Gentry Liberals Own the Democratic Party
A Commentary By Michael Barone
Amid the brouhahas about the Nunes memo and immigration, an item from Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago Business caught my eye. Demographers crunching census data estimate that Chicago's black population fell to 842,000, while its white non-Hispanic population increased to 867,000. National political significance: In our three largest cities -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- gentry liberals have become the dominant political demographic.
That's consistent with election results. Gentry liberals -- the term is urban analyst Joel Kotkin's -- are the political base of those cities' mayors, Bill de Blasio, Eric Garcetti and Rahm Emanuel. That's something new in American politics. Modest-income Jews used to be the key group in New York. White married homeowners were it in Los Angeles. "Bungalow ward" ethnics dominated in Chicago. In time, they faced challenges from candidates with nonwhite political bases -- blacks, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, Mexicans in Los Angeles, and blacks and Hispanics in Chicago. Now gentry liberals are on top.
This reflects demographic change. Blacks have been moving from central cities to suburbs and the South. Mexican immigrant inflow largely shut down circa 2008. Affluent professionals and single college graduates have colonized -- gentrified -- neighborhoods such as Park Slope, Silver Lake and Wicker Park, with bedraggled but potentially attractive housing stock convenient to downtowns.
The trend is visible elsewhere -- not only in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland but also in Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even Cleveland and Detroit. It's widespread and strategic enough to be changing the face of the Democratic Party.
There's irony in this. Gentry liberals have produced the metropolitan areas with the highest income inequality in the nation. They decry gentrification -- and the accompanying movement of low-income blacks and Hispanics out of their neighborhoods -- even as they cause it. They sing hymns to diversity even as they revel in the pleasures of communities where almost everybody believes and consumes exactly the same things -- and votes Democratic.
Gentrification thus inevitably reshapes the Democratic Party, which, from its beginnings in 1832, has been a series of coalitions of people regarded as somehow unusual Americans but who, taken together, are a national majority.
Consider two of Democrats' priorities during the presidency of Barack Obama, who has lived all his adult life in gentrified neighborhoods: increased taxes on high earners, which gentry liberals are happy to pay (if they weren't, they would have joined other affluent folk moving to Florida and Texas), and an infrastructure bill that was, as the American Enterprise Institute's Christina Hoff Sommers documented in The Weekly Standard, titled and tailored at the behest of feminists to invoke higher pay for teachers and nurses rather than new jobs for "burly men."
Similarly, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through passage of cap-and-trade legislation, a priority of her fellow Bay Area gentry liberals, which predictably cost Democrats multiple Rust Belt House seats.
This year, New York's Andrew Cuomo and California's Jerry Brown have been bellowing against the Republican tax reform for eliminating most of the deduction for state and local taxes. But that provision has virtually no impact on people who aren't in high-tax states and don't make over $100,000 a year -- i.e., who aren't gentry liberals. First constituencies first.
And whom are Democrats eyeing as possible 2020 presidential nominees? Identity politics, a favorite talking point of gentry liberals, have them focusing mainly on women and minorities -- e.g., Kirsten Gillibrand, who met her husband while working in Manhattan, Elizabeth Warren of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cory Booker, raised in Harrington Park, New Jersey, and Kamala Harris, who is from San Francisco.
Not often mentioned is Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has won nine elections for national office in the classic swing state of Ohio. Brown has been a consistent critic of trade agreements, an issue that strikes gentry liberals as vulgar. Similar repugnance may explain the disinterest in Sens. Mark Warner, whose early victories were won by appealing to rural Virginians, and Michael Bennet, whose record as Denver school superintendent was not in lockstep with teachers unions. Gentry liberals may seek to appease other party constituencies, including blacks and Hispanics, but they insist on their own priorities.
Dominating the party is one thing; producing candidates and issues with appeal to the broader national electorate is another. Gentry liberals have the microphone and the money to dominate the Democratic Party. Whether they can overcome their snobbish disdain and bitter contempt for those beyond their comfortable enclaves and come up with a winning national strategy is unclear.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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