TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Joel Kotkin and the Embattled Middle Class

In a recent issue of First Things, Naomi Schaefer Riley reviewed Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict:

Ever since the 2000 election, we have talked about an America divided between red and blue. But in his new book, Joel Kotkin argues that we are experiencing more than a geographical divide. For the first time since its founding, he suggests, America is experiencing a potentially devastating class conflict—the kind of division between the elites and the rest of America that could all but break the country’s middle-class backbone.

It is striking that Kotkin, a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial pages, is making this claim. For years, the left has argued that class warfare is a fact of life in America, even encouraging class resentment to achieve its political aims. The free-marketers’ response has been three-fold. First, if you ask Americans, they don’t hate the wealthy. They aspire to be among their ranks soon. Second, while there may be a great income divide between the corporate CEO and the janitor, the janitor is getting wealthier thanks to the company’s success—the rising tide lifting all boats. And finally, the people who are poor today are not the same people who were poor ten years ago. As more people come here through immigration, for example, they too will have their shot at the American dream, and others will start at the bottom of the economic ladder to take their place.

Now all this presumes that America is still offering opportunity to those at the bottom. But Kotkin argues that a variety of forces, including public policies driven by a variety of special interests, have conspired to close off this opportunity.

Kotkin is at his best in describing the strange alliances that have formed in this new class war. On one side, he suggests, there are the bankers, the government bureaucrats, the clerisy (which includes the media and academics), and the tech sector. On the other is “the embattled yeomanry”—that is, small business owners—and the rapidly expanding lower classes who don’t even have a chance to make it into the yeomanry anymore.

Read the full review here (subscription required). Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict is available for purchase in our online store.

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