The Answer is Class-Based Populism, Not Racist Nationalism

Ross Douthat has some valid critiques, but his solutions are all wrong.

Ross Douthat is the arch priest of reasonable-sounding promotion of horrid conservative ideas and vaguely intelligible criticism of liberal assumptions. Where most of the right charges in gnashing monstrous teeth, Douthat’s pseudo-intellectual spin gives a gentler perspective on the gaping maw, suggesting why its victims might well deserve to be eaten alive after all. Most of the time even these arguments are easy to dismiss, but sometimes the method of dismissal itself is worth considering–particularly when Douthat brings valid critiques of the left to bear.

His latest much-discussed piece arguing for compromise between immigration advocates and racist nationalists like Stephen Miller on immigration is one such example. Of particular note is Douthat’s not entirely untrue attacks on the economic stratification and segregation of modern liberal cosmopolitan societies:

Then linked to these ethno-cultural tensions are the tensions of class, where mass immigration favors stratification and elite self-segregation. In the United States, as in France and England, regions and cities with the largest immigrant populations are often the wealthiest and most dynamic. But this doesn’t mean that poorer regions are dying from their own xenophobia, as is sometimes suggested. The hinterlands are also filled with people who might want to move to wealthier regions (or who used to live there) but can’t because an immigrants-and-professionals ecosystem effectively prices out the middle class.

It is a testament to immigrants’ grit and determination that they can thrive working long hours for low wages while living in crowded housing with long commutes. But the social order of, say, the Bay Area or greater Paris is not one that can serve for an entire country — and it ill-serves not only lower-middle-class natives but also the descendants of the immigrants themselves, whose ability to advance beyond their parents is limited by a continued arrival of new workers who compete with them for jobs and wages and housing.

Thus our rich and diverse states also often feature high poverty rates when their cost of living is considered, while second and third-generation immigrants often drift into the same stagnation as the white working class …

… And they do so out of sight and mind for the winners in this system, who inhabit a world where they only see their fellow winners and their hard-working multiethnic service class. Which in turn encourages them toward mild contempt for their fellow countrymen who don’t want to live under a cosmopolitan-ruled caste system, who feel alienated from the Californian or Parisian future.

This is all mostly on the nose, and serves as one of the flash points between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democratic Party. Liberal America (and Europe and Asia for that matter) has a lot of introspection to do when it comes to inclusivity and inequality, including along racial lines. Even strongly Democratic cities tend to be highly segregated, with populations of people of color priced out of the cities where they work. For all the social and corporate embrace of a multicultural ethic, the problem only seems to get worse. Even as technology companies run Super Bowl ads with paeans to social inclusion, Silicon Valley has become a poster child for gentrification, segregation and stratification along racial lines (to say nothing of its rampant culturally ingrained abuse of women.)

Structural racism (and sexism) is to blame for all of this, but it’s hard to continue blaming just the Right for its continued effects in deeply liberal areas. It’s also in very large part a product of our adopted economic systems and lifestyle assumptions.

Ignore national politics for a moment and focus on local left-liberal urban politics, and the central flash points tend to be around affordable housing: younger activists of all races tend to advocate for YIMBY (Yes-In-My-Backyard) approaches that push for large increases in housing stock through densification, infill, looser zoning requirements, increased affordable housing requirements and more relaxed height ordinances; older liberals, by contrast, tend to emphasize NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) policies designed to protect entrenched home values, view protection and traffic abatement. The NIMBY crowd tends to disguise its policies under the banner of environmental protection, while the YIMBYs point to the even more urgent necessity of climate change abatement (densified, taller housing is far less carbon-and-water intensive than suburban tracts) and the pressure of social and economic justice for immigrant and youth populations. In California, where the Republican Party is well nigh extinct and the promotion of sanctuary cities is de rigueur for winning Democratic primaries, these sorts of affordable housing and climate-centered policies are where the real energy and activist battles are taking place within the liberal coalition. And as California goes, so goes inevitably the nation in short order.

Which is not to say that Red America is doing any better, of course. But they’re not even pretending to try.

Douthat’s answer to all this is to forge some sort of strange compromise between cosmopolitanism and racist ethno-nationalism by doing the worst of all worlds: embracing the principle of inclusive, more-or-less safety-net-softened ownership-society capitalist meritocracy so beloved by center-right and center-left alike, while throwing a bone to white supremacists on restriction of legal immigration. What Douthat hopes to accomplish with this beyond making everyone angry and embracing the most immoral positions of both sides, is unknown.

The real answer to Douthat’s critique lies not in compromise with the racists or in unthinking embrace of limousine liberalism, but in a class-based critique that shatters both the overt racist and sexist hierarchies of the right and the gentrified, more subtly discriminatory economic hierarchies that accomplish much the same thing in blue areas.

The answer to white people living in $1 million manses that they paid $200,000 for 25 years ago while clapping themselves on the back for their empty rhetorical support for the vast, much harder-working, much younger urban service underclass of color commuting an hour each way into the city to serve them and spending over 50% of their meager income on rent, isn’t to remove the opportunities for their extended family to join them so that poorer white people can take their jobs. Nor is it saying we’re all stronger together, offering to slightly increase the Medicaid budget for the poor, while in effect promoting housing value growth policies that benefit white upper-middle class homeowners and simultaneously drive the working class into rent servitude. The answer isn’t telling everyone to go to college or retrain for the “tech jobs of the future” while also driving education costs sky-high and simultaneously automating those jobs, and while providing scant minimum wage increases for service work that doesn’t even begin to meet the inflation in cost of living.

The answer is a class-based populism that helps forgotten white people in Rust Belt towns and immigrant communities in big blue cities alike. The answer is using tax policy and climate regulation to reduce the incentive to build asset bubbles, discourage rent-seeking by corporations and economic elites, and promote affordable housing, education and services in the communities where the jobs actually are. The answer is to punish the grotesque accumulation of wealth, promote long-term investment over short-term rapacious speculation, and to better reward work in all its forms–not just professional white-collar work, but the core service industry work that is most necessary for daily life and least in danger of rapid automation.

That’s how to answer Douthat’s critique. The American left does have its problems. But they’re problems that can’t be solved by moving farther to the right.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.