White-Collar Populism

On the politics of professional-class anxiety.

Illustration by Luca Yety Battaglia

“We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.”

— Teddy Roosevelt

At a recent Los Angeles town hall, Elizabeth Warren greeted an adoring crowd with her three big wishes — to “attack the corruption head-on, get some structural change in our economy, and protect our democracy.”

She explained how her colleagues in the Senate all tell her to pipe down about her complicated plans: “People don’t want to hear all that, they said, it’s too complicated.” The flattered crowd fired back, “Yes, we do!” She compared herself to the suffragettes and closed by chanting her new campaign slogan: “Dream big, fight hard, and let’s win!”

In her speech, she mentioned the word “corruption” eleven times, and rhetorically countered it with “opportunity,” which she mentioned seventeen times. But both “wages” and “jobs” only got one shout-out each, with the latter referring not to any employment program but to the candidate’s own résumé. The phrase “working class” was never once mentioned.

The ex-Harvard Law professor and Massachusetts senator is fast becoming the preferred candidate of liberal professionals. She outpolls all others among high-income, postgraduate-educated Democratic voters. Her technocratic policy platform has won the hearts of a whiter, older, and more credentialed set of supporters than those of Bernie Sanders. And while pundits insist that these two progressives are alike in almost every way, Warren’s middle-class appeal is distinct from Sanders’s overwhelmingly working-class constituency.

Warren’s policy profile certainly recalls the best of the American liberal tradition, yet in style and substance, she hardly calls to mind the fiery populism of William Jennings Bryan or the class struggle rhetoric of New Dealers. Her favorite president is a Roosevelt — but Teddy, not Franklin. She favors the cool language of expertise and technocracy over white-hot tirades against the ruling class. Far from a regeneration of the Democrats’ long-dead commitment to workers, Warren represents a certain continuity in the Democratic Party’s approach to politics.

Yet her bolder domestic agenda does set her apart from Clinton and Obama. The root of this change, however, isn’t in any kind of structural shift in the Democratic Party away from the affluent. Nor does it mark a new horizon in the party toward a mass social-democratic leveling. It’s simply a reflection of the growing anxieties of a professional class that more and more sees itself as twenty-first-century America’s unsung and underappreciated bedrock, caught between the greed of the ruling class above and the miseries of the poor below.

The Progressive-Era Professionals

No new class had better organized itself at the turn of the last century than professionals. In the passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, the old middle classes — the small entrepreneurs and property-holding gentlemen of rural America — quietly gave way to a new middle strata: white-collar workers, experts, supervisors, and managers of the metropolises. Throughout the early twentieth century, a slew of “professions” were established, complete with their own licensing requirements and associations. Dentists graduated from their humble position as modest tradesmen (with bottles of cocaine) into licensed and state-regulated medical practitioners; teaching, engineering, medicine, and the law were all transformed from vocations or jobs to “professional careers.”

The “professionalization” of American society was a chief project of the Progressive movement, itself led by enterprising reformers of this new group. Men like Upton Sinclair strove to expose deprivation and greed in muckraking magazines like McClure’s and best-selling books like The Jungle. Women like Jane Addams founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and pushed for reforms to make for a safer, more educated, and more scientific society. They justified their project as part of the noble Enlightenment movement: replacing traditions and patronage in politics and business with hard science and rationalization. Their vision of society was somewhat egalitarian — not based on the equality of condition, but instead on merit and opportunity brought about through the forward march of science and education.

Despite all the rhetoric of a cleaner, more enlightened, and more efficient problem-solving society, professionalization also served the useful function of securing a labor-market position. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, the professionals sought to form a “class fortress.” They were not interested in class leveling, of opening up and diffusing the fruits of science and technology to all, but instead in securing and justifying their particular class position. By requiring licensing and higher-education credentials, professionals successfully closed off their occupations from low-skilled workers and required just enough rigor to ward off the dilettantish rich.

