For years, leftists have accused conservatives of using the culture war to delude working-class people into voting against their economic interests. The journalist Thomas Frank popularized this line of thought in his 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter With Kansas? GOP pundits and politicians, Frank argued, used resentment against liberal elites to blind workers to the fact that their interests diverged from those of the Republican donor class.
Whatever we make of Frank’s analysis, his basic thesis—that culture-war issues may be used to obscure divergences of class interests—sheds surprising light on contemporary politics on the other side of the political spectrum. Today, the left is engaged in a culture war that disguises the class differences separating the middle-class professional caste from the billionaire set. That cultural front takes a number of forms, but chief among them is the green agenda, which achieves something like what Frank accused the conservative culture warriors of doing: It gets the top 20 percent to look at the 1 percenters at Davos and, instead of spotting a political enemy, see a cultural ally.
To be sure, the credentialed professionals who make up the top-fifth percentile bemoan the wealth and power of the super-rich, and with justification. The gap separating the top 10 percent from the top 1 percent has grown ever wider in recent decades, while the cost of reaching the top 10 percent has skyrocketed. As Julius Krein put it, “the performance gap of elites versus the working and middle classes has widened, but professionals outside the very top are unlikely to match the wealth accumulation of their parents.” No wonder, then, that elite professionals resent the billionaires who are sometimes their bosses—the owners of the newsrooms or tech companies where they work.