City Journal Summer 2014

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Summer 2014
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Books and Culture

Fred Siegel
The Middle Class and Its Enemies
Two books pose very different villains.
31 August 2012

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!, by James Carville and Stan Greenberg (Blue Rider Press, 321 pp., $26.95)

Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities, by Stanley Kurtz (Sentinel, 221 pp., $25.95)

The Obamaphile columnist Jonathan Alter has written that “the collapse of the American middle class and the huge transfer of wealth to the already wealthy is the biggest domestic story of our time.” He’s right about the middle-class part, anyway: thanks to the most undemocratic economic recovery in American history, there are now more unemployed workers than at any time since the Great Depression. Further, the average household’s income has declined even more in the so-called recovery than it did during the recession.

Who and what are to blame? Two new election-season books provide dramatically different answers. Famed Clinton political operative James Carville and well-known Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg place the blame on rapacious plutocrats and their Republican running dogs who raid middle-class incomes behind the cover of “the right-wing fog machine”—a phrase they repeat throughout the book—and Fox News. President Obama isn’t the guy who’s fed Wall Street and Solyndra with 1 percent interest rates and crony-capitalist subsidies. He is, rather, pragmatic and post-partisan, and his chief failing, they tell us, is that he has failed to construct a convincing political narrative.

Their book was published before Paul Ryan became Mitt Romney’s running mate, but Ryan figures in their analysis: the Wisconsin congressman’s 2012 budget proposal marked the point when the rich “threw the Geneva Convention out the window and started lining the middle class up against the wall.” If that weren’t overheated enough, Carville insists that “every cockamamie, goofball, jackass, stupid idea that has come up in the last 30 years has come from Representative Ryan and his ilk.” Less a book than a 300-page pamphlet written in the alternating voices of the two authors, It’s The Middle Class, Stupid! does have a few short, redeeming sections in which Carville and Greenberg try to reconcile their views with those that emerge from focus groups they have conducted.

The authors are devoutly pro-government, but they find that their focus groups “think government is part of the problem,” in part because “political and economic elites are so intertwined” as to be unaccountable. Devout believers in Keynesian deficits, the purported successes of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, and the imminent dangers of global warming—all of which leave their panels cold—they take refuge in what they consider a paradox: “The only entity in the country that has any power to stand up to these people [i.e., financial elites] is the government.” But “if government is corrupted and has actively helped create the problem,” then liberals are in a box, because “if you can’t radically reform government, the Democrats are lost. And if the Democrats are lost, the middle class is lost.” The paradox unfolded, the authors double down on their hopes for class warfare against the rich.

The book mercifully comes to a close after proposing a dramatic new reform: an institute for the “Expansion and Protection of the Middle Class to be established at Princeton.” If not there, then Carville’s alma mater, LSU, will do. Maybe all isn’t lost after all?

Stanley Kurtz’s somewhat mistitled Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities blames the president, whom he described as the “Radical-in-Chief” in an earlier book, for the plight of the middle class. Radical-in-Chief was a painstakingly researched account of Obama’s long association with leftists, including the heirs of Saul Alinsky. Spreading the Wealth pulls Obama’s Alinskysim into the present by describing the president’s ongoing relationship with a group of redistributionists who blame urban poverty on suburban prosperity. Their solution is “regionalism”—absorbing the suburbs into the ailing cities, thus affording the urban poor greater fiscal and cultural resources.

Kurtz never mentions it, but regionalism is an extension of the Third World–centric version of Marxism developed in the mid-1950s by U.S. economist Paul Baran. Trying to account in Marxist terms for the deradicalization of the Western working classes, Baran argued that the developed world’s prosperity had been purchased at the price of the Third World’s impoverishment. The rise of once backward countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, undermined Baran’s argument. Nonetheless, it took on new life in the hands of Obama’s Alinskyites, looking to explain away the failures of their community-organizing campaigns to improve the conditions of the black inner-city poor—even as nonwhite immigrants were climbing the American social ladder. The regionalists could have pointed to the collapse of the black family, but that would have left them with no one to shake down for their programs. They found a target-rich environment in the well-to-do suburbs.

Kurtz shows that, unlike sixties radicals, the neo-Alinskyites have adopted a version of Oscar Lewis’s culture-of-poverty argument to explain the crime and breakdown of the inner city. They aim to transpose a conventional model of cultural behavior through the integration, both fiscally and socially, of city and suburb. Like many failed social programs since the Great Society, neo-Alinskyite programs seek a shortcut to bourgeois morality. Placing the cart before the horse, they see bourgeois, middle-class behavior as the product of a middle-class environment—instead of the cause of it.

Kurtz shows clearly that Obama’s Alinskyite allies have been more than welcome at the White House. But—and here’s where the book is somewhat misnamed—they’ve done little so far, their plans largely on hold for an Obama second term. With the exception of the education chapter, which has a rushed quality about it, Kurtz’s book is well worth reading, but not as an account of what’s happened so far. Rather, it’s a warning about what might be on the horizon if the Radical-in-Chief is reelected.

Two caveats: Kurtz doesn’t make enough of big-city black mayors’ opposition to regionalism. These political leaders have no interest in diluting their own power. And Kurtz might have made more of New Jersey’s 35-year-old Mount Laurel experiment in compulsory integration, enforced through state supreme court orders. Enacted at considerable cost to local municipalities, Mount Laurel has done little to promote black upward mobility. But that hasn’t stopped Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development from attempting to impose Mount Laurel–like integrated housing schemes on Westchester, New York, despite the absence of discrimination there.

The irony of Kurtz’s book is that its author stands to benefit if the warning goes unheeded. Should Obama triumph in November, analysts will likely make a beeline for Kurtz and his account of the president’s second-term plans for economic redistribution. As for “the biggest story of our time”—the plight of the middle class that Carville and Greenberg purport to explain—readers will have to look elsewhere for insight.

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