Marx was right. Social class explains American politics.

Summary: This note about American politics explains why we are the way we are. It points the way to reform and a better future, if we are willing to pay the price.

American Power

 

Marx’s economics have been tested and proven useless. But his sociology has proven itself. As income inequality in the US has returned to the peak levels of the Gilded Age (and still rising), our class structure has returned – we can turn to Marx for insights.

But Marx’s schema of the classes described 19th-century society, and others have built on it during the past 170 years. George Orwell’s Mark II vision of a class structure better fits modern America. There is the bourgeois, the top few percent who own most of America (the 1% own over a third; the top 3% own over half). There is the inner party, the highly paid senior leaders who run our political, charitable, and business institutions. There is the outer party of managers, small business owners, and professionals. There are the proles, America’s workers, and the underclass.

Understanding these classes explains much of our politics.

Our ruling elites

The bourgeoisie (owners) and inner party (senior executives) are America’s insiders. Their primary goal is preserving the political and social systems that have given them so much, so most of them are conservative in the literal meaning of the term. Some enjoy tinkering, pushing America to the Left or Right – but dislike radical change. They have leisure time, autonomy, security, and agency (the ability to influence events). These give them a unique perspective on America. They consider the lower classes unfit to rule America.

Like their Gilded Age forebears, they live on a scale almost unimaginable to the lower orders. Bill Gates’ palace is 6,000 sq ft larger than Hearst Castle. They prefer to marry within their class, just they did in the 19th century (associative mating: endogamy). That is why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy (nor could your daughter (as in Pride and Prejudice).

The middle class, our outer party

Our political system makes the outer party potentially powerful, even decisive. Jefferson (and later Andrew Jackson) saw the farmers, merchants, and craftsman of America as the foundation of the Republic. But they were wrecked during the Gilded Age. The outer party is their politically impotent remnants. They lack the economic independence that Jefferson believed made them indomitable and wise, unlike the equally liberty-loving but feckless mobs of Paris.

The routines of their lives keep them busy. The 1% work to keep them fragmented into tribes of Left and Right.

The lower classes

The proles and underclass are uninterested in politics, unless aroused and channeled by the elite’s institutions. Political machines and unions made them powerful in our past; only shards of these remain today.

Class is everything

Class affects everything in America. Education is provided by class. We have High, Middle, and Low justice. The bourgeois scoop up the majority of America’s productivity growth, leaving the dregs for the rest.

Why we love fake news

The outer party is the largest body of people interested in current events and with the money to either pay for it or to attract advertisers. It is a happy hunting ground for media firms. To survive they must understand what the outer party wants: simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want stories that provide entertainment and catharsis plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information to become well-informed and online comments (21st C letters to the editor).

This explains American’s disinterest in experts’ record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., scientist Paul Ehrlich on the Left, economist Larry Kudlow on the Right). So what if what we read about the world is inaccurate, since we have no intention of using this information? Collectors of maps do not care if the maps are correct. They want pretty maps with colorful dragons on edges. Only people with goals demand accurate charts.

“Not my fault” should replace “E pluribus unum” on coins, since it fits better than “One out of many.” Calls to risk “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” hit us like daylight on vampires. Saying “responsibility” can clear a room, since that would require us to act. We know that our problems come from the evil people of other tribes. We see ourselves as the passengers of the cruise ship America; we whine that the service is not worthy of our awesomeness.

Brilliant minds in the media business understand us, and so their products provide infotainment packaged as serious news and analysis. Fox was one of the first to realize this and the most determined to provide what we want — and so became the largest beneficiary from the evolution of Americans from citizens to subjects. To survive most of the news media must follow in their footsteps, or find patrons in the 1% to fund them (e.g., Jeff Bezos for the Washington Post, Pierre Omidyar at The Intercept).

Life moves fast on the internet, and the big nodes that get the traffic are those that give the outer party what it wants (posts about political reform on the FM website get 1/4 of the usual pageviews). This is the underlying story of fake news. For more about it, see The secret source of fake news. Its discovery can change America!

Crisis in Mandarin

Another path for America

We are in trouble. Most Americans sense this on some level. For details see A new dark picture of America’s future.

