The Death Of Gentry Liberalism


Gentry liberalism, so hot just a year ago, is now in full retreat, a victim of its hypocrisy and fundamental contradictions. Its collapse threatens the coherence of President Barack Obama's message as he prepares for his State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

Gentry liberalism combines four basic elements: faith in postindustrial "creative" financial capitalism, cultural liberalism, Gore-ite environmentalism and the backing of the nation's arguably best-organized political force, public employee unions. Obama rose to power on the back of all these forces and, until now, has governed as their tribune.

Obama's problems stem primarily from gentry liberalism's class contradictions. Focused on ultra-affluent greens, the media, Wall Street and the public sector, gentry liberalism generally gives short shrift to upward mobility, the basic aspiration of the middle class.

Scott Brown's shocking victory in Massachusetts--like earlier GOP triumphs in Virginia and New Jersey--can be explained best by class. Analysis by demographer Wendell Cox, among others, shows that Brown won his margin in largely middle- and working-class suburbs, where many backed Obama in 2008. He lost by almost 2-to-1 among poor voters and also among those earning over $85,000 a year. He also won a slight margin among union members--remarkable given the lockstep support of their organizations for Brown's Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley.

Geography played a role, of course, but class proved the divider. Coakley did well in the wealthiest suburbs largely north and northwest of Boston. But Brown's edge in the more middle- and working-class suburbs proved insurmountable.

Obama, a genius at handling race, has always had problems with class. His early primary victories in 2008 resulted not only from superior organization but the preponderance of students and upper-income professionals in early primary states. Once Hillary Clinton morphed, just a bit late, into Harry Truman in a pants suit, she proved unstoppable, rolling over Obama in critical states like Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Florida, Michigan and throughout Appalachia.

In the general election Obama succeeded in winning over a significant portion of these voters. Long-simmering disgust with the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, combined with a catastrophic economic collapse, undermined the GOP's hold on middle-class suburbanites.

Now that the ball is in his court, the president and his party must abandon their gentry-liberal game plan. The emphasis on bailing out Wall Street and public employees, supporting social welfare and manufacturing "green" jobs appealed to the core gentry coalition but left many voters, including lifelong Democrats, wondering what was in it for them and their families.

In the next few elections there's an even greater threat of alienation among millennial voters, who in 2008 accounted for much of the president's margin of victory. Generational researchers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais note that millennials are starting to enter the workforce in big numbers. Right now their prospects are not pretty. The unemployment rate for those under 25 stands at 19%. Even for college graduates, wages are declining even as opportunities dry up.

The greatest political danger is not so much a millennial switch to the GOP but a loss of enthusiasm that will diminish the youth vote. Winograd and Hais estimate only about one-third of those who voted in 2008 in Massachusetts voted in this last special Senate election. "Republicans will keep on celebrating victories until Democrats turn their attention to young voters and get them as excited as Obama did in 2008," Winograd warns.

Ever deepening disillusionment--not only among millennials--is inevitable unless Obama changes course and starts building a broad-based recovery. The president's economic team is as pro-big-bank as any conjured up by the most rock-ribbed Republican. Its motto could be a reworking of that old notion by onetime GM CEO and Eisenhower Defense Secretary Charles Wilson: "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA"--just substitute Wall Street for GM.

But where GM brought jobs and prosperity to millions, the current Wall Street focus has forged a recovery that works for the gentry but fails to promote upward mobility. Bailed out from their disastrous risky bets and then provided with easy access to cheap credit, the financiers have had themselves a fine party while the rest of the private sector economy suffered. The partygoers have become so rarified that they are unable to lift even the New York City economy, whose unemployment rate now surpasses the national average.

This spectacle has forced Obama to try locating his hidden populist, but dangers lurk in this shift. If he attacks Wall Street with any real ferocity, the only linchpin of the current weak recovery could crumple. An administration that has focused on finance as the essence of the economy may prove poorly suited to skewer its primary object of affection.

Yet it may not be too late for the president to recover some of his economic mojo. Although his financial tax plan represents little more than petty cash at today's absurd Wall Street rates, Obama's endorsement of Paul Volcker's more muscular reform agenda could rally Democrats while forcing Republicans into a doctrinal crisis. Some, like Sen. John McCain, may favor a policy to downsize the megabanks and limit their activities. But many others who hold up the holy grail of free markets über alles will expose themselves again as mindless corporate lackeys.

But badmouthing the financial aristocracy is not enough. Obama also must jettison some of the lamer parts of the gentry agenda. Cap and trade, a gentry favorite that satisfies both green piety and Wall Street's greedy desire for yet another speculative market, needs to be scrapped as a potential job-killer for many industries. Similarly, the administration needs to delay measures to impose draconian limits of greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency, which could devastate large sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, agriculture and construction.

