“Pick Yourselves Up By Your Backpacks”

Republicans have long spoken of “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” to justify why millionaire CEOs deserve their help lowering their taxes while low-wage workers deserve to live in poverty with no one to turn to but themselves.

We the Democrats have come to adopt our own strain of this ideology: higher education. I pulled these quotes straight from a page in Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? :

“If there is an income divide in America it is over education, and this makes sense: People who are better educated should make more money.”

-Democratic media strategist Bill Knapp in the Washington Post in 2012

“What I fundamentally believe—and what the president believes, is that the only way to end poverty is through education.”

-Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, to a reporter in 2012

“The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power.”

-Thomas Friedman, Obama’s favorite newspaper columnist

The income inequality ravaging America today, according to Democrats, is nothing more than an education problem with an education solution. To be clear, I’m not taking issue with the idea that—of course—if you put yourself through Yale Law School, you ought to be making more than someone with a high school degree. But the idea that more access to education is the only idea Democrats have to keep workers who didn’t go to college from sliding into poverty? Poverty? That’s all you can come up with? Not only is that solution reductive and, well, lame—it’s a vast departure from the original blue-collar mission of the Democratic Party.

This type of guiding party philosophy—to get out of poverty, rise to the top of your class and become part of the managerial elite like we did—would be unrecognizable to FDR or any of the New Deal Democrats from the 1930s through the 1970s. There are plenty of examples of the Democrats being the working class party from before then, too, but we’ll stick to this century. Up until the 70s, organized labor was our primary party base. Organized labor and civil rights groups—and although it wasn’t ever close to a perfect marriage, the two often stood in solidarity with one another: like when MLK talked about how weakening unions was akin to economic tyranny and thousands of white teamsters marched hand in hand with civil rights activists in cities across the country. From FDR creating the Works Progress Administration which provided jobs building infrastructure to millions of unemployed Americans, to the National Labor Relations Act which prevented corporations from treating their workers unfairly, to his speech for re-election in which he said to a packed Madison Square Garden, “The forces of organized money are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” FDR and the Democrats who succeeded him for the next four decades spent vast swaths of their energy coming up with new ways to help blue-collar America that didn’t revolve around telling them to go back to school. And they relished doing so.

So why are most Democrats today so much more comfortable talking about gay marriage than about income inequality? Why does this ever-important social task elude them, the task of figuring out how we will live and how we will live together, when we’ve reached a level of wealth disparity that we haven’t seen since the age of robber barons, and when the Democrats just a generation ago would have dove in headfirst with creativity and zeal?

If you’re looking for a turning point, it was in 1971.

In response to the social movement tides of the ‘60s—which blessed scores of young, college-educated, upper-middle class once-complacent white people with a budding interest in politics—the top democratic strategist of the time wrote a widely circulated manifesto that was no-joke called Changing Sources of Power. 

He glowingly referred to these young people as “aristocrats—en masse” who would “rescue,” “recover,” and “refurbish us”. Sure, he said, the many ‘city dwellers’, farmers, and blue-collar workers that have comprised our base thus thus far are still, like, a thing, but they shouldn’t be for much longer. It’s time to harness the power of the yuppies.

It’s not uncommon for parties change direction, and every time they do, it’s because of a demographic shift. The difference this time was that our party chose it. We chose to create a demographic shift that wasn’t naturally happening. We wanted a more sophisticated base, the Archie Bunker stereotype was embarrassing, and we were pretty blatant about saying so. And while it’s easy to blame them looking back, the period of economic prosperity from the New Deal had been going on for so long that you can see why we’d come to take it for granted. The unions were so powerful by then that you can see why we didn’t consider the gravity of throwing them under the bus when these exciting new kids came along in whom the leaders saw so much of themselves. The man who wrote that manifesto Changing Sources of Power became the director of George McGovern’s campaign, which made him not just another strategist or commentator, but the driver of the party’s direction for a full year. And even though McGovern lost, Democrats only seemed to see this as a reason to double down. A tide of ‘New Democrats’ entered congress in 1974, who “came out of the anti-war protests and the McGovern campaign, the Peace Corps and the women’s movement, the professions and the suburbs,” according to historian Jefferson Cowie, “but not the union halls and the wards.”

