Shock gave way to relief this summer as America’s political establishment—rattled by Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination—reassured itself of his inevitable defeat come November. For a moment Trump seemed to have created a new style of politics, one that threatened to mobilize working-class voters against the establishment in both parties. But in the weeks following the Democratic National Convention, as Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers remained comfortably ahead of Trump’s, pundits discounted the risk of class war.
Trump’s voters were not really so hard hit anyway, a report by Gallup claimed. “His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations,” wrote Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at the polling firm, “but they earn relative[ly] high household incomes, and living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support.” Trump’s voters were most strongly characterized by their “racial isolation”: they live in places with little ethnic diversity. Thus race, not class, explains the 2016 election—or so outlets like Vox and the Washington Post concluded.
But there’s another side to the Trump phenomenon that is less about Trump or his voters than about the elites they are against. Resistance to the bipartisan establishment keeps growing, and even if Trump loses to Clinton in a landslide, he has carried the rebellion further than ever before by winning a major party’s nomination.
Since the Cold War ended, U.S. politics has seen a series of insurgent candidacies. Pat Buchanan prefigured Trump in the Republican contests of 1992 and 1996. Ralph Nader challenged the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party from the outside in 2000. Ron Paul vexed establishment Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012. And this year, Trump was not the only candidate to confound his party’s elite: Bernie Sanders harried Hillary Clinton right up to the Democratic convention.
What do these insurgents have in common? All have called into question the interventionist consensus in foreign policy. All have opposed large-scale free-trade agreements. (The libertarian Paul favors unilateral free trade: by his lights, treaties like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not free trade at all but international regulatory pacts.) And while no one would mistake Ralph Nader’s or Ron Paul’s views on immigration for Pat Buchanan’s or Donald Trump’s, Nader and Paul have registered their own dissents from the approach to immigration that prevails in Washington.
Sanders has been more in line with his party’s orthodoxy on that issue. But that didn’t save him from being attacked by Clinton backers for having an insufficiently nonwhite base of support. Once again, what might have appeared to be a class conflict—in this case between a democratic socialist and an elite liberal with ties to high finance—could be explained away as really about race.
Race, like religion, is a real factor in how people vote. Its relevance to elite politics, however, is less clear. Something else has to account for why the establishment in both parties almost uniformly favors one approach to war, trade, and immigration, while outsider candidates as dissimilar as Buchanan, Nader, Paul, and Trump, and to a lesser extent Sanders, depart from the consensus.
The insurgents clearly do not represent a single class: they appeal to eclectic interests and groups. The foe they have all faced down, however—the bipartisan establishment—does resemble a class in its striking unity of outlook and interest. So what is this class, effectively the ruling class of the country?
Some critics on the right have identified it with the “managerial” class described by James Burnham in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. But it bears a stronger resemblance to what what others have called “the New Class.” In fact, the interests of this New Class of college-educated “verbalists” are antithetical to those of the industrial managers that Burnham described. Understanding the relationship between these two often conflated concepts provides insight into politics today, which can be seen as a clash between managerial and New Class elites.
The archetypal model of class conflict, the one associated with Karl Marx, pits capitalists against workers—or, at an earlier stage, capitalists against the landed nobility. The capitalists’ victory over the nobility was inevitable, and so too, Marx believed, was the coming triumph of the workers over the capitalists.
Over the next century, however, history did not follow the script. By 1992, the Soviet Union was gone, Communist China had embarked on market reforms, and Western Europe was turning away from democratic socialism. There was no need to predict the future; mankind had achieved its destiny, a universal order of liberal democracy. Marx had it backwards: capitalism was the end of history.
But was the truth as simple as that? Long before the collapse of the USSR, many former communists—some of whom remained socialists, while others joined the right—thought not. The Soviet Union had never been a workers’ state at all, they argued, but was run by a class of apparatchiks such as Marx had never imagined.
Among the first to advance this argument was James Burnham, a professor of philosophy at New York University who became a leading Trotskyist thinker. As he broke with Trotsky and began moving toward the right, Burnham recognized affinities between the Soviet mode of organization—in which much real power lay in the hands of the commissars who controlled industry and the bureaucratic organs of the state—and the corporatism that characterized fascist states. Even the U.S., under the New Deal and with ongoing changes to the balance between ownership and management in the private sector, seemed to be moving in the same direction.