The Mandarin characters for “crisis” do not mean “danger” and “opportunity”. But that is a powerful and optimistic way to see a crisis. The Republic has had such moments before and came out stronger than before. If we try, it can do so again.

I have faith in all you – in us – so that more citizen involvement will make a better and stronger America. I suspect we cannot imagine the eventual result. Perhaps a better Second Republic (founded on the Constitution). Perhaps a Third Republic.

I do not ask you to share that faith. I ask you only to have faith in yourself, and see us as the crew of America – not its passengers. Pitch in and help. For ideas about what to do, see Reforming America: Steps to New Politics.

Unity: men linking hands - Dreamstime_135505941
ID 135505941 © Marcos Calvo Mesa | Dreamstime.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about fake news, about social mobility, and especially these about America…

  1. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not.
  2. We are alone in the defense of the Republic.
  3. DEFCON 2: both Left and Right have turned against us.
  4. The Right began the current cycle of political violence in America.
  5. Fear the rise of political violence in America. We can still stop it.
  6. Visions of America if the Left wins.
  7. The key insight: the Left hates America and will destroy it.
  8. The Democrats will own America. Their past will sink them.
  9. America’s foes reveal themselves. They are many & strong. – Fear the enemies within.

Useful books explaining what is happening to America.

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank.

The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted by Mike Lofgren.

"The Party is Over" by Mike Lofgren
Available at Amazon..
"Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank
Available at Amazon.

26 thoughts on “Marx was right. Social class explains American politics.”

  1. Excellent post–including your acknowledgment of how the media shapes our thoughts and behavior–so I hope you will indulge a longer comment than you generally prefer. This is a recent verbatim quote from my former dissertation committee chair I think you and others may find interesting: From Jim Dator, futurist and professor of political science: “It is true that the Founders of the US and its Constitution were students of the Enlightenment and fans of Reason, especially the mechanistic reasoning of Newton. They envisioned the government their Constitution created to be an “automatic peace and justice producing machine” to some extent.

    “But, as the Federalist (and Anti-Federalist) papers make clear, the founders and writers by no means believed that most people acted on the basis of reason, sanity, and decency, except for rational self-interest (it was also the era of Adam Smith and incipient economic “rationality”).

    “The constitution was written specifically with the intention of enabling selfish power to counteract selfish power for a small number of men who shared a common set of basic interests. That is what the division of power between the federal government and the states (Federalism) and the separation of power into Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches—two of the major design inventions of the Constitution–were all about.

    “And they wanted only a very few property-owning white men to be able to participate, and then very indirectly, in the mechanisms of governance. Only such men would be able to act rationally, sanely, and decently in the pursuit of their shared self-interest in property (real and human).

    “As the right to vote was extended over American history to white men who did not own property, then black men, and then women—as it should be in order truly to be democratic—these assumptions less and less reflected reality.

    “I became a political scientist when the “Behavioral Revolution” was in full flower, and what the research of that revolution made crystal clear is that humans overwhelmingly do not and never did act rationally, sanely or decently in any way (even for their own self interest) when acting politically.

    “It was a great shock to learn that almost all decisions—even by Supreme Court judges—were made emotionally and on the basis of cultural and ideological biases. That having your name listed first on a ballot that lacked party or similar cues tremendously increased your chances of election, being listed last gave you the second-best chance, and listed second gave you the third best chance of election;

    “that your gender and ethnicity were extremely important; that party affiliation was passed down from parents to children like their religious affiliation and linguistic accent; that almost no one voted on the basis of policy preferences because candidates did their best not to be too clear about their preferences because while that may attract some people, it repels others: “Some of my friends prefer X and some of my friends prefer Y, and I support my friends!”

    “Don’t talk policy. Instead, talk stink about your opponents and of yourself as a god with no faults or fallacies! Fist fights, sword fights, and gun fights on the floor of legislatures were not rare events, and duels outside were not rare either. Most newspapers specifically favored one candidate over others and reported the “news” accordingly.

    “No, the irrationality and indecency the author below notes is absolutely not new. There was never a time when the US was democratic in the sense the author and many others pretend.

    “That is why I have spent a lifetime trying to get people to think seriously and rationally (!!) about designing governmental structures that enable stable, fair, participatory, and anticipatory decision-making and actions on the basis of how people really are and not on how we wish they were or imagine they used to be.

