, would aim for the rational “ordering of mass society.”

Although usually somewhat progressive by inclination, the Clerisy actually functions much like the old First Estate in France – the clergy – helping determine the theology, morals and ideals of the broader population.

Nowhere is this function clearer than in the university itself, from which Barack Obama sprang, and which has become an essential part of his political coalition.

Campus intolerance

In allying with academia, the president has hitched himself to a sector that has, at least till now, enjoyed rapid growth. In 1958, universities and colleges employed under 370,000 people. By 2014 that number had expanded to roughly 1.7 million. Over that time, academe – once a true battleground of ideas – has become about as ideologically diverse as the medieval Catholic Church. President Obama, for example, reaped a remarkable 96 percent of all presidential campaign donations from Ivy League employees, a margin more reminiscent of Soviet Russia than a properly functioning pluralistic academy.

This level of unanimity, a recent University of California study suggests, is actually becoming more marked, with barely 12 percent of all faculty self-identifying as right of center. As in medieval academies, such uniformity feeds an attitude of intolerance toward other perspectives, as revealed in the cancellations of commencement speaker invitations this spring. More troubling still is a 2012 study finding that roughly two of five professors would be less well-inclined to hire an evangelical or conservative colleague than a more conventionally liberal one.

Saddest of all is the impact on students. Longtime civil libertarian Nat Hentoff notes a2010 survey of 24,000 college students, which found that barely a third thought it “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” Recent years have seen the rise of such things as speech codes and the introduction of “trigger warnings” to alert students about what might be objectionable ideas or phrases, even in American classics.

Imbalanced media

We see a similar, if less well-enforced, spirit of uniformity running through the news media. There remain strong conservative outposts (largely the News Corp. empire), but a detailed UCLA study found that, of the 20 leading U.S. news outlets, 18 were left of center. A recent Indiana University study found that barely 7 percent of journalists in 2013 were Republican, compared with nearly a quarter in 1971.

Even Arnold Brisbane, a former ombudsman of the country’s premier news source, the New York Times, admits that group-think now increasingly overshadows objectivity. Brisbane says so many staffers at the newspaper “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism – for lack of a better term.” He suggests “that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times.”

One key part of Obama’s legacy is an ever-closer marriage between the organs of the Democratic Party and the press. At least 16 prominent journalists have joined the Obama administration, something of a record. Just this past week, the president’s former longtime press secretary, Jay Carney, announced he would become a commentator on CNN.

“This press corps,” acidly notes the former Jimmy Carter pollster Pat Caddell, “serves at the pleasure of this White House and president.”

Over the past few months, the president’s off-kilter performance and slipping popularity has irked even some of his loyalist media backers. But this shrinking fealty toward the Obama personage does not suggest an ideological shift from conventional progressive opinion on everything from women’s or minorities issues to the environment.

This is perhaps most evident with climate change, a critical issue, to be sure, where reporting about the decades-long “pause” in rising temperatures, or the recentexpansion of Arctic sea ice, has been left primarily to the right-wing media, who have their own agenda. The mainstream media seem to view anyone skeptical about any aspect of the climate change agenda – in good medieval fashion – as heretics, deluded or corrupt “deniers.” The Los Angeles Times, as well as the website Reddit, have chosen to exclude contributions from climate change skeptics.

Sometimes, you have to wonder what happened to an objective press. USA Today’s media columnist, Rem Reider openly justified limiting or eliminating coverage of “reality-challenged people” who refuse to accept what he calls “established truth.” I imagine there were cardinals and bishops saying much the same thing in 15th century Paris.

‘Vast left-wing conspiracy’

Much the same brain lock can be attributed to the entertainment media. When not indulging in portraying sex and violence, our television and movie people reliably push the same basic agenda as the rest of the media. As the liberal author Jonathan Chaitsuggests, the entertainment industry has come to constitute something of “a vast left-wing conspiracy.”

Theoretically, the third part of my New Clerisy – the government bureaucracy – could be impacted by election results. But even if Republicans or a center-right majority were to gain control of both houses of Congress, the president seems determined to grant “progressive” bureaucracies more direct power, allowing them to become something of an unelected permanent government. An electoral defeat this November, if anything, might make him even bolder to push rule by decree.

Like the members of the old First Estate, or the Soviet nomenklatura, the upper bureaucracy has evolved into a privileged – and cossetted – caste, with huge benefits and higher pay than their similarly educated private-sector counterparts, a status secured by their vast political influence. Since 1989, public-sector unions have been among the largest contributors to campaigns, giving overwhelmingly to Democrats.

Nowhere is this permanent government increasingly more evident than in the expansive agenda of the Environmental Protection Agency. Working intimately with allied environmental groups – but without congressional approval – EPA has been reaching to control the nation’s energy policy through administrative diktat.