Before World War I, professionals were still a small group — around 5 percent of the working-age population. And so progressive lawyers like Robert La Follette needed to combine their influence (and affluence) with the mass power of farmer-labor movements. These figures were sincere in their populist convictions — they disdained the very wealthy and saw a government completely captured by the rich. As professor-turned-president Woodrow Wilson put it, “the masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States.” Together with populists and socialists, progressives introduced regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration that set safety standards for workers and consumers alike. They succeeded in tempering the power of monopolies and big industrialists, and even managed to secure modest gains for labor unions.

On the other hand, the professionalization of politics meant the sanitization of public and private affairs, which led middle-class reformers to introduce highly restrictive and unpopular policies, like Prohibition, designed to civilize the new industrial masses. In their effort to root out corruption, the progressives attacked the seniority system in Congress, replaced elected mayors with council-appointed “city managers,” and greatly expanded the powers and size of the professional civil service.

In their zeal to clean up government and destroy “bossism” in the urban political machines, progressives also succeeded in demobilizing the working-class vote. In the absence of anything like a labor party, industrial workers relied on these flawed urban machines for both patronage and representation. Across most of the nineteenth century, mass mobilization was synonymous with party competition. Very often, 80 percent of eligible voters participated in elections. As the anti-corruption crusades starved the machines, they also inaugurated the steady decline of popular participation. By 1900, voter turnout fell to 65 percent, and by 1921, it had plummeted to just 41 percent. It may not have been their intention, but by helping discourage participation in elections, the professionals increased their power as a constituency while weakening that of the working class.

Other factors were also moving in their favor — they wouldn’t be such a tiny minority for long. The First World War brought with it innovation and investment. The massive expansion and centralization of the welfare state in the ’30s and ’40s greatly enlarged the means of administration. Where in 1929 only 18 percent of government employees were under the federal government’s hire, by 1947, this increased to 37 percent. The continued rationalization and expansion of the corporate structure also meant more managers, administrators, and supervisors.

The overall effect was dramatic: whereas the number of wageworkers grew by about 225 percent from 1870 to 1940, the white-collar mass of managers, salaried professionals, and office workers rose by an astounding 1600 percent. As business and government plowed capital into the research and development of new technologies, the need for technical training rapidly expanded. By the middle of the century, college-educated workers surpassed the size of the entire agricultural workforce, and the experts, physicians, programmers, professors, journalists, marketers, entertainers, foundation directors, supervisors, and the rest of the salaried metropolitan workforce had firmly established themselves as a new class.

“Expert” Authority

Despite their rapid growth, the white-collar set were a politically inept group in the immediate postwar era. Unlike their Progressive Era predecessors, the Men in the Gray Flannel Suits were nobody’s political heroes. Instead of the booming speeches of Teddy Roosevelt or the soaring oratory of Woodrow Wilson, they had the droning appeals of Adlai Stevenson. The war economy expanded the white-collar mass, but it also unleashed the awesome power of industrial unions: the postwar strike wave arrested the nation, mobilizing some 5 million wageworkers in 1946 alone.

“More often pitiful than tragic,” as C. Wright Mills noticed, the white-collar people were pushed around by more significant social actors. “The big businessman continues his big-business-as-usual through the normal rhythm of slump and war and boom; the big labor man, lifting his shaggy eyebrows, holds up the nation until his demands are met.”

Too weak and scattered to steer the wheels of power and dictate the cycles of business, too content and sheepish to make demands of their own on the state, the people of the new middle class were insecure. Organizationally, professionals found their associations dwarfed by those of workers: one in three Americans was a union member in 1947. Professional societies were much smaller and decidedly less interested in the pursuit of collective political power. Their success was wrapped up in offering their members a chance at individual advancement in ever more credentialized and differentiated fields.

