The Political Isolation of the Professional Class

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the old days, when the New Deal Coalition was just beginning to fray, the right made a distinction between the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”. Deserving poor people worked hard, while the undeserving poor were drug addicts, welfare queens, and all the rest of it. This language was used to reform welfare to make it crueller and stingier, and it induced many people to think of the poor as takers, as scroungers, as people they didn’t want in their political movements. Today, a new distinction of the same kind is made between those with college degrees and those without them. You’re just supposed to go to college now, and if you don’t there must be something wrong with you, and in the eyes of many you don’t deserve a good life or a good job or healthcare. No, they demand that you go back to school. The result is that the bar for being one of the virtuous, deserving workers has moved up. Now, if you are a hard worker who didn’t go to college, you get lumped in with the drug addicts and chronically unemployed. The professional class is the only remaining part of the working class entitled to social respect. It relishes in this prestigious perch, looking down its nose at the unwashed and uneducated. But those without college degrees can sense this contempt, and they reciprocate it. The result is a working class which has been split asunder, politically. This is unfortunate, because neither faction can prevail without the other. The professionals have money and organising power. The ordinary workers have manpower. But they each keep to their own candidates, and this division permits those who care little for either to prevail over both.

If you look at Democratic primary polling right now, you’ll notice that while the centrist faction is still relatively concentrated around Joe Biden, the left faction has frayed a bit. The most recent Morning Consult is a good example. Here are the numbers among those who identify as Democrats, and might be expected to vote in closed primaries:

  1. Joe Biden: 26%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 16%
  3. Kamala Harris: 9%
  4. Beto O’Rourke: 6%
  5. Elizabeth Warren: 6%
  6. Corey Booker: 4%

Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand each pull 2%, while Sherrod Brown and John Kerry each pull a point.

The numbers shift a little bit if you allow independents and Republicans to vote, as practised in states with open primaries. All experience some decline in vote share, especially Biden and Harris:

  1. Joe Biden: 17%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 12%
  3. Kamala Harris: 4%
  4. Beto O’Rourke: 4%
  5. Elizabeth Warren: 3%

Booker and Kerry each pull 2%, while Klobuchar, Gillibrand, and Brown each pull a point.

But this is just the beginning of what I can show you. Among those without a degree, all these candidates the professionals in the media have been playing up the last few months haven’t resonated at all. It’s all about Bernie and Biden:

  1. Joe Biden: 17%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 14%
  3. Kamala Harris: 3%
  4. Beto O’Rourke: 3%
  5. Elizabeth Warren: 3%

Kerry manages 2%, while Booker, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, and Brown each pull a point.

The numbers for those making less than $50k are stark. Nobody who lives paycheck to paycheck cares about Harris or O’Rourke or Warren. Add their vote shares together and you still can’t equal Sanders:

  1. Joe Biden: 16%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 15%
  3. Elizabeth Warren: 4%
  4. Kamala Harris: 3%
  5. Beto O’Rourke: 3%

Kerry and Gillibrand each pull 2%. Booker, Klobuchar, and Brown each pull a point.

Meanwhile, the professional class lives in a different world. Here are the numbers for the most educated voters:

  1. Joe Biden: 18%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 10%
  3. Kamala Harris: 9%
  4. Beto O’Rourke: 5%
  5. Elizabeth Warren: 4%
  6. Corey Booker: 3%

Kerry and Gillibrand each pull 2%. Booker and Klobuchar each pull a point. Brown doesn’t rate.

Those making six figures take things even further:

  1. Joe Biden: 20%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 7%
  3. Kamala Harris: 6%
  4. Beto O’Rourke: 6%
  5. Corey Booker: 3%
  6. Amy Klobuchar: 3%

Kerry and Warren are at 2% apiece. Gillibrand gets a point. Brown doesn’t rate.

Our poor and working people are ready to run 2016 back and put Bernie Sanders up against the establishment’s champion. But the professional class has fragmented, diverting votes to O’Rourke and especially Harris.

Biden is a clear contender in all groups. But the professionals and the workers who reject Biden don’t agree on how to oppose him. There are more workers than there are professionals by a long way, and the fact that the workers love Bernie makes him a contender. But the media markets itself to the professionals who buy newspapers and buy the luxury products advertisers sell. And so it grants endless favourable coverage to Harris and O’Rourke, pretending they can win the nomination. They cannot–but they can take enough votes from Bernie Sanders to make it much, much harder for a progressive candidate to defeat Joe Biden. The progressives in the professional class don’t have the votes to ensure their candidates win, but they do have the votes to sabotage the left’s efforts to beat the center, and the journalists who look to the professional class for clicks and subscriptions are happy to make money promoting strategies that cannot succeed politically.

Harris in particular markets herself to the professional class by playing into this division between the affluent, meritorious, educated people and the poor, sinful, ignorant mass. Watch her boast about incarcerating low-income parents whose children skip school:

Locking up parents doesn’t help struggling families build the stability they need to succeed. Harris isn’t interested in supporting these families–she views them as morally deviant. The professional class voters who like Harris don’t like poor people and don’t care that Harris has spent decades treating them like garbage. They enjoy feeling superior to those who have less than they do, and Harris caters to that feeling of superiority.

The cost of that ego boost is that Harris supporters are wasting their votes on a candidate who will always be rightfully despised by working people and will never, ever win the presidency. The media personalities who tell them otherwise–themselves members of the professional class–are flattering them for the clicks. It’s a big fat con. If you are in the professional class and you want to see a progressive candidate win, you need to get behind Bernie Sanders and you need to do it quickly, end of story.

But this goes beyond 2020–the willingness of the professional class to believe in its moral superiority creates a weakness that the truly rich can exploit. Corporate Democrats have led the professional class to reject all of its working class allies as morally inferior. They are all too deplorable, too criminally negligent, too dependent on the state for the noble professional. This means that when the rich come for the professionals, there is no one who will come to their aid. While the top 1% has seen large increases in its wealth and income over the last few decades, the rest of the top 10% has seen only a pittance of the gains. The professionals think they share in the oligarchy’s plot to rob the poor, but the rich care little for them and view them as overeducated patsies:

The economy grew faster in the 50s, 60s, and even 70s–when the professionals worked with our poor and working people to pursue a better society together:

Real GDP

But in their vanity, they let the New Deal Coalition fray, and now they receive a stagnant share in a pie that grows more slowly all the time. When the rich run out of money to take from the bottom 50% and middle 40%, do the top 2-10% believe they won’t be next? Do they believe there will be anyone left with the political capacity to help them? Do they believe there will be anyone left who will care?

Already, the rich see a new political coalition they can build–they can use right-wing populism to get disaffected poor people to turn on the professionals and their soft, liberal values. Values that have done our poor and working people little good, as the rich and the educated have robbed them and beat them over and over for decades. Do the professionals think they can have diversity and civility and democratic norms and all the rest when they participate in political coalitions that crush poor people while claiming to do it in the name of these same values?

The rich can make just as much money with Trump as they can with Biden or Harris. Do the professionals really think the rich need them?

It is long past time that we started taking our queues from the workers who vote in those key Midwestern states, the ones that voted for Obama and then flipped to Trump. These are the people who can be persuaded to defend our social values, if we offer them an economic agenda that meets their felt concerns.

The Morning Consult poll includes regional data for the Midwest. You know what it says?

  1. Joe Biden: 18%
  2. Bernie Sanders: 14%
  3. Elizabeth Warren: 5%

No one else gets three points. Not O’Rourke. Not Harris. Not Booker. This is what the Midwest says, Larry: