Piketty on the "Brahmin left" and the "merchant right"

I think that’s most certainly true today, since the Clinton era… it was less true back in the 50s and 60s, during the liberal consensus era. All sorts of things that were political 3rd rails at the time are considered acceptable. Cutting taxes, for example, and deep cuts to entitlement programs. No one would have gone after any of that in the 50s and 60s, and the ones that advocated for it were far, far, outside the mainstream (Goldwater).

I’d argue that an appeal to racial politics since Nixon made the current rightward shift possible in the first place (in the US, at least).


I agree with you, even though you do not mention the elephant in the room. It was less Clinton or Nixon, but more Reagan who started all this and who most enabled the neo-con/neo-lib/rightward shift that has been going on for 40 years now. (Labels may change, their fuckwittery does not.)


Well, I’d say that Reagan started the deregulation era, but Nixon started the dog whistling racial politics that the right has benefited from since. The “southern strategy” was an attempt to peel off Wallace voters (Nixon’s silent majority) from the democratic party. Reagan leaned into that, and added a dash of Christian Dominionism. These 3 strains have played into each other, and created the stupid timeline we live in today.


I’m not going to disagree. Especially from a US perspective. But I’ve made clear my view before - that it was primarily Reagan and Thatcher with their “private good, public bad” philosophy that led us to (created) today’s perverse economics and vilification of anything a government does directly with respect to provision of services/infrastructure, and of the taxes needed as a result. And those economics have utterly despoiled our political timeline.

But I suspect we broadly agree in general, and risk splitting angels on the head of a hairpin if we go too far in arguing about how to apportion blame, and argue about who was responsible, or cavil about cause and effect. Mostly, it’s circular - cause makes effect becomes cause makes effect and so on - we can agree that all the ‘leaders’ we’ve mentioned have played their part. The key point is to somehow break that circle, move that Overton window, and I do detect some movement, however slow. I hope I live long enough to see some civil sanity return.


Agreed, but the culture wars made that more palatable, I’d argue. I’ll also say that Nixon fundamentally broke the liberal consensus, thanks to Watergate and COINTELPRO (among other misdeeds). People did not feel they could trust their government anymore, leaving room for Reagan to push a deregulatory agenda.

I don’t believe it’s about blame, though. I see it as trying to get at historical forces that led to the changes we’re living with today. Nixon and Reagan made strategic moves to secure their elections, and we’re still living with the consequences today. Charting out that path on both issues matters, given how central both are to the current political environment.

Agreed. The question of undoing at least some of the damage of deregulation rests on being able to not just move the overton window, but in getting people to have some trust in the federal government after decades of people getting into office whose entire goal is the destruction of the very institutions that were elected to be a part of. The entire GOP is culpable for that, at this point, which is going to mean they will need to fundamentally change, or we’re going to need a new party out of that old one.


…or die.
In the UK it is now not a complete fantasy (maybe only 98%, now) that the Conservatives will either self-destruct or dramatically change. Brexit has been our catalyst. Not sure if Trump will prove to be the catalyst that kills or transforms the GOP or just enables more of the same.


This is interesting and true. I might just add that there was also a draft on for an unpopular war, which might have swayed more left-leaning “generally non-political” people against the government as a whole than COINTELPRO. All part of the same soup, of course.


Arguably, they already have: it’s called capitalism.


The distinction between the Establishment Dems and the GOP isn’t a left/right split. It’s a factional dispute between the small-c conservative (Dem) and radical (GOP) wings of white supremacist imperial capitalism.

Don’t forget Clinton’s “the era of big government is over”.

OTOH, there is nothing new about the alliance between the far right and the centre right.


Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat, they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.


Pretty sure were at the point where the Elite Left and Elite Right have already formed an unspoken bloc that allows them to play off of eachother to appear to be working in opposition without upsetting the status quo.


Low income and low education = powerless and exploitable.


As a UX/IA/data vis person, I was impressed by the complete lack of pie charts.

** subtle Heathers allusion for the other olds **

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But the whole “The GOP is going to have fundamentally change or be destroyed” was exactly the sort of thing that the editorials prior to the 2016 election kept on claiming – that Trump’s obvious loss would show Republicans the folly of relying on their conservative white base which was supposedly insufficient to win elections in multi-racial 21st century America. People didn’t seem to predict it would be the Democratic Party that would have to ask themselves the hard questions of what they were about. The GOP may yet eventually lose out due to demographics, but with gerrymandering and other dirty tricks, I expect they’ll hold on for quite some time with their traditional base.


Wow, that’s an impressive post, even if only from the POV of formatting.
As for what a liberal is, I’m reading Adam Gopnik’s book, A Thousand Small Sanities. He defines the liberal mind-set, and then discusses, in turn, why the Right hates liberals and why the Left hates liberals. A good read.

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There’s a decent critique (albeit much too restrained and non-radical for my tastes) of Gopnik’s book here:


But he points out how the working classes in the 40s and 50s were more likely to vote left, so what changed?

And plenty of people with a healthy bank account and at least a college degree vote for the right as well. Also, see @Wanderfound’s post with regards to the petite bourgeoisie and their support for authoritarian regimes in order to ensure their positions vis-a-vis the working classes.