Although a low priority for voters, climate change matters much to the Clerisy, perhaps, at least unconsciously, because it creates a perfect raison d’etre for more expansive control. But the EPA is no outlier; other agencies chafe to extend their power over information, immigration, transportation, education and even such functions of government as land use, traditionally determined by local elected officials. By 2016, our daily lives may be controlled more by unelected agencies than through the legislative process.

This is more than a reaction to Republican obstructionism, although that bears some of the blame. It also reflects a more authoritarian view among the Clerisy that democracy is too unruly, too determined by human passions and loyalties, to address the most serious issues. Former White House budget director Peter Orszag, for example, thinks we need to become “less democratic.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, another key figure of the Clerisy, has praised the Chinese authoritarian system as better-suited to meet new challenges than is our clunky system.

Against such established and accumulated power, even a strong November showing by the GOP may have surprisingly little effect. Indeed, even with a Republican in the White House, the Clerisy’s ability to shape perceptions, educate the young and control key regulatory agencies will not much diminish. The elevation of the Clerisy to unprecedented influence may prove this president’s most important “gift” to posterity.

This piece first appeared at the Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Barack Obama photo by Bigstock.


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how to fix "New Clerisy"

Geography student

The reason that University professors and lecturers now identify more with the Democratic party than Republicans is because Republicans have gradually moved away from science based reasoning and have become less and less capable of introducing well thought out legislation. Republicans have become the party of obstruction who proudly declared that their main objective in 2008 was making President Obama a "one term president" rather than working to improve the country. This is well documented in the book "it’s even worse than it looks" by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Ornstein is a member of the American Enterprise Institute, hardly one to criticize Republican policy.

Take climate change. Google "Climate Change at the National Academies" http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/. This has the position of the Nation Academy of Sciences, Engineering, Institute of Medicine and the Nation Research Council. These organizations conclusions is that the Earth cannot withstand the doubling of concentration of global warming gases in the atmosphere without severe consequences that will be very expensive to fix. Rather than sensibly working on legislation to reduce global production of these gases in a cost effective manner without reducing living standards, Republicans have increasing ignored major science institutions position. This has resulted in such unscientific behavior as Republicans inviting the novelist Michael Crichton to testify as an expert witness on Climate Change (Google "Michael Crichton testifies on global warming") http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2005/sep/29/comment.bookscomment rather than climate scientists from the academies. Therefore it is hardly surprising that higher education teaching critical thinking has increasing moved away from the Republican party.
Another example is Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act (AKA) which they have labeled “Obamacare” in an apparent attempt to use the fallacy of name calling to critique a policy as they did with “Hillarycare”. There are good reasons to want to improve or reform the Affordable Care Act and provide affordable health care for all. However, having done nothing even when controlling the government under President George W. Bush the Republican Party no longer appears to be capable of competent complex legislation. Rather than introducing legislation to replace the AKA Republican members are instead claiming that they have voted over 50 times to repeal the AKA. These members obviously don’t care or are incapable of providing affordable health care to citizens otherwise they would have introduced legislation to do so in the last four years.
At institutes of higher learning where critical thinking is taught it is not possible to easily defend positions that do not hold up under critical thinking and debate. It would be interesting to see if the students who say they should not hold “unpopular” views is that these views do not hold up under the scientific scrutiny.
This article talks as though there is a “New Clerisy” that doesn't consider the other side of the media and popular belief that appears to drive the Republican party, such as talk radio and Fox News. This media appeals to an audience that does not like science when it conflicts with their beliefs, and has therefore become highly critical with extensive use of the fallacy of name calling such as “liberal”, “leftist”, “progressive”, rather than well referenced data used by science. Increasingly, too many Republicans are only listening to this new media and taking its unscientific conclusions seriously. They have come to believe that obstruction is sensible legislation.
Republicans need to start embracing science and working with scientists to introduce sensible legislation not obstruction. Introduce legislation to fix the AKA that the president will sign. Introduce legislation to produce less global warming gases without harming the economy by pricing global warming gas production and using the revenue on research to provide energy with lower greenhouse gas production. Then the perceived “New Clerisy” will disappear.

I agree with this analysis.

I agree with this analysis. Charles Murray's "The Bell Curve" helped explain this phenomenon. Too bad the conversation got side tracked over the racial angle -- but, then, the racial divisions in our society make it more difficult to focus on these class issues.

Not impossible however. American history is a story of long swings of the social pendulum. Some of these trends are simply unsustainable unless you posit that the American citizenry are a nation of sheep. I don't think they are. Look at UKIP in Britain. Something like that is going to happen here. Ironically, the Citizen United ruling might be a factor: it takes only one rogue billionaire to finance a Neil Farage type figure and thus get an alternative narrative that really resonates before the voting public. Working class heroes are not a thing of the past. Nature cannot be fooled. Truth will out.

Luke Lea