I was recently flown cross-country on a first-class ticket by a very kind outfit. It was my first time flying up front, and I told myself to make a note of everything in case it proved to be my last.
Early in the flight, I noticed that I didn’t want the plane to land. It was a curious feeling and became harder and harder to ignore as the journey progressed. To be sure, the seat was not more comfortable than my easy chair at home. The food was not as good as the food at home. And the wine was certainly nice (it comes in a glass in first class; who knew?), but it wasn’t as good as the wine at home. So why didn’t I want that plane to land?
It only hit me days later that the thing that makes first class so delicious is not anything in first class itself but everything not in first class. Specifically, everyone not in first class, all those poor souls sitting squashed together like sardines in coach, where I myself was just two weeks earlier, making the exact same journey on my own dime.
Being a Democrat in 2022 is a little bit like flying first class. Once the party of the working class, today it is the party of Americans with immense professional-class economic privilege, leavened by powerful, toxic kernels of pity and revulsion for the hoi polloi in the back of the plane, the same people they were once proud to stand among.
The economic privilege of the Democratic Party is a fairly new phenomenon, but in just a few short decades, it has become firmly entrenched. Sixty-five percent of Americans making over $500,000 a year are now Democrats; 74 percent of voters making less than $100,000 vote Republican. Practically (perhaps literally) every person attending the Oscars and the Met Gala is a Democrat. Every person who flies a private jet to a climate change conference is a Democrat.
And if you look at the priorities of Democrats — especially progressives — they read like a wish list designed for the affluent. For all the doctors married to lawyers or accountants or professors who earn over $500,000 a year in combined income, the party offers $50,000 in student loan forgiveness and the repeal of Title 42 restrictions at the border (someone has to watch their kids all day). For the Silicon Valley folks feeling guilty about their private jets, there are zero-emissions targets, carbon tax credits and a Green New Deal.
Because here’s the secret hiding in plain sight: unlike rich Republicans, today’s Democrats — let’s call them first-class progressives — love to pay taxes. They aren’t just flying first class; they want to subsidize the tickets of everyone in coach — not just to allay their guilt, but because those people in coach are the very jouissance that makes the first-class experience.
When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to the 2021 Met Gala, the site of the most conspicuous consumption on the planet, wearing a dress emblazoned “Tax the Rich,” she was not sporting a dangerous slogan brazenly poking the wealthy and powerful in the eye. On the contrary, the slogan was her very ticket of entry into America’s progressive elite: a sign of her belonging, as much as the expensive dress beneath the red scrawl.
All those tax dollars are just another way of reinforcing the massive gulf separating progressives from their charity cases, the curtain the flight attendant pulls shut after takeoff. And you can see this divide in the difference between the things wealthy Democrats demand for themselves and their children and the standard they not only accept but mandate for working-class families.
It’s why they make it impossible for working-class families to afford a single-family home in the suburbs. It’s why they demand that mentally ill, homeless drug addicts be free to roam the streets; why they oppose charter schools while paying $50,000 a year to send their offspring to private schools. While their kids get a first-class education, how generous of them to pay for all the other children to get lessons in the steerage of failing public schools!
There is real pity for the poor in their hearts. But it undermines the interests of everyone but the most destitute, making America a fundamentally less equal, less democratic place. Take the idea of a universal income, now popular among progressives. Rather than searching for policies to empower and enrich American workers, progressives want to add the downwardly mobile working class to the poor, essentially paying them off in exchange for no longer working. “Let them be podcasters!”
How generous of these upwardly mobile, over-credentialed careerists, people who gain self-esteem and even their identities from work, to offer to pay people not to work at all. You can’t get dignity from a universal basic income, as every meritocratic progressive knows.
Today’s progressives are allergic to notions of autonomy and empowerment; they are far happier pitying the powerless and basking in the afterglow of their own beatific virtue. On the Democrats’ flight, there are no upgrades. But autonomy and empowerment happen to be the answer to the left’s problems, the key to winning back the working class they lost when they started catering to people who go to the Oscars and then demanded student-loan forgiveness.
If the Democrats asked the passengers in coach where they wanted to go, they’d know this: that the goal should not be getting people paid time off but to getting them paid well; it should not be building more high rises for the homeless but ensuring working-class families can buy single-family homes; it should not be to get free childcare so more women can get into the workforce but vocational training in schools and collective bargaining in corporations so a husband or wife can support a family on one income. That’s the American Dream. Steer the plane back in that direction.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2022 World edition.