The Unseen Class War That Could Decide The Presidential Election


Much is said about class warfare in contemporary America, and there’s justifiable anger at the impoverishment of much of the middle and working classes. The Pew Research Center recently dubbed the 2000s a “lost decade” for middle-income earners — some 85% of Americans in that category feel it’s now more difficult to maintain their standard of living than at the beginning of the millennium, according to a Pew survey.

Blaming a disliked minority — rich business folks — has morphed into a predictable strategy for President Obama’s Democrats, stripped of incumbent success. But all the talk of “one percent” versus “the ninety nine percent” misses new splits developing within both the upper and middle classes.

There is no true solidarity among the rich since no one is yet threatening their status. The “one percent” are splitting their bets. In 2008 President Obama received more Wall Street money than any candidate in history, and he still relies on Wall Street bundlers for his sustenance. For all his class rhetoric, miscreant Wall Streeters, particularly big ones, have evaded big sanctions and the ignominy of jail time.

Obama enjoys great support from the financial interests that benefit from government debt and expansive public largesse. Well-connected people like Obama’s financial tsar on the GM bailout, Steven Rattner, who is also known as a vigorous defender of “too big to fail.”

The “patrician left” — a term that might have amused Marx — extends as well to Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists and techies have opened their wallets wider than ever before for the president. Microsoft and Google are two of Obama’s top three organizational sources of campaign contributions. Valley financiers are not always as selfless as they or their admirers imagine: Many have sought to feed at the Energy Department’s bounteous “green” energy trough and all face regulatory reviews by federal agencies.

The Republicans have turned increasingly to those patricians who depend on the more tangible economy. If you make your living from digging coal or exploring for oil wells, even if you don’t like him, Romney is you man. This saddles the GOP with the burden of being linked to one of America’s most hated interests: oil and gas companies. Almost as detested is the biggest source of Romney cash, large Wall Street banks. (In contrast, Democratic-leaning industries, such as Internet-related companies, enjoy relatively high public support.)

With the patriarchate divided, the real action in the emerging class war is taking place further down the economic food chain. This inconvenient reality is largely ignored by the left, which finds the idea of anyone this side of Bain Capital supporting Romney as little more than “false consciousness.”

Obama’s core middle-class support, and that of his party, comes from what might be best described as “the clerisy,” a 21st century version of France’s pre-revolution First Estate. This includes an ever-expanding class of minders — lawyers, teachers, university professors, the media and, most particularly, the relatively well paid legions of public sector workers — who inhabit Washington, academia, large non-profits and government centers across the country.

This largely well-heeled “middle class” still adores the president, and party theoreticians see it as the Democratic Party’s new base. Gallup surveys reveal Obama does best among “professionals” such as teachers, lawyers and educators. After retirees, educators and lawyers are the two biggest sources of campaign contributions for Obama by occupation. Obama’s largest source of funds among individual organizations is the University of California, Harvard is fifth and its wannabe cousin Stanford ranks ninth.

Like teachers, much of academia and the legal bar like expanding government since the tax spigot flows in the right direction: that is, into their mouths. Like the old clerical classes, who relied on tithes and the collection bowl, many in today’s clerisy lives somewhat high on the hog; nearly one in five federal workers earn over $100,000.

Essentially, the clerisy has become a new, mass privileged class who live a safer, more secure life compared to those trapped in the harsher, less cosseted private economy. As California Polytechnic economist Michael Marlow points out, public sector workers enjoy greater job stability, and salary and benefits as much as 21% higher than of private sector employees doing similar work.

On this year’s Labor Day, this is the new face of unionism. The percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped from 24% in 1973 to barely 7% today and in 2010, for the first time, the public sector accounted for an absolute majority of union members. “Labor” increasingly means not guys with overalls and lunch pails, but people whose paychecks are signed by taxpayers.

The GOP, for its part, now relies on another part of the middle class, what I would call the yeomanry. In many ways they represent the contemporary version of Jeffersonian farmers or the beneficiaries of President Lincoln’s Homestead Act. They are primarily small property owners who lack the girth and connections of the clerisy but resist joining the government-dependent poor. Particularly critical are small business owners, who Gallup identifies as “the least approving” of Obama among all the major occupation groups. Barely one in three likes the present administration.

The yeomanry diverge from the clerisy in other ways. They tend to live in the suburbs, a geography much detested by many leaders of the clerisy and, likely, the president himself. Yeomen families tend to be concentrated in those parts of the country that have more children and are more apt to seek solutions to social problems through private efforts. Philanthropy, church work and voluntarism — what you might call, appropriately enough, the Utah approach, after the state that leads in philanthropy.

