The theory driving much of journalist and professor Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite is that the deep polarization of today’s politics—and the embrace of populism here and in Western Europe—boils down to a clash between what he calls the professional managerial overclass and the working class.
“We’re seeing a shift in politics in the U.S. and similar Western democracies from a left/right distinction or a top-to-bottom distinction to an insider/outsider distinction,” says Lind, a professor of practice at the UT–Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs and author of more than a dozen books, including nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s literature. “The whole point of my book is to overcome social cleavage along class lines. It’s to produce a new compromise.”
Lind calls that compromise “democratic pluralism,” rebuilding institutions like unions, local party machines, and churches (reimagined as “the guild, the ward, and the congregation”) that once acted as go-betweens for the classes. On the National Podcast of Texas, Lind makes his case for democratic pluralism and weighs in on the future of Trumpism, why he believes “technocratic neoliberalism” is a threat to democracy, and Texas’s own long history with class warfare.
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Some highlights from the conversation:
1. Lind believes Donald Trump’s 2016 election was the result of “anti-system populism.”
“When you put money into the Coke machine, and nothing comes out, people are inclined to kick it. I’m a critic of populism. I think it’s very dangerous and destructive, but I understand the motives of the people kicking the vending machine … And Trump was anti-system across the board. He rejected the two core economic policies shared by Bush Republicans and Clinton Democrats—freer trade and freer immigration, which were never terribly popular with much of the public but were embraced by the elite. And his style was the antithesis of the cool, calm, rational Aspen Institute, Davos seminar style that is favored by the professional class. So, both in style and substance, he was anti-system. How much of this was opportunism? Who knows? I argue in my book that populism is essentially a dead end because it’s reactionary. It can channel genuine grievances that have been neglected by the establishment, but it cannot build a new establishment.”
2. Lind considers Joe Biden’s assessment that four years of Trump will go down as an aberration, while eight years will fundamentally change who we are in profound ways, an oversimplification.
“I think it reflects the deep hope of Clinton Democrats and Bush and Ryan Republicans that this was all just some kind of four-year fluke, and it was just a nightmare, and then you wake up and you go back to normal. So if Trump were to be defeated by, say, Biden or one of these central lane so-called Democrats, I think that would become the dominant narrative, that this was just a freak accident, and we don’t really need to rethink anything. Particularly if Sanders lost the nomination at the same time. So if my analysis is correct, that would be a terrible mistake because this wave of transatlantic populism can’t be explained as simply isolated flukes. There’s subterranean forces at work, and those forces will still be there even if Sanders goes down in the primaries and even if Trump is defeated. They will pop up and manifest themselves in some other form down the road. I think there would be a real danger of complacency on the part of the elites if Sanders and Trump were defeated and then they concluded they didn’t have to worry about those kinds of insurgencies anymore.”
3. While university professors often say what keeps them hopeful is the political engagement of the next generation, Lind sees real political revolution as less generational and more cyclical.
“I think there are cycles in history, and you get cycles of decay and then cycles of building and reconstruction. I think at the moment, what’s been called the neoliberal system—which was assembled with great optimism after the Cold War and failed in many ways—particularly with the Great Recession and the stagnation of incomes—is being whittled away from the right by people like Trump. It’s being hammered by senators from the left. It’s essentially falling apart. That’s a necessary work of deconstruction, and it will be followed I think in the 2020s and 2030s mostly by a younger generation working on rebuilding and renewal. So in that sense, I’m optimistic. Ben Barnes, the great Texas politician, likes to quote Sam Rayburn, a Texan who was U.S. speaker of the House: ‘Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.’ So I think we’re in the barn-kicking-down phase right now, but once that’s done, it’ll be time to rebuild the barn. And I hope some of my students and some of the younger generation will be among the carpenters who do it.”