“Wall Street will not love Buh-nie Sanduhs,” the candidate memorably declared during a 2016 primary debate. Indeed, the 1 percent is Sanders’s true enemy. But there’s another group that doesn’t love the socialist senator, either: the upper middle class.
All the hate already directed toward Bernie from the pundits, and from some of your friends and colleagues? All those New York Times articles? The desperate attempt to make him go away before he’s even launched his 2020 campaign? Sanders haters fixate on race, gun control, “divisiveness,” his age, sexism, or the incivility of his supporters. If Bernie weren’t Jewish, he’d be antisemitic. But it’s really about the haters’ class interests.
In 2016, voters with incomes more than $100,000 voted for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders by a 17 percent margin. Many liberals in this class are hostile to socialism for the same reason as the superrich: they don’t want us to take away their stuff.
Six-figure Democrats have a fantasy that their demographic will propel the party to victory. (The reality basis to this fantasy is called “Obama.”) Clinton’s consultants didn’t think they needed working-class votes in order to win the presidency — they thought comfortable, conservative suburban women would find Trump offensive and go #WithHer.
Beto is only one of many erstwhile smarty-pants saviors in this vein. One adoring Democratic bundler quoted by Politico calls him “Barack Obama but white.” Beto’s father was a judge, and his mother owned a high-end furniture store. The RFK-lookalike went to Columbia, where he was on the rowing team and majored in English. He was in a noise band. He skateboards and co-founded a tech start-up. For all these reasons, he gives well-to-do Democrats that cozy feelings of class recognition (that he’s one of us rush that people from Scarsdale or Yale enjoy when meeting others of their tribe).
He looks like the smiling face of generations of inherited comfort masquerading as meritocracy — a look straight out of the New York Times wedding pages. Beto is, like many centrist politicians, from the upper middle class but now worth millions (about five to ten of them, according to Forbes). He offers the hope of defeating the Right without redistribution.
The most salient feature of such well-heeled liberalism is that it must allow unfettered capital to devour the world. Beto fits this bill. He has championed gentrification schemes in El Paso that directly profited members of his own family but were vigorously opposed by that city’s Chicano activists. In his recent Texas campaign, he made a “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge, but took money from oil and gas executives anyway.
Besides its sheer awfulness, another downside of this kind of politics could be the porosity of its support. Sure, a Beto could win — who knows? — but the upper middle class tends to overrate itself as a solid base for liberalism. In fact, this class is a significant force in American right-wing politics and among Trump’s base, more so than the much-maligned “white working class.” In Brazil, the upper middle class was also central to Jair Bolsonaro’s victory. Depending on this class and allowing its imagination to shape our politics has been a global recipe for fascism.
Bernie Sanders is not of this milieu, a fact reflected in both his politics and his style. He is from working-class Brooklyn, and speaks that way. His father was a Jewish immigrant paint salesman. The family struggled to afford curtains or a rug. He went to Brooklyn College before he got into the University of Chicago. He plays basketball, not golf.
Unlike candidates beloved by the upper middle class, Sanders doesn’t show off his intelligence. He has described himself as a mediocre student. He doesn’t try to charm, schmooze, or make small talk. He is not into cleverness or originality. Bernie doesn’t indulge the upper-middlebrow fetish for “innovation.” I can’t think of a single Bernie policy idea that is uniquely his (most have been amply tested in social-democratic countries). He does not compose memorable viral tweets that “own” his opposition; I retweet him frequently but can’t recall the exact wording of a single Bernie tweet. I’m sure you can’t, either.
Bernie does not ask behavioral economists how to trick the dopey, irresponsible masses into getting their shit together. He does not lecture anyone to pull up their pants, or eat less fried chicken and more vegetables. Instead, Bernie talks about the same things that he has been talking about for the last half-century or so. These are, of course, the same things that socialists have always talked about. He does not antagonize the upper middle class or its values — wisely demonizing only the capitalist class (“Wall Street” or the “billion-ai-ah class”) — but in style and substance he completely rejects it. It may reject him, too.
Socialists can win upper-middle-class votes and even passionate support. I was born into this class myself, and I’m not alone. More than 40 percent of voters making over $100k voted for Bernie in the 2016 primary — fewer than in lower-income brackets but impressive. There are social-democratic policies that benefit well-off professionals along with everyone else, making our lives more secure, easing the stressful imperative of remaining in our class, and allowing us not to work as hard or worry so much about our kids’ futures. These include free tuition, protecting the environment, decent public transit, single-payer health care, women’s rights, and fully funded K–12 public education. In the short run, the Left needs upper-middle-class voters and can get their support by working on these issues. But in the long run, we can’t count on this group.
That’s because, as irrational as their vendettas against him can seem, upper-middle-class people have strong, materialist reasons to hate Bernie. Argue with a Bernie-hating Democrat who enjoys a full professor or adman’s salary for long enough, and after some babble about the time Bernie interrupted Hillary, he’ll eventually get around to worrying about whether “unskilled” workers really deserve $15 an hour, and about the economic excesses of high taxes. He’ll nervously note that a couple hundred thousand dollars a year is barely enough to live on in New York City.
Surprisingly, many liberal pundits have embraced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s excellent proposal to fund a “Green New Deal” with a 70 percent tax on the highest earners. Vox’s Matt Yglesias even suggested she’s aiming too low. We should make the most of such support. But neither socialism nor social democracy can be funded solely by taxing the superrich. Eventually, if AOC or Bernie-style policy prevails, our society would stop producing such a grotesque number of billionaires. Revenues would have to come from someplace else. As in Nordic social democracies, the middle class would have to pay more taxes.
While prosperous professionals have much to gain from socialism, they also have much to lose, not least the dream of becoming rich, Beto-style. That’s why the upper middle class, as long as it exists as a class, is going to be at best ambivalent about our program. That’s why socialism has to be based in a strong workers’ movement, with lasting working-class institutions, and with the aim of extinguishing class itself.