Reflections on “Listen, Liberal”

by Deedra Abboud in Mindset, Political, Social Views, Solutions
November 16, 2018 0 comments

Listen, Liberal is not a book for the faint of heart or those easily discouraged.

The author lays out a decade-long movement by some Democrats toward a ‘successful professional elite class’ ideology while separating from their New Deal history … a move that completely opposes the basic Democratic brand identity of protecting safety nets and being the Party of the People.

Though the author rarely mentions Republicans, which makes sense considering his intent is to analyze Democratic Party positions and reasonings, it’s important to note that Republicans are already branded as the party of the financially elite.

Even immigrant communities are familiar with the old adage that you’re a Democrat when you’re struggling but you register as a Republican once you’re financially successful.

As a result, a simple reading would leave the impression the two major parties are the same… both catering to different white-collar coalitions at the expense of blue-collar workers.

That would be a mistake.

It’s more complicated than that.

The good news is, the new class system ideology is primarily among elite members of the national Democratic leadership, DC consultants, and some party insiders (including corporate executives)… though the subsequent policies are affecting the average person’s daily lives.

Another piece of good news is that local Democratic politicians and Democratic political activists haven’t been indoctrinated.

The bad news is, the ideology is subtlely showing up in normal conversations, even among those who will never gain membership in the ‘successful professional elite class.’

To understand that, we must first understand how the ideology interprets the phrases ‘successful professional’ before dissecting ‘meritocracy,’ ‘consensus,’ and ‘inequity.’

Successful Professional

Professional: noun
  • a person who belongs to one of the professions, especially one of the learned professions.
  • a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs: a golf professional.
  • an expert player, as of golf or tennis, serving as a teacher, consultant, performer, or contestant; pro.
  • a person who is expert at his or her work:

To be honest, I’d never spent that much time thinking about ‘who’ was a professional. I’ve often said, “If I have a plumbing problem, I call a professional. A plumber.  If I have a car problem, I don’t fix it myself, I call a professional. A mechanic.”

During the Red For Ed walkouts and during my political campaign [AZ US Senate 2018], I always referred to teachers and educators as professionals.

On reflection, I guess my definition of a ‘professional’ would be someone who has specialized knowledge in a particular field.

But according to the author’s explanation of the New Democratic liberal beltway ideology, being a ‘professional’ is not the same as being ‘of the professional class.’

Its the “…idea that top drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process.” [pg 32]

Within this class system, there are bars to entry and levels of membership – all determined by personal accomplishments and industry recognition. Education levels, type of profession, and financial success are all pieces of the puzzle – a puzzle that also includes your contributing value to society on an economic scale that doesn’t include ‘blue-collar’ status.

First and foremost, members must have ‘credentialed expertise’ which are based on test scores, advanced degrees, and professional associations that determine acceptable practices (and, therefore, a process for exclusion).

Doctors and attorneys are obvious potential members because they are riddled with ‘expert-talk’ and each has governing bodies that determine entry.

The tech industry also has its own mysterious jargon that expresses expertise and exclusion. Innovation is considered the key to the future and the tech industry provides all the exciting gadgets for our entertainment as well as having the potential to solve all our economic and social problems (according to the ideology).

Other industries (i.e. architects, engineers, economists, financial, political science, computer programmers, authors, and managers), do include technical jargon, may or may not have bars of entry bodies, and many are subject to peer reviews. Becoming a leader in those industries (i.e. published papers, job placement) is a requirement for advancement in the levels ‘of the professional class.’

Politics is a uniquely positioned ‘profession.’ Advanced degrees are favored but the real entry ticket is raising money and winning major offices – whether as a politician, staff, or consultant.

Professors can make the grade… but only if they reach ‘top of their field’ status or are from one of the elite universities.

Teachers, however, are not considered ‘of the professional class’ regardless of the number of higher-level degrees they may possess. K-12 educators are too labor organized, even when they claim membership to an ‘association’ rather than a ‘union.’

According to several studies of professional-class life, organized labor (unions) are not held in high regard. “[S]olidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence that every profession embodies. The idea that someone should command good pay for doing a job that doesn’t require specialized training seems to professionals to be an obvious fallacy.” [pg 33]

Everyone else, including those with higher education degrees in the non-acceptable industries, are excluded from the ‘of the professional class’ ranking but are encouraged to re-evaluate their life choices so that they may someday attain membership.

The obvious observation here is that “… the vast majority of Americans are unprofessional: they are managed not managers.” [pg 172]

The ideology of Merit – A New Aristocracy

For successful professionals, meritocracy is a beautifully self-serving doctrine, entitling them to all manner of rewards and status, because they are smarter than other people. [32]

Historically, the American “public rebelled against the professions as attempts to maintain aristocratic entitlement through ‘mystification and concealment.'” [pg 25]

And yet, here we are.

