understand Pope Francis — his purpose, his program and its potential pitfalls —
it’s useful to think about what’s been happening to New York City’s Jews.
the 1950s on, New York’s Jewish population declined, amid suburbanization and
assimilation. But over the last 10 years, the numbers began to rise again,
climbing 10 percent between 2002 and 2011.
this growth was almost all among Orthodox Jews. The city’s Reform and
Conservative populations continued to drop, as did Jewish religious observance
result, New York’s Jewish community is increasingly polarized, with more Jews
at the most traditional end of the theological spectrum, more Jews entirely
detached from the institutions of their ancestral faith — and ever-fewer
observant Jews anywhere in the middle. What’s happened in New York is happening
nationally: a recent Pew study found a similar pattern of growth among the
Orthodox and a similar waning of religious practice and affiliation in the rest
of the American Jewish population.
not just a Jewish story. It’s been the story of religion in the West for over
40 years. The most traditional groups have been relatively resilient. The more
liberal, modernizing bodies have lost membership, money, morale. And the
culture as a whole has become steadily more disengaged from organized faith.
There is still a religious middle today, but it isn’t institutionally
Judeo-Christian in the way it was in 1945. Instead, it’s defined by
nondenominational ministries, “spiritual but not religious” pieties and ancient
heresies reinvented as self-help.
late, this process of polarization has carried an air of inevitability. You can
hew to a traditional faith in late modernity, it has seemed, only to the extent
that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream. There is
no middle ground, no center that holds for long, and the attempt to find one
quickly leads to accommodation, drift and dissolution.
this is where Pope Francis comes in, because so much of the excitement around
his pontificate is a response to his obvious desire to reject these
alternatives — self-segregation or surrender — in favor of an almost-frantic
engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world.
idea of such engagement — of a “new evangelization,” a “new springtime” for
Christianity — is hardly a novel one for the Vatican. But Francis’s style and
substance are pitched much more aggressively to a world that often tuned out
his predecessors. His deliberate demystification of the papacy, his digressive
interviews with outlets secular and religious, his calls for experimentation
within the church and his softer tone on the issues — abortion, gay marriage —
where traditional religion and the culture are in sharpest conflict: these are
not doctrinal changes, but they are clear strategic shifts.
Allen Jr., one of the keenest observers of the Vatican, has called Francis a
“pope for the Catholic middle,” positioned somewhere between the church’s
rigorists and the progressives who pine to Episcopalianize the faith.
significance of this positioning goes beyond Catholicism. In words and
gestures, Francis seems to be determined to recreate, or regain, the kind of
center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith.
he has at least gained the world’s attention. The question is whether that
attention will translate into real interest in the pope’s underlying religious
message or whether the culture will simply claim him for its own — finally, a pope who doesn’t harsh our buzz!
— without being inspired to actually consider Christianity anew.
uncertain reaction to Francis from many conservative Catholics, you can see the
fear that the second possibility is more likely. Their anxiety is not that the
new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a
conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can’t happen. Rather,
they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him,
because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense.
they worry as well that we have seen something like his strategy attempted
before, when the church’s 1970s-era emphasis on social justice, liturgical
improvisation and casual-cool style had disappointing results: not a rich
engagement with modern culture but a surrender to that culture’s “Me Decade”
manifestations — producing tacky liturgy, ugly churches, Jonathan Livingston
Seagull theology and ultimately empty pews.
test of his approach will ultimately be a practical one. Will the church grow
or stagnate under his leadership? Will his style just win casual admirers, or
will it gain converts, inspire vocations, create saints? Will it actually
change the world, or just give the worldly another excuse to close their ears
to the church’s moral message?
fruits we will know — but not for some time yet.
point here goes to the psychology of leadership: If the enemy is viewed as
implacably evil, peacemaking necessarily becomes politically ruinous. It is
only when the enemy is seen as possessing some justice on their side that a
leader’s efforts to accommodate that enemy become legitimate and politically
difference in the perception of the enemy has arguably played an oversized role
in recent Israeli history. During the 1990s, those Israelis who believed the
Oslo peace process was addressing the Palestinians’ just demand for
self-determination often saw the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as a
national hero, “a warrior for peace.” Those who saw the Palestinians as an
implacable, illegitimate enemy viewed Rabin as either a dangerous fool or a
demand for recognition has its roots in this Israeli experience. The
Palestinians cannot bring themselves to end the conflict, Netanyahu believes,
because they cannot bring themselves to compromise with an enemy they view as
have not yet shifted from perceiving their enemy as absolutely evil to
perceiving him as possessing some justice on his side, however limited. Israel
remains a categorical foe, and see Israelis as interlopers robbing another
people of their national home. Even Palestinian moderates share this basic view
of Israel: it is an evil, but an evil too well entrenched to remove. Israel
does not have even a modicum of justice on its side, only brute force, they
any Palestinian leader who seeks peace with Israel falls into the “Chamberlain
trap,” finding himself undermined by the perception among his own people that
he is accommodating evil rather than pursuing justice.
analysis has become a key plank of Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians,
and has led to some of his most misunderstood speeches and demands. It is the
reason he never fails to discuss the millennia-old Jewish attachment to the
land of Israel in his speeches before a United Nations General Assembly that
could care less.
