Political Parties Focus on the Professional Class and Ignore Facts Outside Their Class

alex atkins bookshelf culture“It may be that my entire theory is wrong and maybe experts shouldn’t be in charge of government… I study history when I am faced with a problem like that. Turns out that there is a great book on this subject about another example of government by experts. It’s The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam… It’s a book about the Vietnam War and how we got into that war and how it kept going against [enormous opposition]; when everyone was telling the administration back in Washington this is a stupid war you need to stop it. And the answer is the exact same thing that I said tonight: the professional class refusing to acknowledge evidence from outside their class barriers. The people advising him [President Lyndon Johnson] were these Harvard guys — [the] chairman of the political science department at Harvard advising Lyndon Johnson and running the war with the computer. And people come to him [and said] ‘this war is stupid, this war is a disaster’; he’s like ‘where’s your PhD?’… After I read that I think to myself, damn — maybe government by experts never works.”

Excerpt from the lecture “What to Make of the Age of Trump” by Thomas Frank, author of Rendezvous with Oblivion; People Without Power; What’s the Matter with Kansas? The lecture, presented on April 6, 2017, was sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library. The book that Frank mentions, The Best and the Brightest, earned Halberstam the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. Of course, Halberstam used those terms “best” and “brightest” ironically, because some of the smartest people in the country (including John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, along with dozens of ivy-league educated experts) consistently ignored the facts and advice from individuals outside their professional class and got the country entangled in one of the deadliest, costliest wars in American modern history. Then, thanks to the release of the Pentagon Papers, Americans learned that these experts lied to the public about it for years. Frank argues that this rejection of facts outside one’s social class was taken to an entirely new level by Trump, and is now a hallmark of Republican politics (eg, the stolen election, anti-vax movement, rewriting history of the January attack on the Capitol, fake news, etc.).

Another argument Frank makes in his lecture is that both American political parties are essentially class parties — representing the elite, well-educated, affluent professional parties as opposed to the working class. And it is only this professional class that prospers from the growth in the economy at the expense of the working class. To emphasize this point, Frank shares this sobering statistic: from 1930 to 1980, the lower 90% of the country’s population took home 70% of the growth in the country’s income; from 1997 to 2016, that same group shared NONE of this country’s income growth at all. The upper 10% of the population of the professional class consumed the entire thing. He adds, “To be a young person in America these days is to understand instinctively the downward slope that so many of us are on these days.”

One of the trends that fascinates Frank is how in the 1970s, the Democratic party turned away from the working class people and instead embraced the “winners” of the post-industrial economy. In this case, the winners were “the highly-educated, well-credentialed professional class who populate our innovative knowledge industries.” Note the irony of this evolution: in the 1950s, this demographic was one of the most Republican groups in society; by the 1990s they were the most Democratic. Franks adds, “The Democratic Party is a class party — but not the party of the working class. Although the Democratic Party represents many constituent groups, highly-educated professionals are the ones who come first — they’re the ones who sit in the front row with their hands on the steering wheel; the rest of us ride in back.”

If you want to join the professional class, it comes at an enormous price. Frank discussed how college costs in America are out of control; students are graduating with enormous debt — from $50,000 to $250,000. He states: college students are going out into our modern economy with the equivalent of a mortgage without a house to show for it.

To view the lecture search “What to Make of the Age of Trump by Thomas Frank” on YouTube.

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For further reading: A Republic, If You Can Keep It
What is the Declaration of Independence Worth?
Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?
There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States
Are We Living in an Orwellian World?