    “Continuing floods of nonsense like this may make the authors and readers feel good and self-righteous but also make effective fair governance harder and harder to imagine, design, and achieve.”

    https://eand.co/yes-american-democracy-really-is-dying-87954d33a684

  2. Excellent post, but I believe you made a small mistake. “Associative mating” should be “assortative mating.”

    1. Middleman,

      Assortative mating” is mating those with similar phenotypes.

      “Associative mating” is a term used in the 1970s for marriage within a social class (I’m dating myself), but since then has fallen out of favor. The technical term in use is endogamy.

      Thanks for catching that. I’ll add a note to the text.

  3. John Pittman

    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/trump_administration/prez_track_may14

    A bit off subject. According to this poll, Trump is essentially the same (noise discounted) as Obama was at this time in his presidency.

    My thought question is how will the DeepState and the Republican hierarchy handle Trump if he campaigns as last time and wins. This is assuming that Trump will worry about succeeding with fulfilling campaign promises as his legacy.

    He will be going after the deplorables and the outs. I do not see the Democrats offering much that could take Trump’s base from him.

    1. John,

      Trump and Obama now have similar job approval levels.

      True. A better – in every sense – source is Gallup’s website. See Trump’s job approval graph and presidential approval center. Compare the numbers for presidents during their terms.

      “This is assuming that Trump will worry about succeeding with fulfilling campaign promises as his legacy.”

      Why? He didn’t care in his first term.

      “He will be going after the deplorables and the outs.”

      What does that mean?

      1. John Pittman

        “He will be going after the deplorables and the outs.”

        What does that mean?

        The disenfranchised that Hillary ignored in 2016.

      2. John Pittman

        The presidential approval center graph indicates within the margin of error (noise factor) and the slight difference in days that Obama and Trump are tied at this time.

        Approval Obama day 831 44%
        Approval Trump day 830 46%

      3. John,

        These polling agencies are businesses, and have strong reasons to understate the margin of error. These days few people reply to telephone polls, and every year fewer people even have land lines (in part, because they are flooded with calls from polls and salespeople). I suggest taking these results with salt, regarding them as rough approximations. esp when comparing them with results from long ago.

        The major ones, such as Gallup, are probably directionally accurate (ie, they are repeated with the same methodology). So they show that Trump’s polling results are getting slightly better.

  4. minor rhetorical quibble – the bourgeois is usually a term for the middle class and using it for the top 3% may confuse the issue. I don’t have a better term – top class is the best I can come up with to distinguish them from “regular” upper class folks – the difference between a hedge fund manager and a run of the mill successful financial adviser. Bourgeois activity is spending 10’s of thousands of dollars on your children’s college expenses and the “enrichment” activities to get them into the best college they can. Top class is a donation in your name so that your kid can get into the college of choice or the college doing it automatically to build a connection to you and your child’s inheritance.

    1. Drew,

      Thanks for catching that! I meant the bourgeoisie, to Marx those who own the means of production and distribution.

      Marx and Marxists use these terms in a loose sense. Sometimes to those who own the property, and sometimes including those paid to run it (what I call the outer party). Adding to the complexity, Marx described how those classes changed over time – with the capitalist class developing during the late Middle Ages.

      And, as you note, over time bourgeoisie and bourgeois have come to describe lifestyles. This has occured as Marxists abandoned Marx’s economics and adopted Nietzsche’s psychology and sociological perspectives.

  5. “We are in trouble.” And it is not my fault!

    I think, not as much as in: ‘we don’t do enough’ (“grown cold”) and not for our avoiding “Responsibility” as Rabbi A. J. Heschel put it (about crime): “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

    What have many realized and what is sometimes mentioned elsewhere, a central theme for our peril:
    “The entire system is rigged.”
    And to remedy that, short of blood being spelt, is a perhaps nobble (but, in reality a ‘pipe’) dream — and even then, when all warmed and stood up — what is it going to be?
    Third Republic or Viertes Reich?

    Also, what ‘Thomas B’ brought: Umair Haque’s article and its rebuttal — exquisite!
    BTW Thom’s prof has presented many facts/ideas which were “thought” here (as replies) and often dismissed…

    What we truly lack and desperately need — is — “Integrity!”