Origin of merit – 1175–1225; Middle English < Latin meritum act worthy of praise (or blame), noun use of neuter of meritus, past participle of merēre to earn.

As an attorney who survived the hazing of law school and the Arizona Bar, I can identify with the sense of ‘excellence’ associated with the idea of merit.

As a person who grew up on spam in a single-parent household that included no higher degrees or professions among any of my bloodlines, the extra ‘worthiness’ associated with those who have ‘attained merit’ rubs me the wrong way.

The most recent outrage I experienced with merit selection ideology was when the current Administration proposed merit-based immigration. Any social selection process centered around current affluence and higher education reminds me that I was among those who were never considered to have such ‘potential.’

But the New ‘successful professional class’ Democrats are still different than the affluent-focused Republicans.

Meritocracy is about winners, and ensuring that everyone has a chance to become one. [pg 25]

The ‘professional class’ Democrats propose everyone should have the opportunity for excellence… and that opportunity is through education, particularly higher education. Everyone should want to attain higher degrees, to move up the ranks of acceptable industries, and those who can’t afford it should have access to student loans so they can have the potential to become a winner too.

Meritocracy is the conviction that “the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best.” [31] By extension, if you’re not on the top, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Anyone who’s ever been employed knows that the people ‘at the top’ are not necessarily the ‘best’ and do not always ‘deserve’ to be there if the criteria are actual knowledge and ability. Often those ‘at the top’ got there because they knew how to ‘play politics’ in the workplace.

But then, the ability to ‘play the game’ and ‘circumvent the system’ is a demonstration of ‘special knowledge,’ an exception to the affluence and higher degrees required for ‘successful professional class’ membership.

After all, “… many of our vaunted innovations are simply methods – electronic or otherwise – of pulling off some age-old profit-maximizing maneuver by new and unregulated means…,” a way to circumvent “our society’s traditional middle-class economic arrangements.” [209]

Case in point, ‘the techtopus’ scandal where Apple, Intel, Google, Pixar, and other Silicon Valley firms “agreed to avoid recruiting one another’s tech workers and thus keep those workers’ wages down across the industry.” [pg 210/211]

And speaking of those mega-corp Tech companies, no one has more successfully circumvented the American anti-monopoly ideal better than they have.

Monopoly is the telos of innovation…. The reason is plain enough: monopoly is the most direct road to profit, and the online world offers countless opportunities to achieve it.

Technology businesses have such a grand opportunity to grasp and hold monopoly status because laws have always, and will likely always, lag behind technological developments.

It’s also something both Republicans and the ‘successful professional class’ members agree on: regulation will stifle innovation.

This mentality plays right into the hands of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries who are not only beneficiaries of the anti-regulation ideology but beneficiaries of healthcare laws that “essentially made our patronage of these industries mandatory.” [160]

When two fairly straightforward healthcare proposals were on the table, a Canadian-style single-payer system (which would have done grave damage to the insurance industry) and the ‘public option’ (which would have given unwelcome competition to the insurance industry), a complex system involving exchanges, mandates, taxes, subsidies, and many other moving parts (which ensured continued success for the insurance and BigPharm industries) was chosen instead.

The ‘professional class’ are fascinated with complexity because it’s an indicated of sophistication. Technical jargon is an expression of that complexity and demonstrates expertise, which each professional industry uses “to protect itself from the scrutiny of the public.” The New Democratic ‘professional class’ has a strong belief that “a great coming-together of the nation’s educated is the obvious objective of political work.” [pg 40/41]

Consensus Democrat

We’ve all heard how important consensus is in politics. The ability to reach across the aisle is what makes Democrats special – particularly considering you never hear Republicans proposing it for themselves.

One of the timeless characteristics of rule-by-expert is the belief that informed and ‘serious’ people know the answers to our problems, and that ideology and politics are pointless distractions keeping us from putting solutions in place. [pg 170]

But I’ve often said reaching across the aisle is neither consensus nor compromise if only one side is doing it. I’ve also characterized it as capitulation if your giving up your values in order to do it.

The source of the new ‘successful professional class’ ideology can be tracked over time to “the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), established by a group of white Southern politicians in 1985 and supposedly committed to the working-class voters the Democratic Party had left behind.” [pg 57]

The DLC proposed that “in order to win,” the “New Democrats” must “get beyond left and right,” occupy the “vital center,” and “embrace certain free-market policies of the right,” as well as “reform ‘entitlements’ (i.e. Social Security), privatize government operations, open charter schools, get tough on crime….” in order to do business in the postindustrial, global economy…” [pg 57/58]

What they’re proposing is literally becoming Republican-light.