In their economic and suburban isolation from the laboring masses and rural poor, the professionals became self-absorbed (and self-loathing). Suddenly, they couldn’t shut up about the dread they found in their own comfort. A mild “revulsion against affluence” was a popular pastime for the intellectuals and literati of the white-collar world. Best-selling books like William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man raised the “problem” of conformity begotten by generalized affluence, and intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith similarly lamented the challenges of middle-class luxury posed by The Affluent Society.

Nonetheless, their ranks continued to swell, and, almost by accident, their political influence and authority grew. As the means of administration and communication expanded, the manager and expert became more prominent. By the mid-fifties, no government agency or corporate bureaucracy could function without its professionals, and no political party could afford to snub a class that now made up nearly a quarter of the country.

New Politics for a New Class

The persistence of the new professional middle class was taken by many as a demonstration of the ability of the postwar capitalist economy and a pluralist government to guard against class polarization. For their own part, professionals came to see themselves as experts destined to administer society from above. They would protect the public interest against the recklessness of a strike-happy working class and the avarice of the rich. Sociologist and Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan had hoped that he and his colleagues would be the stewards of social progress through the “professionalization of reform” — government and boardroom alike would be run by sensible liberal experts.

Like the generation of middle-class reformers before them, their mission was to rid the parties of corruption, rid government of waste, and equalize “opportunity.” Only this time, they would do so without the help of the popular classes and, in many ways, against them. The professional class was still too small to win elections — in the postwar years, they made up only a third of the working-age population. Instead, as bureaucrats, professors, and journalists, they exercised their power through agenda-setting and policy propaganda. A coterie of new intellectuals staffed the Kennedy-Johnson administration and sought to introduce a vision of society that was data-driven and tested by social science, rather than the wild forces of democratic competition.

These new progressive professionals wanted a welfare state, but they certainly didn’t want the working class shaping it. In a stark turn away from the institution that delivered Democrats decades of political supremacy, “big labor” was suddenly out of fashion. As John Gerring notes, leading Democrats in the 1950s sought to declare their freedom from the union movement:

At a Labor Day rally, an occasion that several generations of Democratic orators had used to profess their loyalty to the cause of the workingman, [Adlai] Stevenson declared defensively, “You are not my captives, and I am not your captive. . . . You are freeborn Americans — a proud and honorable station, carrying with it the right and the responsibility to make up your own minds — and so am I.”

For many professionals, these working-class organizations were an embarrassing reminder that the uneducated manual laborers beneath them had tremendous influence in society — influence they saw as fundamentally unearned. Worse, the unions were insufficiently liberal in affect and political performance. The professional middle classes now sought a “New Politics” to help establish their independence: the middle class would ally not with organized labor but with the margins.

Aggressive demands for majority rule — for the “struggling masses” against the privileged few — gave way to compassionate pleas for inclusivity and anti-poverty programs. In an almost complete reversal of the populist ethos of an earlier era, the 1964 Democratic Party platform warned of a society that might “penalize the few while benefiting the many.” As Eric F. Goldman noted, the new professional-class politics would be a coalition “of the rich, educated, and dedicated with the poor,” and in Herbert Marcuse’s fantasy, the vanguard of the educated elite could ally with the “outcasts and the outsiders.”

This attitude was well suited to their reform project. No longer would progressives valorize the worker and villainize the rich. The new liberal professionals would instead lift up the victims of society. Instead of focusing the electorate’s rage on questions of who gains most from the prevailing political economic system, professionals focused on lamentations of “who suffered more?” The poor were deserving of compassion and government action by virtue of their suffering, but they were also safely disorganized (unlike the working class), and their political claims could be mediated and expressed through foundations run by professional-class experts. Unlike labor unions, the poor were not particularly threatening to the political power of the middle class.

In fact, the signal achievement of the professional reformers, and a demonstration of their influence, was just how successful they were without the mass politics of the New Deal. Nathan Glazer, writing for the British news magazine New Society, noticed this peculiarity, stating that the “massive political support and intellectual leadership that produced the reforms of the thirties” was simply absent in the case of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Moynihan himself notes:

The essential fact is that the main pressure for a massive government assault on poverty developed within the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, among officials whose responsibilities were to think about just such matters. These men now exist, they are well paid, have competent staffs, and have access to the President.