    1. Jako,

      ““The entire system is rigged.”

      Poor baby. Political organizing is just too difficult for you.

      “And to remedy that, short of blood being spelt, is a perhaps nobble (but, in reality a ‘pipe’) dream …”

      So you take refuge in the pleasant peasants’ excuse: it’s hopeless.

      “and even then, when all warmed and stood up — what is it going to be?”

      Even thinking about what comes next is too difficult for you. Just get out of the way and let others act. Your whining is an impediment.

  6. Also described as:
    – psychopaths, with no empathy for others
    – clueless, who think by following the rules they will advance
    – losers, at the bottom and not going anywhere

      1. Kelly,

        Thanks for sharing that interesting material.

        (1) There is quite a bit of evidence that senior executives of our organizations (the outer party) tend to be sociopaths. That’s how they get on top, because the processes by which they run reward sociopaths.

        (2) Are the top few percent sociopaths? If so, why? Does the power of wealth break their morals and minds, so that they become sociopaths?

        (3) Calling the middle class “clueless” and the lower class “losers” is exactly how our rulers see us. That lack of empathy is evidence that they are sociopaths.

        I am part of the middle class, born and raised. Calling us “clueless” is pretty elitist. I criticize us for our actions as attempt to arouse our spirits – as reformers have done going back to Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. By and large, people are doing the best they can.

        I worked as a social worker with people of the lower classes. Calling them “losers” is pretty harsh and max elitist.

  7. I think the middle class is clueless to the extent that they believe that the system is a meritocracy, and that if they work really hard and follow the rules then they’ll be rewarded by advancing up the pyramid. They won’t. They exist to serve the upper class and enforce their edicts on the lower classes, while not rocking the boat.

    The system is not a meritocracy any more than Ford trucks are ‘built tough’ and Coca-Cola is ‘refreshing’ or ‘unlocks summer’ – it’s just advertising slogans to sell something. Political advertising sells membership in a tribe.

    I think the lower class are losers (literally – those who lose: politically, economically). They exist to toil for the middle class to feather the nests of the elite. They also exist to scare the middle class into complacency. There but for the grace of God go I…

    This way of thinking about society isn’t new – it’s as old as civilization. Marx wrote about it. You write about it. Rao writes about it. The words change but the diagram stays the same.

    The US will keep this situation until the middle class wises up and the lower class organizes. It’s happened before; it might happen again. Or maybe that’s a myth, too – maybe the only way we get chance is for some of the elite to decide to shake things up? Not like FDR was anything but elite.

    My background is lower class, but I was lucky to get an engineering degree while I was in the Navy, and then lucky to ride a couple of technology booms into the middle class. I’ve worked as middle management in defense companies, and Rao’s idea that the middle/lower managers are clueless tools for sociopathic VPs is spot-on. The folks in the cubicles (sorry – the open plan collaboration environments) don’t care – they just want a tolerable work environment and a paycheck. I’m firmly an ‘individual contributor’ these days :)

    1. Kelly,

      “I think the middle class is clueless to the extent that they believe that the system is a meritocracy, and that if they work really hard and follow the rules then they’ll be rewarded by advancing up the pyramid.”

      I’m middle class, have been for a longish lifetime. I’ve lived in the northeast (several cities) and California, and now in small town Iowa. I know few people who believe that.

      “I think the lower class are losers (literally – those who lose: politically, economically).”

      That is the perspective of our elites, sociopathic. Life isn’t all about money and dominance.

      “The words change but the diagram stays the same.”

      The words are the description and carry the meaning. Their changes have significance. The picture is a child’s drawing, telling us little.

      “The US will keep this situation until the middle class wises up and the lower class organizes”

      That’s backwards. In history it is the middle class that organizes and recruits the lower classes into the campaign. Bottoms up movements — such as peasants’ protests and slave rebellions — all tend to end badly.

  8. It is very hard to say “clueless” and “losers”, but I think it is the way we are thought of by many at the top,.

    My career in education did not advance, as I believed in education, the management has budgets to meet, education is just a product to sell, like cans of beans or bars of soap.

