There’s Got to Be a Morning After

The major things on my mind this morning do not change regardless of what happens as the votes get counted in the United States.

The liberal-left coalition is not just weak in the United States, it is weak globally (in various different local meanings and configurations of left-liberal). When I say weak, that does not mean intellectually or morally wrong (except inasmuch as having a politics which is incapable of holding power to enact the will of a majority is a moral failure).

Why is this? Because it is a coalition. A fragile alliance of social groups that do not cohere at all in either their underlying economic interests or in their social experience. College-educated urban and suburban people with professional or white-collar jobs may frequently feel connection or devotion to the economic and social struggles of racial, ethnic or cultural minorities who are also not college-educated and mostly work in unskilled or low-paying labor markets. Vice-versa, those groups may recognize in educated, cosmopolitan elites some better chance to remedy or mitigate some of their mistreatment by dominant institutions of carceral or bureaucratic power or their forced marginalization within labor markets

But this alliance is much less strong than the educated elites frequently suppose, not the least because one of its enduring features is the inevitable sting of dependency by the marginalized on the patronage of a social class whose own power is variegated and waning in the evolving global economy of the 21st Century. The very small tier of the truly wealthy and thus truly powerful who now own much of the world’s property and capital share the cultural affectations of the college-educated (and crave on some level their approval) but they have little interest in alliance with anyone, especially not racial, ethnic or cultural underclasses created by the social regimes and colonizing power of the 19th and early 20th Century. So the professional classes who mostly live in large cities and surrounding residential suburbs are promising political and economic rewards to marginalized underclasses in return for electoral (or social) alliance but they frankly lack the social power to pay off those promises if the alliance itself cannot consistently hold on to the power of national and regional government.

Against this alliance, there is almost everywhere a far more socially coherent and tight-knit reaction which is almost everywhere not a national majority but often is a territorially dominant one in its strongholds of power. This reaction is called various things, all of them misleading but suggestive: conservative, populist, ethnonationalist. Some of its members are also college-educated and many actually work for the state and receive public pensions–and fiercely defend, in diverted and subverted ways, their access to the state as a redistributive mechanism and as an employer. But they are also some of them not college-educated, and many of them are in rural hinterlands or deindustrialized cities and towns, or in aging suburbs built in the postwar expansion of the mid-20th Century. In the white-collar world, they work for the college-educated urban globalizing cosmopolitans, who occupy leadership positions in their workplaces, both private and public. In the blue-collar world or in agriculture, they are brutally exposed to global movements of capital that can strip away jobs that may have been there for four generations or that may have only just arrived a decade ago.

These are people who live together, who know one another and are united in their resentments: resentment of people who are their bosses or owners of large companies, of national governments that seem captive both to the cosmopolitans and to distant international agreements and networks, of social and cultural changes that do not come from their own habitus and yet fiercely importune them to obey and behave. These are people who sometimes gain an intimate and familial connection to political authority because they are used as a wedge by a dominant ruler who needs to be surrounded by people the ruler can trust while lording it over cities of people the ruler hates and fears: superZezurus, kinfolk from Tikrit, Alawites. Groups who fear becoming one of the marginalized underclasses that they’ve been able to keep under heel in the past.

This reaction, visible everywhere around the planet in various forms, is socially coherent because it is territorially continguous (whereas the left-liberal alliance is dispersed, even in its centers of power, and has no sense of material proximity except in sites of consumption and in evanescent public gatherings) and because its resentments are well-founded. I do not say just or fair or morally right. But I can agree that people in deindustrialized cities, materially decomposing suburbs, in lower-managerial positions bossed or owned by pedigreed professionals, running small businesses that depend on the culturally protean consuming largesse of educated elites, in rural communities that produce food and boredom in equal measure, have some coherently connected reasons to resent their situation. And hence, even if they are not a clear majority of the inhabitants of a given national territory, are often able to mobilize a political response that either lets them capture the nation-state or lets them block the political will of the much more socially and ideologically fractured opposing alliance. And this reaction has no devotion to democracy, equality or liberalism. It will, if it seizes any system or structure that allows the use of violence and domination, gladly deploy them with little concern even for collateral damage to its own social redoubts.

Scholars have known for a long time that nations and nationalism are much less distinct from empires than it might seem. To some extent, they are empires that performed a level of political and cultural integration in the 19th and 20th Centuries that concealed their remaining, continuously reproduced forms of territorial difference and divergence. Western intellectuals in the late 20th Century liked to talk high-handedly of postcolonial states as divided by ethnic or religious rivalries that were a result of badly constructed boundaries drawn by colonial rulers and uncorrected by postcolonial inheritors. But I think now we are seeing those nation-states were not a defective variant of the main form: we are seeing that everywhere the nation is not what it seems and nowhere does loyalty to the nation create a fellowship that transcends other forms of territorial, economic and cultural affinity and alliance. And contrary to some of the sentimental weepiness in American public life this morning, it never really did. This is not a world we have lost, it is an illusion that has been popped like the soap bubble it has always been.