If there was a grassroots politics of the professional class, it was to be found among its youth. By the sixties, a significant portion of the class, confident in its newfound size and its seemingly permanent position in the division of labor, became an oppositional political force, buttressing movements for civil rights, feminism, and peace. Student radicalism consumed many of the rising professionals and, even if they weren’t members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) or SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the transformative politics of those years left a residue of political commitments. Professional class organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Lawyers Guild, and the ACLU, among others, were central to the success of the 1960s “Rights Revolution.”

But behind both the energetic radicalism of the New Left and the bloodless technocracy of the New Politics lay a peculiar and contradictory program. Just as the professionals were arm in arm with wageworkers in the pursuit of a new egalitarian vision of environmentalism, an end to the Vietnam War, consumer protection advocacy, and workplace safety legislation, the strike wave of the 1970s put supervisors and managers directly at odds with the industrial working class.

The capitalists may have been in charge, but the professionals were the cadre they employed to carry out new management styles, increase the intensity of work on the shop floor, research new modes of workplace organization, and insist on credential requirements for even the most modest of occupations. And while they greatly expanded the welfare state, the Great Society programs would be, in the words of the 1980 Democratic platform, “targeted to those most in need.”

The professionals turned their back on the labor movement, mass mobilization, and confrontational rhetoric, and turned inward toward the court system, the Constitution, and bureaucracy. No matter how liberal their personal sentiments, how compassionate their reform mindset, the professionals scorned the working class.

White-Collar vs. Blue-Collar

Professional class antipathy toward the unions grew throughout the 1970s. The press became preoccupied with the “blue-collar problem,” which referred not to the crisis on the shop floor but to the arrival of a caricature of the “white worker” — the unstylishly bigoted, politically backward George Wallace voter. As Bayard Rustin complained at the time, “When A. H. Raskin writes that ‘the typical worker — from construction craftsman to shoe clerk — has become probably the most reactionary political force in the country’ . . .  or when many other liberals casually toss around the phrase ‘labor fascists’ — one cannot but inevitably conclude that one is in the presence not of political opposition but of a certain class hatred.”

Indeed, the “hard hat” appeared to the professional class as an exotic other, but one the liberal public could openly despise and lampoon, rather than one to be sympathized with, like the urban poor (whose lack of political power meant they posed no threat). Though they would never admit it, the middle-class reformer and reactionary found common cause in their crackdown on America’s trade unions. The oft-repeated conservative critiques of the labor movement — that the unions are anti-black, anti-individual, kleptocratic, anti-opportunity, and the root cause of rising inflation — were now taken up by liberals. Even as they insisted on the need for a War on Poverty, they ensured the only federal jobs program therein would be reserved for themselves — the experts.

From the 1960s through the ’70s, professionals helped to remake much of the world in their image. Under Republican and Democratic administration alike, it seemed that regulatory agencies and reforms were happily replacing the “stupid controversies” and the “mile-long petitions and mass rallies” lamented by professionalizer-in-chief Moynihan. In political rhetoric, class conflict was replaced with injunctions toward social peace and harmony. Hubert Humphrey sought “a way out of tension and trouble,” and Johnson just wished for “a nation where every man can seek knowledge, touch beauty and rejoice in the closeness of family and community.”

Unfortunately, this professional-class vision of a society at history’s end was crushed when capital went on the offensive. The Reagan Era brought class conflict roaring back into political rhetoric — only this time, it came from the New Right, not the populist left. As former Nixon aide Kevin Phillips all too presciently summed up:

Slowly but surely, liberalism lost much of its Jacksonian and Trumanesque moorings in rural Missouri and steelmaking East Baltimore, and led by the ascendent professors, urban planners, social-welfare workers, minority causists and international economists, managed to become increasingly the political vehicle and banner of those interests, not of blue-collar Americans.