Obama, particularly after the Copenhagen fiasco, needs to shift to more practical, job-creating conservation measures like tree-planting and reducing traffic congestion--notably by promoting telecommuting--while continuing research and development of all kinds of cleaner fuels. Measures that make America more energy-efficient and self-sufficient--without ruining the economy with ruinously high prices--would be far more saleable to the public than the current quasi-religious obsession with wind and solar.

Obama also needs to stop his naive promotion of the chimera of "green jobs" as his signature answer to the country's mounting employment woes. There is no way a few thousand, mostly heavily subsidized, jobs creating ever more expensive energy can turn around any economy. Just look at the economic carnage in Spain--where youth unemployment has now reached a remarkable 44%--which has bet much of its resources targeting "green" energy.

More than anything the president needs to make the case that government can help the productive economy. This requires a scaling down of regulatory measures that are now scaring off entrepreneurs--including some aspects of health care reform--and beginning to demonstrate a direct concern for basic industries like manufacturing, agriculture and trade.

Pivoting away from gentry liberalism will no doubt offend some of the president's core constituencies. But if he does not do this soon, and decisively, he will find that the middle-class anger seen in Massachusetts will spread throughout the country. As a result Barack Obama, a man who would be Franklin Roosevelt and could settle on being the next Bill Clinton, will end up looking more like that sad sack of Democratic presidents, James Earl Carter.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press February 4th, 2010.

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It's hard to know for sure right now, but this might end up being one of the most poorly timed and out-of-touch political predictions in the past few years. We'll see.

Good thing it wasn't too high-profile, or it could really end up looking bad.


so much for objective journalism.

The crisis in confidence, comes from the double-sided coin of neo-conservative/neo-liberal policies of the elite in power. The revolving door of government/corporate entities are robbing the working class of their wealth, and their opportunities. The frustration that is being felt, and whipped up by corporate media elites is that Obama is hamstrung by his corporate handlers. Combined with an minority neo-con group that is doing everything possible to assure failure of any progress, on any issue. It's politics, for the sake of politics, working people be damned.

Unfortunately, Real conservatives, and real progressives find themselves completely unrepresented, in government, or media. Astro-turfing campaigns, such as Mr. Koch's Tea Party Movement, and the Soros media campaigns are further muddying the waters of public consciousness. Unfortunately, those of us that have to go to work everyday, just to pay the health insurance extortion are too busy to dig deep into the debate.

There's an ever larger population, that are disappointed in the way the media is handling politics. No objective voices can be heard, and hard journalism is relegated to non-profit status. This disappointment, is helping to create a disenfranchised populace. They are reaching for anything that can make them "feel" important. Even if that makes them corporate shills.

It is a sad state.

The Youth Vote

Perhaps the youth vote for Obama has diminished because of his foreign policy. Although he has adopted a more humble rhetoric towards the rest of the world, his actions clearly speak louder than words. His policy towards the Middle East is eerily Bush-like, and the increasingly bellicose tone towards China can only be seen as provocative.

It's Like Bob Marley once said, "You can't fool the youth!"

The End of Wealth

What may be dying is the concept of Free Trade and the jobs for everybody in the "service sector." The gentry class works in the service sector and has made a very good living from it until now.

The problem happened when everybody else lower on the economic ladder tried to live the same way without a wealth generation engine, like the auto industry, underneath to hold the service sector up.

The most interesting politician right now is Nicolas Sarkozy who has the courage to turn against the concepts of free trade/globalization and international "service wealth" in banks and investment funds. You can argue that he has many of the same philosophies as Obama under his skin - but unlike Obama he is not afraid to fight for what he believes is right for his nation. By fighting and stirring up established ideas he is forcing debate and change. Obama is a much weaker leader than Sarkozy and will only talk while America burns.

Obama & Race

"Obama, a genius at handling race,..."

Not really. Look at the racist church he attended for twenty years. He just benefited from a media heavily biased to believe he was a genius in almost every respect. One by one, those illusions are fading away. Yesterday's nastiness toward Supreme Court justices attending his State of the Union address is but one illustration. Even Carter usually knew better than to display his contempt that openly.

Like much other political commentary, this article is based on the premise that politicians are nothing and believe nothing. But if Obama is a blend of gentry liberalism and Chicago machine politics--if those really are his core values--then he can't change, he can only pretend to change. A strategy of deception might have worked in the 1960s, when Walter Cronkite and the NY Times determined what was news in America. Think of all the late-50s pictures of a happily married JFK engineered by father Joseph. But it won't work today.

That's why in 2010 we all know about Obama's church, but in 1960 we knew nothing about JFK's pathological womanizing.

What's Good For...

This is a great essay. However, it contains a common (if minor) mistake. Charles Wilson never said "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA". The actual quote is

"because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."


Thank you

Peter Schaeffer

young voters

Thank you for another well written article.

At this juncture, what do the democrats have to offer literate young voters?