The proposed investiture of Caroline Kennedy as the replacement senator for Hillary Clinton has inspired a surprising degree of opposition – at least from other claimants to the throne, such as the Cuomos, and from those obstreperous parvenues, the Clintons.
Perhaps less obvious may be a wider disdain expressed by even liberal New Yorkers who feel Kennedy's elevation may be one celebrity rising too many. Although the big New York editorial boards are expected to line up, like so many obedient lap dogs, grassroots dissent seethes. Queens Congressman Gary Ackerman, in a remarkable display of chutzpah, groused: "I don't know what Caroline Kennedy's qualifications are except that she has name recognition. But so does J. Lo."
Other liberal New Yorkers I have spoken to detest the idea of Kennedy replacing Hillary Clinton – particularly without even having to battle, as she did, through the elective process. One reporter even spoke of a discernible "populist backlash" against this ultimate insiders' deal among lower-level pols, reporters and grassroots Democratic activists.
Still, these yelps are not likely to stop the Kennedy juggernaut. The forces behind Caroline – like moneybags Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Wall Street bagman-in-chief Sen. Charles Schumer – are too powerful and well-heeled to be resisted. The word is out that dissenting on Kennedy could result in loss of the kind of largesse that can make or break political careers.
The disquiet about her appointment does offer a glimmer of hope about our battered democracy. It could point toward a backlash against the gentrification of liberalism, the Democratic Party and much of American politics. Gentry, of course, have been involved in American politics from the earliest time, but generally as a conservative influence tied to the protection of their moneyed interest or privileges.
Of course, some wealthy hierarchs also supported liberal politics. Perhaps the most important examples were Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet if the Roosevelts favored the middle class and the poor, they often did so at the expense of being labeled class traitors by their peers.
In contrast, the current gentry liberals increasingly reflect the biases of their own social class. The upper echelons of Wall Street, academe and the media have been moving toward what passes for the "left" for over a generation. Ironically, this movement became most evident in the early 1960s in the elite support that gathered around Caroline's father, John, who brought with him into office "the best and brightest."
As historian Fred Siegel has noted, the Kennedy phenomena differed greatly – in both style and substance – from the "lunch pail" liberalism epitomized by President Harry Truman and, to an extent, that of both Lyndon Johnson and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Their Democratic party was sustained by appealing to the economic interests of working and middle-class Americans.
As opposed to gentry politics, whose bastions lay in fashionable urban districts and college towns, Truman-style democracy reached into the vast suburban dreamscape – even into small towns and rural areas.
Over recent years this version of the party, with its more geographically diverse middle-class base, has lost influence. It's been a process of both addition and subtraction.
A series of strong Republican politicians since Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan lured many middle-income voters out of the Democratic Party by appealing to their patriotism, economic self-interest and, in some cases, prejudices.
At the same time, the core of the elite liberal constituency – academics, high-tech businesspeople and media figures – has been growing steadily in wealth and influence. By marrying this constituency to poor minority voters, gentry liberals have turned our core urban areas into a collection of electoral "ditto heads," with so-called "progressives" winning as much as 70 or 80% of the vote in presidential elections.
This year's thrilling primary battle between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama represented a clash of these two tendencies. Although Clinton herself enjoyed strong ties to some gentry liberals, she campaigned, particularly toward the end of the marathon, as Harry Truman in a bright pantsuit. Obama, for his part, sallied forth from a solid base of academics and well-educated professionals, as well as African Americans.
In first the primary and then the general election, Obama's growing fundraising advantage stemmed increasingly not from his early base among students and liberal professionals, but from his strong ties to the highest echelons of the gentry. As we now know, it was big money – hedge funds, Silicon Valley, Hollywood – not small donors who helped propel Obama's financial juggernaut.
Then it's not surprising that, so far, the Obama pre-presidency reflects the values of the gentry class. His appointments in key economic posts have been very much in sync with the Schumer-Robert Rubin Wall Street wing of the party. Contrary to the hyperventilations of some conservatives, Obama seems as unlikely to confiscate the holders of mega-wealth, inherited or otherwise, as that muddle-headed blueblood, George W. Bush.
If the president-elect looks to raise taxes, a more likely target will be the less-well-heeled small businesspeople, farmers and others who have tended to remain closer to the Republican Party. These are the people who earn about $250,000 a year and may now be demonized as "rich." Another source of pain for the middling classes may come from carbon trading, which could boost energy prices.
Indeed, Obama's most liberal positioning may come on environmental issues, a favorite concern of many gentry liberals. "Green" politics appeal to these factions in part because it poses little threat to "information" industries like finance, software and entertainment. Instead the losers will be blue-collar polluting industries – such as traditional energy production, trucking or manufacturing – which have largely remained close to the GOP.
Another arena may be found in new federal initiatives on urban and planning issues. Many gentry liberals, starting with Al Gore, have long disdained suburban lifestyles that allow most Americans an enviable level of privacy, safety and comfort. After all, members of the gentry don't need supports since they can afford both spacious city digs and country retreats.
But it's not only ideology or cultural preferences that drive the gentry agenda. Many venture capitalists and investment bankers see a carbon-trading regime and massive subsidies for renewable energy as a potential source of windfall profits.
Yet for all of these synergies, Obama's embrace of the gentry agenda also poses some longer-term political risks. For one thing, there's a growing cadre of congressional Democrats from non-gentry constituencies – the Great Plains, various suburbs and exurbs – who may find the Obama approach both not sufficiently populist and too dismissive of their basic economic concerns.
The patterns of this dissent can be seen in the early opposition among these Democrats to the initial plan for the financial bailout proposed by President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It might be further stimulated if the administration seeks to smother fossil fuel, agricultural and industrial development as well as steer the stimulus away from financing the roads and bridges critical to the suburban and rural economies.
For right now, the drive for the Kennedy nomination suggests how powerful, pervasive and even cocky the gentry class has become. But if the economy worsens and grassroots anger grows, the new president may want to avoid emulating JFK and instead follow another playbook, one oriented toward the middle class and epitomized by Harry Truman – the very same approach that almost helped elect his primary rival and new secretary of State.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.