American academic Frank Buckley pretty much hit the nail on the head in a speech he gave earlier this year, providing an analysis of the ossification that has struck the previously malleable American class system over the last few decades. It’s very much worth reading in its entirety, and I urge you to do so, but for me the key passages are as follows:
“In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Today the story of American politics is the story of class struggles. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. We didn’t think we were divided into different classes. Neither did Marx.
America was an exception to Marx’s theory of social progress. By that theory, societies were supposed to move from feudalism to capitalism to communism. But the America of the 1850s, the most capitalist society around, was not turning communist. Marx had an explanation for that. “True enough, the classes already exist,” he wrote of the United States, but they “are in constant flux and reflux, constantly changing their elements and yielding them up to one another.” In other words, when you have economic and social mobility, you don’t go communist.
That is the country in which some imagine we still live, Horatio Alger’s America – a country defined by the promise that whoever you are, you have the same chance as anyone else to rise, with pluck, industry, and talent. But they imagine wrong. The U.S. today lags behind many of its First World rivals in terms of mobility. A class society has inserted itself within the folds of what was once a classless country, and a dominant New Class – as social critic Christopher Lasch called it – has pulled up the ladder of social advancement behind it.
A complacent Republican establishment denies this change has occurred. If they don’t get it, however, American voters do. For the first time, Americans don’t believe their children will be as well off as they have been. They see an economy that’s stalled, one in which jobs are moving offshore.
According to establishment Republicans, none of this can be helped. We are losing middle-class jobs because of the move to a high-tech world that creates jobs for a cognitive elite and destroys them for everyone else. But that doesn’t describe what’s happening. We are losing middle-class jobs, but lower-class jobs are expanding. Automation is changing the way we make cars, but the rich still need their maids and gardeners. Middle-class jobs are also lost as a result of regulatory and environmental barriers, especially in the energy sector. And the skills-based technological change argument is entirely implausible: countries that beat us hands down on mobility are just as technologically advanced.
Had Marx been asked what would happen to America if it ever became economically immobile, we know what his answer would be: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. And also Donald Trump. The anger expressed by the voters in 2016 – their support for candidates from far outside the traditional political class – has little parallel in American history. We are accustomed to protest movements on the Left, but the wholesale repudiation of the establishment on the Right is something new. All that was solid has melted into air, and what has taken its place is a kind of right-wing Marxism, scornful of Washington power brokers and sneering pundits and repelled by America’s immobile, class-ridden society.
Establishment Republicans came up with the “right-wing Marxist” label when House Speaker John Boehner was deposed, and labels stick when they have the ring of truth. So it is with the right-wing Marxist. He is right-wing because he seeks to return to an America of economic mobility. He has seen how broken education and immigration systems, the decline of the rule of law, and the rise of a supercharged regulatory state serve as barriers to economic improvement. And he is a Marxist to the extent that he sees our current politics as the politics of class struggle, with an insurgent middle class that seeks to surmount the barriers to mobility erected by an aristocratic New Class. In his passion, he is also a revolutionary. He has little time for a Republican elite that smirks at his heroes – heroes who communicate through their brashness and rudeness the fact that our country is in a crisis. To his more polite critics, the right-wing Marxist says: We are not so nice as you!
The right-wing Marxist notes that establishment Republicans who decry crony capitalism are often surrounded by lobbyists and funded by the Chamber of Commerce. He is unpersuaded when they argue that government subsidies are needed for their friends. He does not believe that the federal bailouts of the 2008-2012 TARP program and the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest and quantitative easing policies were justified. He sees that they doubled the size of public debt over an eight-year period, and that our experiment in consumer protection for billionaires took the oxygen out of the economy and produced a jobless Wall Street recovery.
The right-wing Marxist’s vision of the good society is not so very different from that of the JFK-era liberal; it is a vision of a society where all have the opportunity to rise, where people are judged by the content of their character, and where class distinctions are a thing of the past. But for the right wing Marxist, the best way to reach the goal of a good society is through free markets, open competition, and the removal of wasteful government barriers.”