The New Right had found its class enemy in the professionals. They would craft a narrative of a “producerist” type, attempting to ally workers with the manufacturers they worked for.

Simultaneously, the drive for profit in the neoliberal era meant that even professionals were no longer safe from the very processes they had once championed. As the world was reorganized around the interests of big business, the occupations and workplace autonomy of professionals were undermined throughout. Where in 1983 more than 75 percent of physicians were owners of a private practice, by 1988, this number fell to 58 percent. Today, more than half of all doctors are employees. Lawyers, too, became workers for major law factories, and professors became ever more dependent on the generosity of business-backed foundations.

Nowhere did the professionals take more of a beating than in the newsroom. Journalists found their industries bought, merged, and sold, and their options for meaningful, independent, and remunerative work nearly disappeared. John Podhoretz waxed about his tenure at Time during the golden age of journalism, when the newsroom was “So flush that if you stayed past 8, you could take a limousine home . . .  and take it anywhere.” But by the 1990s, journalists were a dying profession; the big media conglomerates gobbled up the largest papers and starved the smallest. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, once a top national newspaper, has seen its newsroom shrink from 340 employees twenty years ago to just thirty today. The steady downward slide eroded the confidence of professionals in every line of work, and anxiety set in.

Yet the professionals still fared far better than wageworkers. The latter, for their part, have suffered a decades-long disorganization of their parties, unions, and communities. Their life expectancies are in free fall, their neighborhoods riven with violence, and if poverty is not already a reality, it is only a pink slip away. Since the 1980s, average income growth for professionals expanded at more than twice the rate of working-class incomes. As Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira show,

Between 1979 and 2005 the average real hourly wage for those with a college degree went up 22 percent and for those with advanced degrees, 28 percent. In contrast, average wages for those with only some college went up a mere 3 percent; for those with a high school diploma wages actually fell 2 percent; and for high school dropouts wages declined a stunning 18 percent.

Professional-class anxiety, then, is driven less by its proximity to the working class and more by its sudden and remarkable distance from the ruling class. As the big capitalists and financial titans consolidated themselves into an ever smaller and more concentrated elite, the professional’s dream of progress engineered by experts seemed fantastical. In politics and in the workplace, they were losing ground. They risked becoming nothing but appendages to the rich, an even more pathetic fate than the boring affluence afforded to them in the postwar era.

But in at least one respect, they still held a considerable amount of power over the proles.

The Ruling Class of Culture

The ruling class, in its successful quest at reasserting its political and economic supremacy, had become too small to dominate popular culture. Secluded in a secret world, locked away from society, most Americans don’t know what haute bourgeois culture looks or sounds like. As Chris Rock recently said, “If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.”

The shocking discovery of even the legal leisure activities of Jeffrey Epstein and his colleagues — decorating a hallway with glass eyeballs, dinner parties with life-size female dolls — is one example of just how fenced off the ruling class is from the popular imagination. And as conglomerated entertainment industries replaced popular forms of recreation, the professionals sought to become the ruling class of culture.

As writers, advertisers, filmmakers, and entertainers, they are the makers of “content,” and as the only popular class with a significant disposable income, they are also its target audience. The business of culture requires constant innovation and reimagination, and as Hans Magnus Enzensberger noted, “No one can more quickly change ideologies, clothing, forms of communication and habits than the petty bourgeois.”

Culture came to dominate in the academy, as well, with the rise of “cultural studies” imported and augmented from its Marxist roots. The academic cognoscenti explained how culture was the cause and consequence of a litany of public issues. The rise of poverty and crime could all be explained by the attendant “cultures” that informed them. And progress could be made by the growth of subcultures that undermined the dominant mass culture.

In other words, even the answer to culture was: culture. Rap music and punk rock were celebrated for their capacity to challenge some ghost-like elite culture, as if the executives selling the records were suddenly threatened by their own marketing campaigns.