Burnham called this the “managerial revolution.” The managers of industry and technically trained government officials did not own the means of production, like the capitalists of old. But they did control the means of production, thanks to their expertise and administrative prowess.
The rise of this managerial class would have far-reaching consequences, he predicted. Burnham wrote in his 1943 book, The Machiavellians: “that the managers may function, the economic and political structure must be modified, as it is now being modified, so as to rest no longer on private ownership and small-scale nationalist sovereignty, but primarily upon state control of the economy, and continental or vast regional world political organization.” Burnham pointed to Nazi Germany, imperial Japan—which became a “continental” power by annexing Korea and Manchuria—and the Soviet Union as examples.
The defeat of the Axis powers did not halt the progress of the managerial revolution. Far from it: not only did the Soviets retain their form of managerialism, but the West increasingly adopted a managerial corporatism of its own, marked by cooperation between big business and big government: high-tech industrial crony capitalism, of the sort that characterizes the military-industrial complex to this day. (Not for nothing was Burnham a great advocate of America’s developing a supersonic transport of its own to compete with the French-British Concorde.)
America’s managerial class was personified by Robert S. McNamara, the former Ford Motor Company executive who was secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In a 1966 story for National Review, “Why Do They Hate Robert Strange McNamara?” Burnham answered the question in class terms: “McNamara is attacked by the Left because the Left has a blanket hatred of the system of business enterprise; he is criticized by the Right because the Right harks back, in nostalgia if not in practice, to outmoded forms of business enterprise.”
McNamara the managerial technocrat was too business-oriented for a left that still dreamed of bringing the workers to power. But the modern form of industrial organization he represented was not traditionally capitalist enough for conservatives who were at heart 19th-century classical liberals.
National Review readers responded to Burnham’s paean to McNamara with a mixture of incomprehension and indignation. It was a sign that even readers familiar with Burnham—he appeared in every issue of the magazine—did not always follow what he was saying. The popular right wanted concepts that were helpful in labeling enemies, and Burnham was confusing matters by talking about changes in the organization of government and industry that did not line up with anyone’s value judgements.
More polemically useful was a different concept popularized by neoconservatives in the following decade: the “New Class.” “This ‘new class’ is not easily defined but may be vaguely described,” Irving Kristol wrote in a 1975 essay for the Wall Street Journal:
It consists of a goodly proportion of those college-educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a ‘post-industrial society’ (to use Daniel Bell’s convenient term). We are talking about scientists, teachers, and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on.
“Members of the new class do not ‘control’ the media,” he continued, “they are the media—just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system, and much else.”
Burnham, writing in National Review in 1978, drew a sharp contrast between this concept and his own ideas:
I have felt that this ‘new class’ is, so far, rather thin gruel. Intellectuals, verbalists, media types, etc. are conspicuous actors these days, certainly; they make a lot of noise, get a lot of attention, and some of them make a lot of money. But, after all, they are a harum-scarum crowd, and deflate even more quickly than they puff up. On TV they can out-talk any of the managers of ITT, GM, or IBM, or the administration-managers of the great government bureaus and agencies, but, honestly, you’re not going to take that as a power test. Who hires and fires whom?
Burnham suffered a stroke later that year. Although he lived until 1987, his career as a writer was over. His last years coincided with another great transformation of business and government. It began in the Carter administration, with moves to deregulate transportation and telecommunications. This partial unwinding of the managerial revolution accelerated under Ronald Reagan. Regulatory and welfare-state reforms, even privatization of formerly nationalized industries, also took off in the UK and Western Europe. All this did not, however, amount to a restoration of the old capitalism or anything resembling laissez-faire.
The “liberal democracy” that triumphed at “the end of history”—to use Francis Fukuyama’s words—was not the managerial capitalism of the mid-20th century, either. It was instead the New Class’s form of capitalism, one that could be embraced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as readily as by any Republican or Thatcherite.