    At 55, I realise I was clueless, my parents, both worked until they were worn out, my father died at 68 after working all his life in telecommunications/ electrician, repaired cars most Saturdays for extra cash, my Mother worked all her life, too. She worked on piece rate at home for a woollen garment makers popular in 1970’s UK knitting jumpers on a hand pushed knitting machine, did so many garments from her 50’s could not lift her right arm above shoulder height. I still remember my Mother delivered the free newspapers, we walked with my brother in the pram and the papers in bottom of the pram and we walked for 3 – 4 hours 3 times a week, did that until Mum got a job cleaning at a Children’s Home. I remember her pride in being a Council employee enrolled in a pension scheme!

    I can’t write losers next to my parents, they had nothing and worked two jobs and sometimes three to get into a better area and get us kids into better schools. We got all our clothes from “Jumble Sales”, charity second hand sales at the local Church Halls. I was fourteen before I got a new to me pair of shoes.

    I have written about the working class feeling angry on this and other sites, it is that I see us moving backwards to this old level of inequality, Social Workers, Teachers and such jobs, are no longer that well paid or secure, they are no longer the pathway out of working class to middle class lives they once were. I did casual teaching for years at College and University.

    1. Just a guy,

      Nicely said.

      “It is very hard to say “clueless” and “losers”, but I think it is the way we are thought of by many at the top.”

      Exactly. They value only money and dominance, the sociopath’s perspective. That makes them vulnerable. It is their greatest weakness.

      1. I would not be surprised that if metaphorically any of those psychopaths feel over dead in a restaurant. The servers would simply go on their business not really caring.

        Why would people truly care about those who do not truly care about them?

      2. info,

        “Why would people truly care about those who do not truly care about them?”

        Relations of ruler and ruled are seldom one of caring. I don’t even think that’s necessary. But we need to get off our butts and choose leaders who govern wisely, competently, and fairly. Neither gods nor superheroes will make that happen.

  9. “That makes them vulnerable. It is their greatest weakness”.

    Thanks for reminding us of that point.

  10. Read this piece several times. I agree that the classes you identify pretty much correspond to contemporary American society. I don’t think the analysis owes much to Marx other than the concept of class, and that, in different language, has 18th century roots.

    The problem with Marx is not just the rubbish economics, its also the whole concept of there being laws of history and a progression of events in accordance with the dialectic. Even the concept that there are clear and identifiable states of human history seems dubious, the more you learn about the specifics of particular societies.

    Political Marxism was an attempt to rescue Marxism by jettisoning all the elaborate machinery and replacing it with an account of the origins of capitalism in particular political processes at a given time and place. Probably the best chance, but the inventors have thrown out so much that it hardly deserves the name of Marxism any more.

    But given your diagnostic account of America today rings true, reflects our experience of everyday life, what then? You say finally:

    I have faith in all you – in us – so that more citizen involvement will make a better and stronger America. I suspect we cannot imagine the eventually result. Perhaps a better Second Republic (founded on the Constitution). Perhaps a Third Republic.

    I really wish I could share your qualified optimism. I wish a recourse to Marxist theory, or indeed any other theory, gave us a method to predict how its going to evolve. But I think the key point is in your remark, no, we cannot imagine the result. We can’t forecast with any confidence.

    The two things that worry me most are that I can see no mechanism by which citizen involvement rises. I also can’t see what the citizens do if it does. Its relatively easy to see the structure which gives rise to so many problems, its fairly easy to see how the structure leads to bad decisions for the country, or at least facilitates them. Much harder to see how to take effective action to change it, even if one had the legislative power. Even harder to see what that effective action would be, if one could find a mechanism to implement it.

    The second thing I worry about is the chance of the country careering into catastrophic decisions. Whether the trade wars, or one real military adventure too many, or the increasingly bitter cultural splits becoming something more than differences of opinion.

    You rightly said some time ago that America reminds you of Athens just before the Sicilian Expedition. Its a sharp insight, it really does.

    Yes, agreed, citizen involvement is the only way. Its essential, its a necessary condition at least. Without it nothing will change. Sitting here worrying about America and the West changes nothing in itself.

    In Europe and the UK we are seeing the rise of national populism. Its astonishingly fast, it has some very disturbing elements, it is however connecting the citizens to their representatives by making the latter listen. But it also has the potential to go seriously off the rails, quite soon, on the Continent in ways which are all too familiar from the 20c.

    I wish I were clearer. And less worried!

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