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The Democrats’ “New Clerisy”

Joel Kotkin has a very perceptive article in The Daily Beast on the new Democratic Party coalition formed under President Barack Obama. I've often struggled with coming up with a term that summarizes the variety of interest groups that comprise this coalition and their outlook, and Kotkin has come up with one that may be a winner: the "New Clerisy".

To begin, Kotkin makes clear that both parties represent the elites, not the masses. On one side, the "plutocratic corporate class" is "lining up behind Mitt Romney". On the other side, "an ascendant new group—made up of the leaders of social and traditional media, the upper bureaucracy and the academy" has "bet big on Barack Obama". That insight is itself a big advance over most liberal discussions, which views Romney and the Republicans as the only elitists in the contest.

Obama's biggest financial backers are from the tech sector, government and academia. Tech investors and executives, as Kotkin notes, are "generally not interested in the mundane economy of carbon-based energy, large-scale agriculture, housing, and manufacturing," and "they can afford to be green and progressive, since they rarely deal with physical   infrastructure (particularly within America) or unions or the challenges of training lower-skilled workers." The Democratic coalition is led by these elites, and is made up increasingly of tech and media workers, professionals, public sector employees and minorities.

This Democratic group also promotes a distinct worldview, and this is where Kotkin's "New Clerisy" description comes in:

There’s an old name for this new group of winners: the Clerisy, which British poet Samuel Coleridge defined in the 1830s as an enlightened educated class, made up of the Anglican church along with intellectuals, artists, and educators, that would school the rest of society on values and standards.

But in many ways the New Clerisy most closely resembles the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, serving as the key organs of enforced conformity, distilling truth for the masses, seeking to regulate speech and indoctrinate youth. Most of Obama’s group serves, as [Daniel] Bell predicted, a “priestly function” for large portions of the population.

Large portions of the scientific community are part of the New Clerisy, with a distinct political agenda (which remains largely hidden behind claims of only following "the science"). "These secular clerics," Kotkin writes, "have been extraordinarily influential about global warming, primarily advocating limited consumption by the lower orders." Energy policy is the clearest dividing line in this debate:

The regime of ever higher energy prices with its inevitable immediate impact of slower growth—long preferred by environmentalists and openly espoused by Energy Secretary Steven Chu—represents no real threat to the Clerisy and presents a boon to the “green” capitalists. Yet the rising hyper-regulatory state threatens to slow the overall economy, as it has in California, and to wreak havoc on the largely suburban, exposed middle and working classes.

But this new elite does not just limit itself to energy and economic policy. Indeed, they believe all areas of social life are amenable to their technocratic expertise, and they are not afraid to adopt authoritarian measures: "The Clerisy—as can be seen clearly in the secular mecca of California—also seeks to impose mandates on more and more of private decision making, whether shaping college admissions and the composition of corporate boards, as well as basic choice in everything from housing types to food consumption."

Because he is critical of the new Democratic coalition, Kotkin is often accused of being a Republican, but he's not. He is a populist. As he indicates in his article, he recognizes that Romney is the opposite of a populist. But being a populist, Kotkin is acutely aware of how elitist the Democrats have become. In a separate article published a few days ago, he lamented the demise of traditional Democratic "Prairie Populism", which at least was in favor of growth, mass consumption and personal independence. Displaying his own independence, Kotkin is one of our sharpest commentators.

2 Responses to “The Democrats’ “New Clerisy”” Leave a reply ›

  • A useful line of thought, two points:

    1. While just one part of Klotkin's Clerisy the rise of scientists (and scientism) is not just a continuation of Daniel Bell's post-materialism. Bell was writing at a time when anti-materialistic ideas, summed up as post-modernism were beginning to triumph. I would say that the last 15 years or so have seen a turn away from this toward a naturalistic materialism that can be seen in environmentalism and naturalistic accounts of humanity.

    It is true that the new clerisy thinks that human nature can be molded but this is not just because they believe as, Kotkin argues quoting Bell, 'reality is primarily the social world'. Rather, they believe that reality is to be found in the chemical and physical structure of the brain, and it is this that gives them a lever.

    (Relatedly natural scientists are often not so cut off from physical reality in the way that Bell feared. Chu deserved his Nobel prize in physics, and unlike the Peace Prize it is a monumental positive achievement.)

    2. Kotkin backs up his point about highly paid government employees with a link to a Cato report. We have seen with the bankers that an attack on the highly paid is an attack on everyone. Without going into what is true and what is questionable in the Cato report you can see the strategy of going after the rich at two levels. First, flagging up those paid more than $150,000 per year is a prelude to attacking all government workers. Second, that government workers are paid more than non-government workers is used as an argument to attack their living standards.

    There are plenty of areas where I think the government should cut back activity or get out. But where it does employee people it should give them good pay and conditions.

    Similarly, Kotkin's passing attack on tenure for professors is misguided. The proportion of tenured positions has been falling for some time, and university employers are using attacks on this 'privilege' to beat back pay and security for teaching staff. It is argued that the existence of tenure is associated with support for government structures. Maybe so, and there may be an argument for cutting government funding to universities. But abolishing job security is likely to make academics more instrumental and short term in their thinking, not less. Tenure is not the decisive variable. There is a wider (and severe) problem in the universities.

  • Joe - Great points, agree with both of them, thanks. In a short post, I was emphasizing the positive in Kotkin's argument. But you're absolutely right, there are problems with it as well.

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