Irving Kristol had already noted in the 1970s that “this new class is not merely liberal but truly ‘libertarian’ in its approach to all areas of life—except economics. It celebrates individual liberty of speech and expression and action to an unprecedented degree, so that at times it seems almost anarchistic in its conception of the good life.”
He was right about the New Class’s “anything goes” mentality, but he was only partly correct about its attitude toward economics. The young elite tended to scorn the bourgeois character of the old capitalism, and to them managerial figures like McNamara were evil incarnate. But they had to get by—and they aspired to rule.
Burnham had observed that the New Class did not have the means—either money or manpower—to wield power the way the managers or the capitalists of old did. It had to borrow power from other classes. Discovering where the New Class gets it is as easy as following the money, which leads straight to the finance sector—practically to the doorstep of Goldman Sachs. Jerry Rubin’s journey from Yippie to yuppie was the paradigm of a generation.
Part of the tale can be told in a favorable light. New Left activists like Carl Oglesby fought the spiritual aridity and murderous militarism of what they called “corporate liberalism”—Burnham’s managerialism—while sincere young libertarians attacked the regulatory state and seeded technological entrepreneurship. Yet the New Class as a whole is less like Carl Oglesby or Karl Hess than like Hillary Clinton, who arguably embodies it as perfectly as McNamara did the managerial class.
Even the New Class’s support for deregulation—to the advantage of its allies on Wall Street—was no sign of consistent commitment to free-market principles. On the contrary, the New Class favors new kinds of crony finance capitalism, even as it opposes the protectionism that would benefit hard industry and managerial interests. The individual-mandate feature of Obamacare and Romneycare is a prime example of New Class cronyism: government compels individuals to buy a supposedly private product or service.
The alliance between finance and the New Class accounts for the disposition of power in America today. The New Class has also enlisted another invaluable ally: the managerial classes of East Asia. Trade with China—the modern managerial state par excellence—helps keep American industry weak relative to finance and the service economy’s verbalist-dominated sectors. America’s class war, like many others, is not in the end a contest between up and down. It’s a fight between rival elites: in this case, between the declining managerial elite and the triumphant (for now) New Class and financial elites.
The New Class plays a priestly role in its alliance with finance, absolving Wall Street for the sin of making money in exchange for plenty of that money to keep the New Class in power. In command of foreign policy, the New Class gets to pursue humanitarian ideological projects—to experiment on the world. It gets to evangelize by the sword. And with trade policy, it gets to suppress its class rival, the managerial elite, at home. Through trade pacts and mass immigration the financial elite, meanwhile, gets to maximize its returns without regard for borders or citizenship. The erosion of other nations’ sovereignty that accompanies American hegemony helps toward that end too—though our wars are more ideological than interest-driven.
So we come to an historic moment. Instead of an election pitting another Bush against another Clinton, we have a race that poses stark alternatives: a choice not only between candidates but between classes—not only between administrations but between regimes.
Donald Trump is not of the managerial class himself. But by embracing managerial interests—industrial protection and, yes, “big government”—and combining them with nationalistic identity politics, he has built a force that has potential to threaten the bipartisan establishment, even if he goes down to defeat in November.
The New Class, after all, lacks a popular base as well as money of its own, and just as it relies on Wall Street to underwrite its power, it depends on its competing brands of identity politics to co-opt popular support. For the center-left establishment, minority voters supply the electoral muscle. Religion and the culture war have served the same purpose for the establishment’s center-right faction. Trump showed that at least one of these sides could be beaten on its own turf—and it seems conceivable that if Bernie Sanders had been black, he might have similarly beaten Clinton, without having to make concessions to New Class tastes.
The New Class establishment of both parties may be seriously misjudging what is happening here. Far from being the last gasp of the demographically doomed—old, racially isolated white people, as Gallup’s analysis says—Trump’s insurgency may be the prototype of an aggressive new politics, of either left or right, that could restore the managerial elite to power.
This is not something that conservatives—or libertarians who admire the old capitalism rather than New Class’s simulacrum—might welcome. But the only way that some entrenched policies may change is with a change of the class in power.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.