What a left-liberal alliance needs to go forward into some form of reproducible command over territorial sovereignty is a coherent foundational politics that does not depend upon viewing “explainers” on social media or does not require paternalizing sermons by the woke. It needs a politics that is felt in the bone and arises out of persistent affinities, that is made manifest and visible in every moment of our daily lives–a politics that can be spoken out of experience by anyone who subscribes to it and that has some hope even of circulating into some of the spaces of resentment that make our enemies, that fracture some of their coherence, perhaps by addressing at least some of what they resent or fear about the futures that the rest of us stand (often uneasily) with. It is not enough that what we testify to is true historically, true empirically, true scientifically. Not even remotely enough: we will go to our graves and our prisons and our exiles and into the overheated hell of a dying biosphere knowing our impotent truths and weeping at the barbarism of the reaction. What we need is a simpler promise of a better world, a good enough world, that the smallest child and the meanest man can see and explain and feel at least a twinge of possible devotion to. That simplicity is not where left-liberal politics anywhere in the world has been trending for the last fifty years. If we want the next fifty to be a time where our truths lead to the better possible worlds, we will need to change that trend.

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5 Responses to There’s Got to Be a Morning After

  1. Rob Fain says:

    Thank you, Professor Burke. Appreciate your analysis regarding the liberal/left’s inability to effectively adapt its message (and leadership) to the major demographic and economic changes that have created the cultural chasm we currently see.

    One question this brings up for me: among the largely-white rural/suburban non-elites who support Trump, how much of their behavior is explained as a reaction to a global economic system that they no longer have as much purchasing power in, versus a more-or-less calculated rebuttal of ongoing demographic and cultural shifts that are beginning to challenge their highly problematic and previously-unassailable worldview?

    When I visit my hometown in rural/suburban Ohio, I get the sense that a lot of people struggle financially, but all in all are doing much better than poor communities of color in the cities. Many if not most own homes, work service or public sector jobs, have some generational wealth to fall back on. They hold the police and military in high regard. A lot of them have college degrees even though they seem to lack much understanding of statistics or the scientific method. These individuals are presenting themselves as being underdogs in the system, but because of the electoral system they command way more political power per capita than they probably should.

    As a privileged, college-educated white guy, I can be comfortable with the notion of a new left/liberal politics that is less patronizing and elitist, but I worry about how it will choose to address the harms caused by some of the people it hopes to one day win over.

  2. Mark Shirk says:


    I agree with everything you say here, especially going forward. One thing to add: at least in the United States (and maybe the UK?) if there were different electoral institutions, the center-left would not only gain power but (and I understand this is a big but) be in a position to enact change for the communities is struggles to keep in its coalition. I mean, on votes alone, Biden should have a commanding victory and a legislature willing to work with him on climate change, health care, democratic and court reform, etc. In fact, we may not even have a President Biden but a more progressive (and younger) president and a party that was able to move left prior to 2016.

    In this scenario, it is not JUST that the center-left doesn’t produce for these people and has no message, it is that they need to compete in a system that stops them form doing the first and scrambles the second. That said, it doesn’t excuse everything democrats have done either.

  3. Balder Von Dash says:

    One of the core problems you state is the college-educated urban elite’s inability to make good on their promises to their working class allies, because of their remoteness to the truly wealthy Bezos’s of the world. Why can’t the answer be a stronger redistributive state?

    I think one of the failings of capitalism is that it has so powerfully separated us from family, culture, faith, and nature. Our reward receptors have been exploited by technology companies, the nature of work has become 24/7, the pace of urban life gives our brains a freneticism it wasn’t meant for. I don’t see how us college educated liberals can identify and rally around a “feel it in your bones” type of commonality, because we are so lacking in it ourselves.

    One final point I want to make is that haven’t read you/many people addressing monetary policy and its role in America’s predicament. Quantitative easing and rock bottom interest rates have contributed mightily to the stock market/overall economy wealth gap.

  4. Mark Shirk says:


    I do not disagree with anything here. Very good. But I think you are missing something and that is institutions. At least in the US (and maybe the UK), the left need to do more than win a majority to win power and sometimes much more. Therefore, the right doesn’t need to do coalitions. At the same time, it makes it hard for the left to produce anything. Maybe Biden wouldn’t have done massive green energy spending, expanded health care and child care, made college more affordable, etc. like was rumored. But he certainly won’t now despite his party winning by 2,8,a nd 5 in the last three election (16,18,20). So yes, a simple message is necessary (any ideas?) but the larger context is the electoral institutions. Different institutions and the situation may not be the same or the show may be on the other foot.

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