The nature of their work also differentiates the clerisy from the yeomanry. The clerisy labors largely in offices and has no contact with actual production. Many yeomen, particularly in business services, depend on industry for their livelihoods either directly or indirectly. The clerisy’s stultifying, and often job-toxic regulations and “green” agenda may be one reason why people engaged in farming, fishing, forestry, transportation, manufacturing and construction overwhelmingly disapprove of the president’s policies, according to Gallup.

Obama supporters sometimes trace the loss of largely white working-class support — even to the somewhat less than simpatico patrician Romney — to “false consciousness.”  A recent Daily Kos article, charmingly entitled “The Masses are Asses,” chose to wave the old bloody shirt of racism, arguing that whites “are the single largest, and most protected racial group in this country’s history.”

Ultimately this division — clerisy and their clients versus yeomanry — will decide the election. The patricians and the unions will finance this battle on both sides, spreading a predictable thread of half-truths and outright lies. The Democrats enjoy a tactical advantage. All President Obama needs is to gain a rough split among the vast group making around or above the national median income. He can count on overwhelming backing by the largely government dependent poor as well as most ethnic minorities, even the most entrepreneurial and successful.

Romney’s imperative will be to rouse the yeomanry by suggesting the clerisy, both by their sheer costliness and increasingly intrusive agenda, are crippling their family’s prospects for a better life. In these times of weak economic growth and growing income disparity, the Republicans delude themselves by claiming to ignore class warfare. They need to learn how instead to make it politically profitable for themselves.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

Mitt Romney image from Bigstock.

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this was a well written and

this was a well written and thoughtful article. It’s a shame that so much of the daily discussion about the election is focused on such small and candidly stupid issues. This truly is a "choice" election, but I believe the choice is bigger than is being presented. On one hand we have the left, holding out the morality of altruism, that man’s purpose is to serve his fellow men and that the purpose of government is to use its power to create the fairest and most perfect society possible, this is the core of "Obamaism.

On the right, we see an awkward attempt to put forth "individualism" but they do it so badly. The pursuit of happiness via ethical rational self-interest is a better way to describe it, but because today’s right tries to base this rational code of life on biblical faith, their arguments simply fall apart, and look comically stupid in the process. They wind up with mushy Mitt Romney as a standard bearer, and Paul Ryan channeling Rand, but claiming that God runs the world (uh???).

The left has a much better advocate for their true beliefs than the right does; it’s going to be up to a small number of people to set the next 50 year course of the country (and maybe the world) on November 6th. The left has a clear vision and a leader certain of his mission, the right "feels" like it has the answers, but can't explain what they are or way (and for those few who actually could, they are afraid to use the right words).

Advantage: Obama.

class warfare

"In these times of weak economic growth and growing income disparity, the Republicans delude themselves by claiming to ignore class warfare. They need to learn how instead to make it politically profitable for themselves."

I hope Mr. Kotkin has better luck in getting this point across than I have so far. Maybe it helps that he's written a good explanatory article.

Class War

And of course this trend will continue, as far as the eye can see. Driven by automation, immigration, Nafta, Gatt, and the WTO.

The case for wage subsidies and more progressive taxation grows by the decade. The case for a graduated consumption tax needs to be made.

Luke Lea

Modern elections

All modern elections are a contest between taxpayers and tax consumers and they are increasingly weighted against the former by the constant growth of government and it's range of entitlements.
The purpose of government handouts is to create dependency. There was a deliberate choice by postwar policymakers to make entitlements universal rather than means tested.
This gave every citizen a stake of some kind in the welfare state. It also enabled the government, when taxpayers started to complain about the burden, to retort that the complainers were also beneficiaries.
The masses aren't asses - typical liberal condescension towards those the left claims it wants to help - but it's hard to convince people that free stuff for them today may mean hardship for their children and grandchildren tomorrow. It's how the left always win in the end.
Even supposing Romney wins and resuscitates the economy à la Reagan, another Obama will be waiting in the wings in 2016 to urge 'spreading the wealth around' so that the process starts all over again.
Kotkin's clerisy trope is a useful reminder that modern social demcratic parties - of which the Democratic party is one - are almost wholly in the hands of the professional middle classes who make their money directly or indirectly from government tax revenues.
Britain's Labour party, which arose out of the 19th century industrial trade union movement, was for years an alliance between workers and intellectuals. The unions still pay its bills but the modern party apparat and its MPs are overwhelmingly white collar.
Teachers are and always have been the backbone of the French Socialist party which since last spring's elections control over every level of government in France.
Laughably, some in the party has been musing about how it might reconnect - it means connect - with the White working class. Other voices say forget Kansas, the future lies will immigrants, college graduates and women. Sound familiar?
There's the additional consideration that in social democracies, the left retains a lot of power, even when defeated in elections, through its control of the bureaucracy.

