A More Realistic View of The “Gentry Liberals”

Writing about either liberals or conservatives as a group can lead to erroneous conclusions as both groups are actually composed of people with a number of political viewpoints lumped together under common labels. Conservatives have long had to deal with views ranging from social conservatism to libertarianism. Now that liberalism has made a “comeback,” the left will similarly have to deal with differing views ranging from throwbacks to big government liberalism to the more libertarian liberalism seen in those who are voting Democratic in response to the authoritarianism of the right. We are bound to see disparaging articles written by one group about the other, such as today’s article entitled The Gentry Liberals in The Los Angeles Times by Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel.

Kotkin and Siegel complain that liberalism is making a comeback but it “isn’t your father’s liberalism, the ideology that defended the interests and values of the middle and working classes.” It might be more accurate to say that today’s liberalism is partially in the tradition of your great-great-great grandfather, but influenced by changes in the modern era rather than trying to live in the past as Kotkin and Siegel prefer.

Liberalism has changed over the years in reaction to conditions at the time. Liberalism was born as a philosophy based upon advocating liberty. Liberalism strayed from its classical roots during the progressive era when power was in the hands of a wealthy elite. The depression resulted in the liberalism of the New Deal in response to the problems of that era.

Today we live in a different, and more affluent era. While for a while the affluent more typically voted Republican, the GOP’s turn towards authoritarianism, the social policies of the religious right, and an insane foreign policy which undermines our national security, has led to an increasing number of affluent voters to voting Democratic. Kotkin and Siegel don’t welcome the new Democratic voters who are now allowing the Democrats to become a majority rather than remain a minority party as it has been in recent years:

Today’s ascendant liberalism has a much different agenda. Call it “gentry liberalism.” It’s not driven by the lunch-pail concerns of those workers struggling to make it in an increasingly high-tech, information-based, outsourcing U.S. economy — though it does pay lip service to them.

Rather, gentry liberalism reflects the interests and values of the affluent winners in the era of globalization and the beneficiaries of the “financialization” of the economy. Its strongholds are the tony neighborhoods and luxurious suburbs in and around New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and West Los Angeles…

Since the 1960s, the intellectual class epitomized by Schlesinger has grown many times over. Academic liberals have become something of a political power in their own right. College campuses constituted the largest single base of contributors to the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry. Professors are among the highly compensated and pampered professional cadres of the knowledge economy — which also includes lawyers, engineers, doctors, wealth managers, investors and other educated professionals — that make up the ranks of gentry liberalism and flatter the politicians who advocate its positions.

Kotkin and Siegel prefer a past before the information society transformed American. An increasing number of workers now are part of the information society as opposed to the working class of the past and modern liberalism reflects this. Liberalism is returning to its roots in supporting liberty, as well as in opposing the foreign policy of the neoconservatives. While there remain some New Deal liberals, many liberals, especially the young, are far more libertarian in their attitudes. Today’s liberals oppose the restrictions on individual liberty from the right. This includes both social conservatism of the religious right and the increase in power of the Executive Branch under George Bush.

Today’s liberals, as compared to many conservatives, are not hostile to the goals of the middle class but also are more skeptical of turning to big government as the solution for all problems. Liberals look to government where needed, such as with the health care crisis, but not in all matters.

The manner in which Kotkin and Siegel are throwbacks to big government liberalism as opposed to a more libertarian liberalism is seen in the politicians they support. They name John Edwards as their example of the Democratic candidate to come closest to their ideals. Edwards has been the candidate of big government programs while having little understanding of freedom or of the need to restore checks and balances on government. Siegel was also an adviser to Rudy Giuliani, who is not as liberal on social issues as often portrayed, while showing no more respect for freedom and checks and balances on government power than the Bush administration. They are hardly the ones to be advising liberals about what to think.

It is amusing to see that many on the right are quoting this article believing that it confirms their views of liberals. They apparently missed the point late in the article which notes, “The ascent of gentry liberalism remains largely unchallenged, in part because of the abject failure of the Republicans to address middle-class aspirations in a serious way…”

The greater irony is that the conservatives fail to understand how little there is left of their philosophy beyond the authoritarian views of the religious right and the neoconservatives. In past years Republicans would claim to be the party which represents those who are the greatest producers of wealth and are successful in our economy. Now that many of us affluent voters have rejected the Republicans and are voting Democratic, the conservatives don’t know how to respond intelligibly and must grasp onto any criticism of liberals. They fail to see that such criticism does nothing to support their views or their arguments against liberals.

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  1. 1
    Eric Dondero says:

    The liberals seem to be moving in a more Nanny-state direction: Smoking bans sweeping the US, Universal Health Care, emphasis on silly issues like saving tots from toys from China, ect…

    That’s further away from libertarianism, not moving closer.

    If the liberals were becomming more “rock ‘n rollish, more marijuana legalizing, more sex, booze and good times” oriented like they were in the 1970s, I’d agree with you. Back then the “Jerry Brown Democrat Party” was kinda cool.

    Now they’ve become like cratchety ole’ Grannies, telling people how to live their lives.

    The tables have turned. Thus you now see the Republicans as the Party that stands up against smoking bans. And Gene Simmons of KISS, Steely Dan, Ted Nugent and even Alice Cooper are declaring themselves “loyal Republicans.”

    Who’d have ever thunk it?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Smoking bans is only one issue, and it isn’t really a case of Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing.

