Skip to content

The progressive movement is in the process of splintering into two groups: white-collar professionals, whose passion for environmentalism and other pet causes comes at little or no expense to themselves, and blue-collar laborers and minorities, whose hopes for higher pay and better benefits often rest on heavy industry.

While the President’s poll numbers have fallen dramatically since the heyday of Obamamania, African Americans continue to overwhelmingly support the first African-American President. Yet the Democratic coalition contains two elements who tend to not get along very well: urban African American machine politicians and their mostly blue collar constituents on the one hand, and upper middle class, good government, green minded professionals on the other.  In an insightful new piece at NewGeography, Joel Kotkin explores the widening chasm between Obama’s upper-middle class progressivism and minority interests:

From its inception the Obama administration’s focus has been on the largely white information economy, notably boosting universities and the green-industrial complex based in places like Silicon Valley. The Obama team’s decision to surrender working class whites to appeal to what Democratic strategists call the “mass upper middle class” makes political sense but could lead to problems for an American working class that is itself increasingly minority.

An emphasis on green industries and strong across-the-board regulation often works against traditional industries like heavy manufacturing, warehousing and fossil fuel development that historically have employed many minorities. Opposing development of new petrochemical plants and such things as the XL Pipeline — opposed by many greens and their allies in the Obama Administration — could reduce new opportunities for minority workers, many of them unionized, particularly in the heavily African-American, and increasingly Latino, Gulf region.

President Obama has an asset that most national Democratic politicians do not: he can look black even as he governs green. African American voters will accept policy tradeoffs from one of their own. Future Democratic candidates and presidents will have a tougher time keeping the two crucial pieces of their coalition aligned.

The progressive movement is in the process of splintering into two groups: white-collar professionals, whose passion for environmentalism and other pet causes comes at little or no expense to themselves, and blue-collar laborers and minorities, whose hopes for higher pay and better benefits often rest on heavy industry.  “Green jobs” boondoggles like Solyndra and the floundering push for high rail are attempts to split the difference — and they have largely failed.  The Obama administration pushed these ideas as hard as it did precisely because they offer, at least in theory, ways to link up the demands of greens and blue collar Dems.

President Obama is something of a kiwi Democrat: brown on the outside, green within. His skin color gives him a tie to urban African Americans, but his policy instincts are upper middle class liberal progressive.  He is a technocrat, not a populist: a McGeorge Bundy, not an Al Sharpton. The white working class is the least susceptible segment of the body politic to his charms; they see the upper middle class, big government Harvard technocrat side of him unsoftened by ties of kith and kin.

In the past, when the federal treasury looked like an inexhaustible gold mine, Democrats could soften the antagonisms in the coalition by offering money and jobs to urban machines and their voters. But the money is running low, and upper middle class progressives are concerned about the solvency of programs like Medicare — and they are increasingly worried about the long term trend in federal finance.

The Democratic coalition is going to be harder to keep together when President Obama is no longer the standard bearer. Blacks and greens are pulling the party in different directions; it will take a skilled driver to keep the team from flying apart.