The measure of political progress, too, was transformed from objective benchmarks — like the size of the voting public, the strength of the public sector, and the measure of income inequality — to subjective metrics, with media people and journalists reporting on public attitudes around “race relations” and “family values” as tests of our collective enlightenment. The divide over the O. J. Simpson verdict was somehow meant to express a measure of racial progress (or regress). As the sociologist James Davison Hunter insisted, quite oblivious of his own class biases, the “real issues” in American society were cultural ones. Democracy was not a class struggle but a culture war.

But the retreat to culture should not be seen as a retreat from politics. The culture wars were a class politics in themselves — one that, since it avoided a redistributive policy agenda, the ruling class was more than happy to sponsor. The professionals, for their part, were not avoiding material issues. Instead, they sought to elevate the status of their own occupations.

If culture is the cause of poverty, then the civilizing process of education is its solution. If racism is a function of propaganda, then diversity and representation in mass media is the cure. The celebration of the dissemination of ideas, the trumpeting of the as-yet-untapped, but no doubt tremendous, power of subversive music, the progressive force of blogging, and now the connective capacity of social media, each have in common that they elevate the status of talking, writing, and communicating. All things professionals are expected to excel at in their occupational lives, and all things that allow them to sell their services to their employers.

Professionals Against Populism

In effort to replace the white working-class voters they were hemorrhaging over the 1980s and ’90s, the Democratic Party sought to capture the professional-class vote, and to wed it to “progressive” capitalist interests (like tech and finance). By doing so, party elites and their corporate donors hoped they could engineer a harmonious cross-class block: culturally liberal, market oriented, and governmentally technocratic. As workers dropped out of party politics en masse, with fewer than ever identifying as Democrats, the professionals slowly filled the void. The liberal press was optimistic. “Hart Taps A Generation of Young Professionals,” gushed one New York Times headline in 1984.

Of course, no such army of professionals could save the Democrats from Reagan’s majorities. The Democratic Party had to pivot further if they were going to win professional-class votes and congeal a majority. A new tack was most famously pursued by the Democratic Leadership Council and President Bill Clinton. “New Democrats” united the country around vague and contradictory themes of compassion for the poor, concern over crime, and fiscal responsibility; they would “reinvent” the welfare state without expanding it.

“Yuppies,” meanwhile, continued to be hurried in to replace workers. Today, more than 62 percent of Democratic Party primary voters have at least a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent make over $100k a year. In fact, more than a fifth of Democratic primary voters make over $150k a year, more than twice the median US household income.

Contrary to the culture warrior hypothesis that workers fled the Democrats in order to satisfy their culturally conservative views, the reality is that workers did not, by and large, jump ship to vote Republican, they simply dropped out. In 1980, roughly half of all working-class voters identified with the Democratic Party, and only around a quarter with the Republicans. By 1994, about a third of wageworkers cast ballots for Democrats and around the same amount for Republicans. But by 2016, less than a third were Democrats, and less than a quarter identified with the Republican Party. The story here is not just that the Democratic Party is losing workers, but that the Republicans are as well — nearly half of all working-class voters do not identify with either major party today.

But the professionals also have a problem for their future in politics. Their pseudo-cosmopolitan tastes and technocratic “leave-it-to-the-experts” approach is being swallowed up by the specter of populism from below and the immense power of money from above. On the Left, candidates like Bernie Sanders are mobilizing a mass constituency for an aggressive politics of redistribution, a politics that damns the bankers and the budget, and demands jobs, health care, and a future for those without credentials. On the Right, candidates rail against the “coastal elites,” their consumptive habits, and their endless attempts to disrupt cultural norms. It should be no surprise that reaction against the contemporary order takes both an economic and a cultural angle.