Which is also a clear distancing from the basic Democratic brand identity of protecting safety nets and being the Party of the People.

Point it out and immediately hear that the true problem is whining, unrealistic idealists who expect too much from Democratic leaders that need to compromise… demonstrating “the deepest well-spring of liberal thought and action: the longing for a grand consensus of the professional class that never seems to come.” [pg 40 & 168]

The good news is, professionals are all about equity when it comes to gay rights, the inclusion of women (particularly in higher education and corporate leadership), and ending racial/ethnic/religious/sexual discrimination because to do so allows meritocracy to become more meritocratic.

The bad news is, “professionals are ‘not at all liberal on economic and equality-based issues.'” In fact, “[i]nequity is essential to the logic of professionalism.” [pg 30/31]


Those who’ve bought into the ‘successful professional class’ ideology firmly believe, “That life doesn’t shower its blessing on people who can’t make the grade isn’t a shock or an injustice; it’s the way things ought to be.” [pg 33]

We’ve all heard this translated on the ground:

You brought it on yourself.

You’re the only one that can make the decision to change it.

The only responsibility society owes you is to allow for the opportunity, it’s up to you to find it and take it.

These are from liberal circles but it would be a mistake to fail to see how closely aligned they are to the conservative concept of ‘individual responsibility.’

Before we get into how the inequity fell outside the purview of meritocracy within the ‘successful professional class’ ideology, let’s talk about two aspects that I found personally fascinating while reading the book. The first one is an observation I made while reading, and the second is mentioned in the book.

First, is a new form of victim-blaming.

When the financial industry caused the economic downturn due to celebrated ‘creative’ banking practices, fellow professionals exclaimed, “We must take into account the effects of an indictment [of bank/corp executives] on innocent employees and shareholders.” [152]

Make no mistake, protecting fellow professionals was the goal, not average employees, because “professions are structured to shield insiders from accountability.” [pg 37]  That’s like a ‘Thin Blue Line’ across many industries and it affects everything from sexual assaults to embezzlement because lowly working-class employees don’t have the same merit value as being ‘of the professional class.’

More importantly, the victims (those who lost their life savings and homes) weren’t even taken into account because they ‘should have planned better.’

The ideology also explains the recent affluent criminals, like dumpster rapist Brock Turner [I never miss an opportunity to name him], getting embarrassingly light sentences (or no punishment at all) because ‘prison would severely and negatively impact their potential.’

Second is the concept of counter-scheduling: “[to] confront and deliberately antagonize certain elements of the traditional Democratic Party’s traditional base in order to assure voters that ‘interest groups’ would have no say…. [and] in order to discipline their party’s base.” [pg 89/90]

That explains a lot about recent Democratic statements and actions [or lack of] that seem offensive to (or even attacking) minority groups, average Democrats, and even other Democratic leaders.

Further, the cherished centrist logic goes, “Insult them with impunity. They have nowhere else to go…. Regardless of how poorly Democrats perform on inequality matters, they will never be as awful as those crazy Republicans.”

I’m going to admit to my own naivete on this one. Fully mindblown.

I really did believe these were missteps, not cold calculations.

Unfortunately, many did find somewhere else to go in 2016 and we’re all still reeling from it. {Note that Listen, Liberal was written and published before the 2016 election was decided.}

As for becoming complacent about inequity, it all started with the separation of blue-collar workers from the exalted learning (wired) class: “individuals who were ‘better educated, more affluent, more mobile, and more self-reliant.'”

Because production workers were the first to experience increased productivity without increased wages, the professional class identified poor education (lack of specialized training or credentialed expertise) as the cause. And in complete solidarity with the new victim-blaming, that was totally their fault and only they could change it by seeking more and better education.

But that was a major miscalculation because today the separation of productivity from reward is a feature of nearly every sort of work, regardless of credentials – including the very professionals the ‘successful professional class’ was so intent on courting and serving.

As a result, “the great mass of voters who can see what has happened to the middle class and who hold out hope that some modern FDR will come and save them,” the very voters the ‘successful professional class’ disregarded as having nowhere else to go [pg 131], are making their own somewhere to go.

They are becoming engaged in the political process and even running for offices at every level… without asking for permission.

Every major re-alignment in U.S. political history has been accompanied by the coming of a large new group into the electorate. [pg 51; quoting Changing Sources of Power]

That new group is a large part of the electorate that has been negatively affected by wage inequity and burdensome student loans from underperforming graduate degrees, including the always politically coveted ‘young professions.’

I predict all Democrats, at all levels, including the ‘successful professional class’ elites, will be re-evaluating some of the policies and strategies that have intentionally or unintentionally hurt the working-class.

More specifically, Democrats from multiple backgrounds will demand and act on the ground to re-align the Party of the People back to its roots.
























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