Who is the real dupe?

This analysis is interesting. It does help explain how people (in this case the yeomanry) can rationalize voting against their basic self interest. This demographic construct does not alter the fact that the real center of power in the US lies with a speculator elite, which unduly controls both political parties.

The “clerisy” of government workers, highly educated urban professionals and academics, and IT, tech and “green” industries clearly get some actual benefits from the Obama and Democratic worldview and policies, but tell me how the small shopkeepers, small farmers and skilled trades people this author lumps into the “yeomanry” get much benefit from the GOP’s policies that coddle big banks, oil and gas companies, war profiteers, and financial speculators, and which rig the tax code and trade laws to promote and reward the outsourcing of capital and jobs that the yeoman depend on to allow them a middle class existence? This is the infamous “neoconservative Bush model” that has guided the party for a quarter century. Which leads me to believe that, in the end, the GOP’s unwieldy coalition of speculator elites and yeoman, inflamed by cultural wedge issues, is more likely to fly apart than the Democratic one.

The “tea party” phenomenon is just a forewarning of this. The GOP elites obviously seek to harness and channel this discontent by controlling and funding compliant “tea party” organizations, but the sentiment at the grass roots telescopes real future troubles for the Republican approach. You can only snow job these yeoman so long over religion, etc., but eventually once they are completely impoverished by the speculators, they will come to the conclusion that both parties cannot represent them, or protect them from ruin.

As for the idea that "working class" people support the GOP, this is fiction. It is the squeezed, and shrinking petty bourgeoisie (whom the author calls "yeoman") that do this. Consider that only about 50 percent of the eligible electorate ever votes, on average, and that only about half of that (25 percent of the total eligible) is consistently voting Republican. The working class gave up on the electoral system decades ago.

The real dupe?

This is an excellent article. I'm not sure how voting for an ever expanding entitlement state is in the interest of small business owners and those who work in the private sector, as you assert in your post. The federal (and most state) bureaucracies long ago outgrew any reasonable size or long term sustainability, they are desperately in need of pruning.

Missed the point

You're assuming that A. Hick is suggesting that the Democratic Party would actively continue to expand government. Contrary to the general talking points of the Republican Party, there does not have to be a choice between slashing the size of government and expanding government further. The answer can lie somewhere in between. A. Hick was specifically commenting on the fact that the "yeomanry" is equivalent to the petty bourgeoisie, and that this group in America has been slowly shrinking in size for the past 30 years as a result of neo-conservative economic policies. In this sense, as the yeomanry are successful in electing GOP candidates, with whom they definitely agree on social issues and whose economic policy has been accepted as beneficial to them contrary to real world data, they are at the same time causing their own group's demise. While the economic policies of the Democratic Party are essentially tied to corporate interests as well, the success of small business owners is much more dependent on the size and spending power of the middle class, both of which have been greatly damaged by deregulating the economy and cutting taxes on the top earners over the past 30 years, preeminent Republican policies.

In the end, we need the influence of big business and big labor out of our politics altogether. I just wish some independents would get together to try and get a consensus built to overturn Citizens United. A wish of mine that is likely to be much less popular on both sides of the isle, but that will need to be a long-term reality if we are to change our financial system of private gains and public losses, would be to re-couple financial responsibility of the liabilities of corporations and LLCs with their investors. It might sound impossible in the short term, but our system will remain perverse until international capital is not so footloose and investors have "skin in the game". Nassim Taleb's upcoming book Antifragile is supposed to explore this point in greater depth and, without having read it, I will guarantee it to be a thought-provoking read.


I have not heard the term clerisy before. An easier way to describe them is as "the ruling class." Especially in states like NY, IL and here in CA, these lightweight government workers are running us ragged, bleeding us dry and destroying our quality of life. Insane pension and other benefits are driving most private citizens up the wall. Right now, Prop 32, curbing government union political funding, is on the ballot in CA. It will win by a landslide as will any candidate or proposition that clips the wings of those who have over-reached.

The Oppressor Class

Ruling Class is a good term, one that I often use. But sometimes it's better to refer to them as the Oppressor Class.

voter guide and Farewell Address of George Washington

I posted links to many articles on dealing with jobs, education, and many other topics.

The Papers of George Washington
The Farewell Address

"One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions & aims of other Districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies & heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render Alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal Affection."