We weren’t yet at the point where all the Democrats were saying things like, “obviously income inequality is just a matter of education,” and actually believing it was true. But we’ll get there.

What immediately followed this period was a decades-long series of policies that were repeatedly good for well-educated, white-collar professionals and repeatedly lousy for the working class. Take Jimmy Carter’s entire presidency: he cancelled numerous public works projects, ushered in the era’s first big period of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich (in collaboration with an approving Democratic congress), and appointed a Fed chairman with whom he implemented budget reform after budget reform that directly punished the working class in the name of helping businesses run by white-collar America. Or take Bill Clinton’s NAFTA: Awesome for those who employ. Terrible for those who work.

Each and every cycle of these ‘reforms,’ of course, concentrated us more and more into a party for and by the white-collar professional-managerial class. And as it was happening, it didn’t seem like such a terrible thing for anyone who might remotely qualify. We became the assumed home of the ‘best and brightest’—the go-to for Ivy Leaguers and well-respected professionals who had risen to the top of their fields. Notice that I say, “risen to the top”: and therein lies the moral justification for this new type of meritocracy. While presidents like Reagan and Bush were implementing policies that worked for the top one percent, which didn’t discriminate between uneducated CEOs, educated CEOs, and mere heirs who had never worked for their fortunes, the Democrats came to work for the top ten-to-fifteen percent, almost all of whom had achieved great things to get to where they were and almost none of whom would have been able to do so if it weren’t for doing great in school. They rose to the top of their classes, got admitted to the best universities, and worked themselves up the ranks of their respective fields. We came to demand the same from our presidents, and it seems like no coincidence that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each came from humble backgrounds and worked their way up to being top-of-their-class in the best Ivy League colleges and graduate schools in the country, and then repeated this trajectory in their careers, rising from relative obscurity to the helm of party politics. This new plutocracy, it appeared, was okay, because it was also a meritocracy. A “valedictocracy,” the term New York Times columnist David Brooks used to describe 2008 Obama’s incoming administration as he salivated at the mouth. What could be wrong with that?

Well, like drinking your own pee for survival, nothing, at first. But it makes you thirstier, and, having nothing but your own pee to turn to, because you’re isolated, you again drink it. And the concentration of the very things you filtered out end up killing you. What the Democrats ended up creating was a feedback loop of high-achiever ‘of course this is great’ groupthink that eventually reached torrential proportions. By the time Obama was trying to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would clamp down on the job loss that the working class went through with Bill Clinton’s NAFTA, our party was so concentrated with ‘people who employ’ that we didn’t even try and persuade the rest of America of its benefits because it seemed so obviously great to most of us, let alone everyone who had Obama’s ear. We didn’t even think it was necessary to talk about it until the working class and their few progressive advocates started making a fuss.

Donald Trump’s administration is a testament to what happens when people with almost zero expertise enter the highest-ranking seats of government power. Obama’s, and the working class disasters that occurred under him, was the tipping point of another sort: a testament to what happens when the only people around are the highest-credentialed Americans of a very narrow category.

Over time, blinded by our regard for each others’ excellence and with less and less accountability to anyone who wasn’t us, we honestly started advocating ‘become us’ as the chief economic strategy to fight income inequality—the very income inequality that our policies in large part co-created with the robots. We return again to the quote from the beginning of this post, by Democratic strategist Bill Knapp in 2012: “If there is an income divide in America,” (ha) “it is over education, and this makes sense: People who are better educated should make more money.” The least appalling and most accurate part of his statement is the end of it: “people who are better educated should make more money.” Sure. But look at what he’s implying in terms of income inequality and the Democrats’ role in fixing it. And the point I want to make is that this isn’t a case of platform corruption, of special interest donors telling him what not to say. This is a case of someone who appears to never have believed that it’s the Democrats’ job to keep blue-collar jobs in America, who appears to never have believed that we ever could or should do more than turn some of those blue-collar workers into white-collar workers.

It’s the case of someone who must have spent his entire career so surrounded by others who feel the same that he doesn’t even think he’s making a controversial statement.

Previous Posts

“My Morning Joe Addiction”

“Trust and the DNC”

“Time to Go to the Basement”


PS: SO much of what I learned for today’s post came from Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, which was published at the end of last year. I could not recommend it highly enough if you’re interested in this.