    Move from one type of smoking to another. Almost all the Republican presidential candidates (other than Ron Paul) support the DEA raids on those using medical marijuana, even when legal in their states. The Democratic candidates say they will stop the raids.

  3. 3
    FreedomDemocrat says:

    Smoking bans as a Democratic issue? Damn, I had no idea that Huckabee was a Democrat!

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Eric does tend to be selective in who and what he looks at in comparing Democrats and Republicans. Both parties have a “nanny state” problem.

  5. 5
    FreedomDemocrat says:

    Ron, I have my thoughts on “gentry liberals” up at Freedom Democrats: http://freedomdemocrats.org/node/2226

    These affluent voters trending Democratic are the new median voters in the Democratic Party. They are turning what was one a narrowly economically populist party into a more pragmatic party. The Democrats will have to deal with the populist wing of their party, which is very much represented by John Edwards. Red states, which are also poorer, will continue to give rise to populist Democrats when they occasionally win elections. But the real sustained victories of the Democratic Party will come from the more affluent blue states, like the Democratic wave across New England in 2006.

    I also try to tie this into the discussion of federalism and libertarianism. I’d be interested in your opinion of my thoughts in my closing paragraphs:

    “I remember reading a description of the New Deal coalition as one part regional conflict, one part class warfare. The South, and increasingly the West, were poorer regions that demanded federal aid for economic development. This meant taxation of the wealthier Northeast to pay for dams, highways, military bases, farm aid, and the like for the West and South. In the Northeast, the New Deal coalition was class warfare between the urban poor and the wealthier elites. They wanted the transfer of wealth from the top to the bottom in the form of expanded social welfare programs.

    Today, the elite of the red states in the South and West are tied into the conservative welfare state. The poorer voters in these red states are increasingly groups that were left out of the New Deal: African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics. The South and the West are now home to the class warfare wing. In the North, the political narrative is regional conflict based on differing social and cultural values.

    Some writers like Michal Lind, compare the modern Democratic Party to the Gilded Era Republicans, the party of the Northern elite. I’d actually shift it back a few decades to the Reconstruction Era, when the North was still united on social and cultural opposition to the expansion of slavery and Southern culture. For a brief period, the Republican Party was trying to build a political alliance with the recently freed slaves of the South. It didn’t work out too well, mostly because the North stopped caring and allowed important issues of citizenship, particularly voting rights, to become a “states rights” issue.”

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    This gets rather complicated as we are somewhat in a period of realignment. In the past voting was much more motivated by economic reasons and to some degree class war. In recent years the culture wars have become more important, but different people vote based upon different reasons.

    The Clinton years helped to reduce voting based upon economic reasons as the culture wars also took off. If Democrats support high marginal tax rates and policies seen more as redistributing the wealth the affluent will protect their money and ignore the social policies of the Republicans if they disagreed. In recent years we are talking about much less significant differences on economic matters, leaving socially affluent liberal voters more free to vote Democratic. This is the opposite side of the coin described by Thomas Frank in What’s The Matter With Kansas? Many still vote Republican, but a growing number are voting Democratic.

    Looking at poorer voters there are some contradictory trends. Labor continues to vote more Democratic. Nonunionized workers are increasingly voting Republican, against their economic interests. Maybe Edwards will pull more of them back to the Democratic Party based on self-interest, but we don’t really see that much of this. Edwards supporters (including Elizabeth) may claim that us more affluent Democrats are not real Democrats. We won’t vote Democratic if their economic policies are pursued, but they also must keep in mind that it is the younger, more affluent, and more suburban voters who gave Democrats their majority, largely based upon the culture wars, as well as opposition to the Iraq War. There are elements who vote Democratic based upon economic issues, but there have not been enough of them for years, turning the Democrats into a minority party.

  7. 7
    FreedomDemocrat says:


    I think we’re in a period of realignment, but I’m curious as to how much realignment is left, especially on the bottom.

    I know the white vote has shifted Republican during the 1990s. Lower income whites still favor the Democratic Party, but I think this is household income of $35,000 and below. I just broke that out of college with my second job.

    In other words, voting trends at the lower end of the income ladder have probably finished their realignment. The question is above, where more affluent suburban voters have trended Democratic in some states. In the states where Democrats are winning them, the states are becoming very blue: Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, etc.

    My main question for the future is if Democrats can win affluent suburbans elsewhere, say Wake County of North Carolina, and turn other red states blue.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    It’s hard to say. It depends a lot on what the parties do. If the Democrats pursue moderate economic policies they can continue to gain support from affluent voters. If they go with John Edwards, they’ll quickly become a minority party for another generation. If the Republicans remain on their present course they will also make it much easier for the Democrats to take away more of their votes.

    Everything can also change quickly based upon unpredictable events. 9/11 gave the Republicans a boost for a few years, and then Katrina doomed them.

  9. 9
    Bullet in your head says:

    NAFTA said it all, so does the inability to end the Iraq war, pass S-CHIP, and the continuing funding of the genocide in Palestine. Gentry Liberals do not care about anybody who doesn’t make less than six figures, and the only thing they can lead is a hooker over a bridge. The Dems also disenfranchised the Green Party in 06, by using their “legal resources” to block Nader’s nomination, and sent out hitmen to deliberately missign petitions for Nader to invalidate them. As for conservatives, blood still drips from their fangs…

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