Sunday, December 7, 2014

The importance of having skin in the game: thoughts on economic diversity and liberal elitism

The shakeup at the New Republic has got me thinking about elite domination of liberal institutions and politics. It is abundantly clear liberal/left media, institutions, and politics are overwhelmingly dominated by upper middle class/rich, Ivy-educated elites, this is a serious problem. This is because human beings’ economic background and experiences shape their political views and priorities in profound ways. It is a universal truth, albeit not one universally acknowledged, that the more economically privileged you are, the less likely you are to support progressive economic policies.

Obviously, there are countless exceptions to this general rule. Of course many economically privileged people with elite educations have great politics, and it's just as true that many less affluent folks have awful politics. But there is overwhelming evidence that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to hold conservative views about economic policy, all else held equal. See two of the leading social scientists who have studied this subject, Leslie McCall and Martin Gilens, for more. Or check out the work of political scientist Nicholas Carnes, who has found that legislators from working class backgrounds are significantly more likely to vote against business interests and in favor of economic redistribution--a finding that holds true even when you control for party affiliation.

Most liberals freely acknowledge that race and gender diversity are important and that when organizations include women and people of color, they often bring unique and valuable perspectives that white men lack. Even having a lot of very well-meaning, feminist-friendly, antiracist white men around is no substitute for including actual women and actual people of color. So why are some liberals so resistant to the idea that economic diversity is also important, and for similar reasons?

Getting back to the New Republic: in the dementedly pompous editors’ letter published last week, ex-TNR staffers proclaimed that their former magazine is “liberalism’s central journal” and “a kind of public trust.” With the shakeup at the magazine, “The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.” Oh my.

Yet in spite of its claims to speak for all of liberalism, for at least as long as I’ve been reading it, the New Republic been a profoundly elitist and insular institution, not just in terms of race and gender, but perhaps even more centrally, in terms of class. I mean, not only was it overwhelmingly dominated by Ivy-educated white men, but Harvard-educated white men at that! That is a huge structural problem.

That TNR was exclusively run by white men from such a tiny, rarefied stratum of America helps to explain why it supported many neoliberal economic policies and did not begin taking economic inequality seriously until recently. But then again, why would you expect them to? As college-educated elites, they were part of the group that has done very well indeed in recent decades. They had no skin in the game, and like most upper middle class people, probably had few close relationships with people who did. When your social circle consists largely of other Ivy League alums, the world will look like a very different place.

Liberal elitism has never not been a problem in America; earlier incarnations of liberalism like Progressivism certainly suffered from it. Indeed, one of the the New Republic's founding editors, Walter Lippmann, was known for his distrust of democracy and his belief that our government should be run by elite "experts" and intellectuals. But during the Great Depression and the post-war period, liberal elites became more supportive of progressive economic policies. The Depression, which affected even many previously affluent people, was still a lingering memory, and that helped build more cross-class solidarity. So did the shared sacrifice of the war and, at least for a time, institutions like the military draft. Elites, haunted by the spectre of communism, were more amenable to economic redistribution. Economic inequality declined, labor unions were strong, and there was more social mobility.

But we now live in a world where social mobility is falling and economic inequality is soaring. Economic residential segregation is on the rise and cross-class marriages are much less common. The lessons of the Great Depression have been unlearned. Americans are increasingly less likely to socialize with those from other economic backgrounds. The New Republic reflected that growing economic divide, on steroids.

And because TNR, particularly back in the 80s and 90s, was so influential, that insularity had disastrous consequences for American liberalism. With the refreshing but rare exceptions of, say, a Tom Geoghegan or a Robert Kuttner, most writings in that magazine blithely championed the kinds of neoliberal economic policies that have brought devastation to working Americans. Trashing welfare, labor unions, and “entitlements” while cheerleading for privatization and “free” trade, the magazine that perennially policed the leftmost bounds of American political expression helped push the terms of the political debate ever rightward. It gave invaluable cover to the most economically regressive elements of the Democratic Party.

Though it’s impossible to determine to what extent elite media discourse impacts political outcomes, it’s safe to say that it has some independent effect. An infamous, error-ridden 1994 TNR cover story was credited with “single-handedly” destroying health care reform--a gross exaggeration of course, but one that contains a grain of truth. I can’t help but wonder how TNR’s treatment of economic issues would have changed if any of the men who ran the magazine had ever suffered real material want or experienced a sustained bout of serious economic insecurity.

Though the New Republic has moved to the left in recent years, traces of its antipopulist DNA are not hard to find; take, for example, this snotty editorial about Occupy. And of course, TNR is hardly the only media outlet dominated by elites with glaring economic blindspots. Once a working class occupation, over time journalism became increasingly professionalized, and its practitioners more likely to be affluent and educated, particularly at the highest levels.

With these changes came an important ideological shift. As Russell Baker once wrote, "Today's top-drawer Washington newspeople ... belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well . . . The capacity for outrage had been bred out of them." Until very recently, economic inequality was a seriously undercovered subject. Many journalists are deeply uncomfortable when the subject of class comes up, and when they do write about it, they are prone to depicting poor and working class people as pathological “others.”

Liberals need to seriously commit themselves to narrowing the economic divide. One way liberal media outlets and other liberal institutions can do that is to make a commitment to economic diversity. Reach beyond your comfort zone and aggressively solicit applications from outside your usual networks. Recruit from nonelite schools for a change. And pay your interns a living wage, dammit!

Not only would such policies would be more consistent with progressive values, they’d also help build more vibrant, creative organizations. More than that, less elitism and more economic diversity would make for a stronger left, one that is more in touch with real people’s economic problems and anxieties. As they say, economic populism frequently proves popular. It’s a lesson I wish liberals would learn.

UPDATE: For more perspectives on the legacy of The New Republic, check out Ta-Nehisi Coates on race ("It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives didn't matter much at all to the magazine"), Jeet Heer on gender ("what does it mean for liberalism’s central journal to be so indifferent to feminism?") and Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch on TNR's history of militarism and neoliberalism (it "dug its own grave" by cheering on "the forces of capital that would undo it"). Highly recommended, all.


  1. This may not diminish your larger point, with which I largely agree, but I am an Ivy League grad & a journalist (when I'm lucky enough to find a job in my field). I have NOT been doing well in the new economy. I'm 43 and *just* finished paying off my student loans.

    1. i hear you but there's millions of former manufacturing blue collar workers as well as highly educated engineers that share your plight ... going back to at least when NAFTA was signed if not before

      i happen to be one of those engineers who now gets to compete with a global engineering labor force

      The only people raking it in in the "new economy" is the 1 percent

      When will poverty stricken americans wake up?

  2. Ghostwritten by Chris Hughes.....

  3. The massive class shift in journalism that happened after WWII is the single most unexamined major force in the destruction of the liberal project. Everyone assumes that "objective" and "professional" must be good, and yet look at what happened simultaneously. Correlation isn't causation, but I'm quite certain that the requirement to tell both sides of every story was just the opening that movement conservatism required to turn the politics of the John Birch Society, the KKK and Wall Street into the platform of the GOP.

  4. Recently while at a party, a conservative woman began to discuss social issues and her concept of ‘personal responsibility.

    The conservative argument was ‘why should we pay for social program, because of personal responsibility? This conservative woman asserted that inequality leads to success.

    Personal responsibility is a concept conservative like to apply only to the poor and middle class, while wealthy individuals and corporations rally toward eliminating corporate regulations, taxes and responsibility for the wealthy.

    The concept of personal responsibility is complex. But, the answer is obvious. To read my analysis, check out my book Women In Power: Myths & Truths; available at