It can change, or it can keep leading us down the path to authoritarianism. That’s the choice now.


i don’t think it’s “cultural” per se, and i don’t think there’s any mystery to unwind about why the white working class is willing to band together with the white “merchant” class – because it’s not about class either.

it seems the biggest indicator of republican vs democrat leaning voter is whether you’re an old white man.

older white men still have a huge amount of political and economic capital – just look at the demographic makeup of the political institutions in america. ( or god, just look at joe the plumber. )

it’s basically impossible to talk about left vs right in america without that lens –

This is OK by the merchant right, who have historically (since the French Revolution!) justified their wealth and privilege with a belief in their innate superiority and styled themselves as destined to govern over their social lessers

maybe the analysis in europe just doesn’t up here across the pond, because it doesn’t seem that classism is the main issue here in america. it’s racism.

in both regions, sure – the same sort of economic tools are being used ( buying access to politicians, leveraging nest-eggs into self sustaining flows of capital, using computers to create financial instruments that would have been impossible to track or trade in years past ), but the underlying motivations seem different.

cory’s summary does have this:

The merchant right has reactivated these voters by making nativist/racist appeals, blaming foreigners for their collapsing fortunes…

but even that doesn’t hold up here – 1) whites arent the natives, and 2) there is no history of whites in america that is separate from the history of blacks in america.

america is, unfortunately, exceptional – more than two hundred years of slavery, a civil war followed by segregation, institutional and economic racism that continues today. there is no meaningful analysis of class here that does not include race as its most fundamental aspect

that line ends with:

This has been a devastatingly effective tactic for getting turkeys to vote for Christmas, leading to more alienation, more embrace of authoritarianism

the problem with the analysis as a whole is to think that people are somehow being tricked or conned.

as i see it, it’s a mistake to write off people’s intelligence, and i think it’s a mistake to think that older white people in america dislike alienation or authoritarianism.

you can believe them. they know what they are doing and why.

it’s a fundamental ( a religious pun perhaps ) fear of diversity, that trumps ( ouch ) all of the other class, economic, and even environmental concerns.


Virulent racism is definitely an aspect of the divide between the two elite groups (as is overt sexism), but ultimately it’s still a function of the merchant right’s culture of anti-intellectualism. The merchant right hates academia (the wellspring of the Brahmin left) in part because it’s willing to acknowledge and discuss America’s original sins and also because it aspires to diversity like few other American institutions.

A liberal or progressive with an undergrad degree knows that the conservative and Libertarian elites’ narratives of American history, economics, and current affairs that they tell themselves and that they sell to their marks are patently bogus. This is also why an educated electorate, even more than a racially diverse one, is the modern GOP’s biggest enemy. This is also why movement conservatism has been launching so many aggressive and well-funded multi-pronged attacks on colleges and universities over the past decades.

That’s not to let the Brahmin left completely off the hook when it comes to America’s deeply ingrained racism; they’re just not as virulent about it and tend to mask it with NIMBYism and other more classist approaches that an educated person can stroke his chin over. Watch what happens whenever a city wants to build new transit stops or public housing in a wealthy white liberal enclave, for example.

Only in the “turkeys voting for Christmas” sense, where the merchant right gulls the Know-Nothings and Temporarily Embarassed Millionaires of the GOP base into repeatedly voting against their actual economic self-interests (as opposed to the relatively empty economic “self-interest” of preserving skin privilege).

The current right-wing populist twist on things is what happens when the marks start suspecting that they’ve been conned: the merchant right starts making “elite” a mainly cultural and social class rather than an economic one, easily shifting the focus to neoliberal-lite Brahmins as a distraction from their own hardcore “free” market fundamentalism that’s real source of the Know-Nothing suckers’ woes.


77% of non-white non-college grads voted for clinton; where 66% of white non-college grads voted for trump. the only difference there is race, not education.

basically, something happens to white people when they go to college. and i think it’s simply world experience.

higher education dilutes the white vote because that’s the way white people most often break out of their segregated bubbles – bubbles that were created by law and economic power.

but it’s not the only way. diverse cities are “coincidentally” strongholds of white left leaning voters regardless of education level. diverse workforces can be as well. ( part of union busting maybe? ) early education can be as well, if integration is a priority.

that’s my point though. economic concerns aren’t people’s only concerns. we aren’t consumers first. we’re … people.

people generally want stable lives filled with meaning. most are more than happy to work themselves to the bone if they are achieving those goals.

in a society where there are race based divides, continued segregation can be ( for some part ) of that goal. and they are, and have been, willing to make economic sacrifices towards that end.

where we see: tax cuts for the rich will hurt working class people; they see: tax cuts for (white) rich people will continue the white cultural hegemony – all that stuff im used to. where we see: free education or free healthcare for all; they see: increasing access for non-whites. etc.

perhaps there’s an economic analysis that could be made from their voting records. namely, how much are people willing to pay to keep society segregated? it does seems to be quite a bit. but, it doesn’t mean they’ve been conned into paying.


I suspect that the change in working class party affiliation had something to do with civil rights not yet being much of a thing.

Few people only vote economic self-interest. People also vote culturally and are willing to take an economic hit. Should be obvious by now. Look at Brexit: Leave the EU so we can have more money! We’ll have less money? Then leave the EU so we can achieve solidarity in hard times!