While the ruling class is responsible for the reconsolidation of a brutal class war, that very same period — when factories were shuttering and layoffs were amping up — was dominated by the culture and politics of the professional class. Throughout the neoliberal turn, the professionals offered little resistance to the assault on working-class lives, choosing instead to either retreat to the realm of culture or administer neoliberal reforms on the shop floor and in the state administration. The Democratic Party, in its effort to court middle-class voters, transformed itself from a party of social reform with a working-class base to a professional-class party, whose voters have a great deal of compassion for the poor, for the outcast, and for all those elements of society that don’t live in their neighborhoods or attend their schools.

As a result, today, the Right’s nostalgic cultural populism and the Left’s egalitarian populism both have an audience — each is a direct consequence of the professionals’ rise. Thanks to a concerted effort on the Right, and professionals’ own contempt for the working class, workers arguably resent the professional class almost as much as they despise the ruling class.

Elizabeth Warren, the White-Collar Warrior

It should be no surprise, then, that workers are less enthusiastic about Elizabeth Warren’s brand of pragmatic progressivism even as professionals go gaga for her. Warren’s own career mirrors the trajectory of the class as a whole. Born into what she describes as “the ragged edge of the middle class” in 1949, she achieved a more comfortable life through education. She climbed her way through University of Houston and Rutgers before settling in the halls of the Ivy League as a law professor — the ideal profession for a class that seeks to make the world a more rational place (presidents Wilson and Obama were both law professors).

Warren left the Republican Party in the 1990s to join a thoroughly Clintonized Democratic Party, more suited to the rationalization of workplaces, the elimination of corruption, and the marketization of government than the wild excesses and scandals of the Gingrich-era GOP. Her contemporary campaign rhetoric of “big structural change” betrays her real convictions — her affirmation that she is a “capitalist to her bones” is more than a rhetorical flourish. Warren’s vision is one of shoring up the investment climate, even if she ruffles the feathers of some oligarchs. She doesn’t want a class struggle or a mass movement, but a means of brokering and legislating away the worst side effects of capitalism. She epitomizes the professional-class crusade, going back to the Progressive Era, that the middle classes must save society from mob rule, as well as from rapacious control by the elite.

Her base is more enthusiastic about her position as a policy expert than they are for any of her specific policy proposals (which are, tellingly, not raised as “demands” but instead as “plans”). These professionals see an aspirational version of themselves in Warren: a technocrat who can remake society through her credentials, superior knowledge, and ubiquitous white papers. Perhaps these white-collar admirers also see the possibility of a reassertion of their own class under a Warren administration — after all, she’ll certainly need to staff her “plans” with competent experts. Her fans seem more interested in impressing their candidate with sharp questions, almost as if in a job interview, than in converting the unconverted.

Yet among the progressive professionals, their growing class anxieties are beginning to pull them apart. The already proletarianized have come to terms with their new position; they have little status left to hold onto and have decided to throw in their lot with the working class. Fittingly, Bernie’s top donors by profession are teachers and nurses, two fields that have rapidly declined in prestige and security, while Warren’s are psychologists and scientists.

The challenge for these white-collar “populists” is clear. The Democratic primary is an incubator for the professional class, whereby politicians, shielded from the broader influence of the working class, vie for votes among their colleagues. But once they are catapulted from the safety of that middle-class fortress into the open seas of a general election, they frequently drown.

Historically, the political utility of the professional middle class was not in who they were but instead in who they were not: neither capital nor labor. The Left saw the salaried workers as future proletarians; their votes could be won through a program that demonstrated to these people that their fortunes were bound up with the fate of the working class. The Right, for their part, saw them as lieutenants in the class struggle, the well-trained experts that could replace the brute force of repression through the expertise of social work, scientific management, and the “civilizing” effects of education.

The middle-class voter has often been a rearguard force in politics, as Mills pointed out: “In the shorter run they will follow the panicky ways of prestige; in the longer run they will follow the ways of power.” The future of American society lies with its working class, which grows more politically self-conscious and numerous by the day.

The professionals should follow their lead. After all, prestige is ultimately determined by power, and it’s the working class who is out to get it — white papers be damned.

Share this article


Dustin Guastella is director of operations for Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia.

Filed Under