Normally, a scandal centered on how rich parents used bribes to win their children’s admittance into elite colleges wouldn’t play so heavily in the national news. No one much cared when Donald Trump promised large donations as his children enrolled at Penn. But the outrage over the Varsity Blues investigation perfectly illustrates what may be the most important, least understood, and underappreciated political dynamic of our era: a full-on middle-class revolt against the elites and the privileges they hoard. For all the focus on inequality and social justice, this middle-class revolt is the most important barrier standing between Democrats and the White House. They can’t afford to ignore it.
Think of what’s happened over the past decade and a half. America endured a war sold on false premises, a bailout of bankers issuing entirely toxic debt, and a massive public effort to prop up auto executives who were building cars that weren’t selling. Is it any wonder so many middle-class taxpayers resent the elites? The middle class has been forced to bail them out from their own mistakes time and time again—and yet the beneficiaries of that goodwill haven’t apologized, let alone taken responsibility. America’s middle class is Cinderella, and the nation’s elites are her evil stepsisters—only now it’s the stepsisters who get to marry the prince. It’s infuriating.
Ever since the disaster of the 2016 election, Democrats have engaged in (an often pointless) debate about whether President Trump’s supporters were drawn to him on account of economic or cultural grievances. Yes, Hillary Clinton drew more votes, but she was 1,000 times as qualified, and 10,000 times as personally appealing. She should have demolished him—but something drew many voters to Trump instead.
I’m not denying that racism (against President Barack Obama) and sexism (against Secretary Clinton) played their roles. Nostalgia surely played another. But beneath all of that was the American middle class’s belief that the Lori Loughlins and Felicity Huffmans of the world, let alone the Don Rumsfelds and Dick Fulds, aren’t asked to play by the same set of rules. The elite get all the breaks and are shown all the shortcuts. In the meantime, ordinary people are forced to pay full freight. And that’s the point. No matter how noxious he was personally—and despite the irony that he was a perfect example of elite privilege—Trump embodied the country’s desire to hit back. Justice was a long time coming.
Maybe the clearest early manifestation was the Iraq War. After 9/11, the Washington elite claimed that the country needed to neutralize Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Congress and the media largely went along for the ride. But $1 trillion and 5,000 lives and 16 years later, the public has been told that those WMDs had not existed after all. Yet as clear as that became, no one ever took it on the chin. No one from the Bush administration ever took responsibility. Middle-class families paid in both blood and treasure, but the people who had made the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history never owned their failure.
The same thing happened during the Great Recession. The nation’s banking elite had lent billions to home buyers without any realistic hope of making good on their debts. Their irresponsible lending not only precipitated a global financial meltdown, but also necessitated a bailout from the nation’s financially stressed middle-class taxpayers. Yet even after being bailed out, the nation’s banking executives never faced any real consequences. No one went to jail. They never had to repay the personal fortunes they’d made by passing out those bad loans. Once again, the middle class was called to bail out the elites who were responsible for the mess while the elites got off scot-free.
And it was the same story arc with the auto bailout. For decades, executives in Detroit had made indefensible decisions. They’d been selling less reliable cars. They’d never found a way to compete effectively with their foreign competition. They’d continually lost market share. But when the bottom fell out and they were forced to ask middle-class taxpayers for a bailout, they never took responsibility. Most of the top brass kept their jobs. And once they’d recovered, they returned to business as usual. The middle class was once again expected to foot the bailout while the execs kept on like it had never happened.
Washington wasn’t wrong to prevent a global financial meltdown. Obama was certainly right to save the domestic auto industry. But those decisions came at a real cost. After the Recovery Act had passed and the auto bailout was rolling, we had a fierce debate inside the White House about how to sequence our pushes for health care, climate change, and financial reform. As the White House chief of staff, I argued, unsuccessfully, that the American people needed the catharsis of seeing that the bankers who had gotten the country into this mess were being forced to take responsibility—that faith in government would plummet if we failed to deliver some “Old Testament justice.” Others feared that attacking Wall Street would undermine the recovery, and they won the day. Perhaps they were right on the economics. But the political implications were significant, and we’re still living with them today. The middle class believes even now that elites have license to make irresponsible decisions without paying a price.
Consider the issues the Trump White House has chosen to highlight at a moment when many of the nation’s schools are in dire need of resources and health-care costs are on the rise. Trump is focused on tariffs because there’s a widespread belief that existing trade agreements have been crafted to benefit the rich. The White House picks fights on immigration because the issue paints Democrats as champions of constituencies that aren’t following the rules. And both issues add fuel to a middle-class revolt that’s been simmering, largely unnoticed, for the better part of a decade.
Democrats have become increasingly cognizant of the anger, but too often they’ve drawn the wrong conclusions. The answer certainly isn’t socialism. Middle-class voters currently presume that elites already control the government—so why would they want to give the bureaucracy any more power? Rather, Democrats need to become the party of justice. They need to demand accountability from bad actors—and point out where Republicans would give them a pass. They don’t need to castigate entire industries, as some might recommend. But when people make decisions that affect innocent bystanders—beating the drums for an ill-conceived war, making complicated financial instruments—they should be the party standing up for middle-class interests and values.
Every time Democrats look at a problem, they think of a program. And while those programs often point the way forward, Democrats need to focus their energy on convincing the middle class that they share their values more than just their economic interests. There is more to voters than their wallets. To do that, Democrats need to prove to them that they know the difference between right and wrong, and that begins with owning the terms accountability and responsibility. Democrats need to be the ones demanding that those who fall short, no matter how privileged, be made to answer for their own decisions. Every one of us should have to live by the same moral and ethical codes. The nation’s elite shouldn’t have any special license to take the easy way out.