Palestinians don’t need to become Zionists, Netanyahu believes, but they need
to perceive that Jewish demands, too, are rooted in justice. Only then will
their domestic constituencies and political systems be capable of engaging in
It is a
mistake to view Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan 2 speech as indicating he is withdrawing,
even in tone, from the peace talks. In fact, the renewed urgency of his demand
for recognition — which he believes to be critical to peacemaking — might
suggest that the talks are, at long last, getting serious.
has been the source of much innovation, from agribusiness and oil to fashion
and the digital world. Historically much richer than the rest of the country,
it was also the birthplace, along with Levittown, of the mass-produced suburb,
freeways, much of our modern entrepreneurial culture, and of course mass
entertainment. For most of a century, for both better and worse, California has
defined progress, not only for America but for the world.
as the 80s, California was democratic in a fundamental sense, a place for
outsiders and, increasingly, immigrants—roughly 60 percent of the population
was considered middle class. Now, instead of a land of opportunity, California
has become increasingly feudal. According to recent census estimates,the state suffers some of the highest levels
of inequality in the country. By some estimates, the state’s level of
inequality compares with that of such global models asthe Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the
Republic of the Congo.
same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the
country—23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally—worse than long-term
hard luck cases like Mississippi. It is also now home to roughly one-third of
the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the
medieval serfs, increasing numbers of Californians are downwardly mobile, and
doing worse than their parents: native born Latinos actually have shorter
lifespans than their parents, according to one recent report. Nor are things
expected to get better any time soon. According to a recent Hoover Institution
survey, most Californians expect their incomes to stagnate in the coming six
months, a sense widely shared among the young, whites, Latinos, females, and
the less educated.
these trends can be found nationwide, but they have become pronounced and are
metastasizing more quickly in the Golden State. As late as the 80s, the state
was about as egalitarian as the rest of the country. Now, for the first time in
decades, the middle class is a minority, according to the Public Policy
Institute of California.
The Role of the Tech Oligarchs.
produces more new billionaires than any place this side of oligarchic Russia or
crony capitalist China. By some estimates the Golden State is home to one out
of every nine of the world’s billionaires. In 2011 the state was home to 90 billionaires, 20 more than second place New York and more than twice as many as
state’s digital oligarchy, surely without intention, is increasingly driving
the state’s lurch towards feudalism. Silicon Valley’s wealth reflects the
fortunes of a handful of companies that dominate an information economy that
itself is increasingly oligopolistic.In
contrast to the traditionally conservative or libertarian ethos of the entrepreneurial class, the oligarchy is increasingly allied with the nominally
populist Democratic Party and its regulatory agenda. Along with the public
sector, Hollywood, and their media claque, they present California as “the spiritual inspiration” for modern “progressives” across the country.
their embrace of and financial support for the state’s regulatory regime, the oligarchs
have made job creation in non tech-businesses—manufacturing, energy,
agriculture—increasingly difficult through “green energy” initiatives that are
also sure to boost already high utility costs. One critic, state Democratic
Senator Roderick Wright from heavily minority Inglewood, compares the state’s
regulatory regime to the “vig” or high interest charged by the Mafia, calling
it a major reason for disinvestment in many industries.
even in Silicon Valley, the expansion of prosperity has been extraordinarily
limited. Due to enormous losses suffered in the current tech bubble, tech job
creation in Silicon Valley has barely reached its 2000 level. In contrast,
previous tech booms, such as the one in the 90s, doubled the ranks of the tech
community. Some, like UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, advance the dubious
claim that those jobs are more stable than those created in Texas. But even if
we concede that point for the moment,the Valley’s growth primarily benefits its denizens but not most Californians.
Since the recession, California remains down something like 500,000 jobs, a 3.5
percent loss, while its Lone Star rival has boosted its employment by a
remarkable 931,000, a gain of more than 9 percent.
this has to do with the changing nature of California’s increasingly
elite—driven economy. Back in the 80s and even the 90s, the state’s tech sector
produced industrial jobs that sparked prosperity not only in places like Palo
Alto, but also in the more hardscrabble areas in San Jose and even inland
cities such as Sacramento. The once huge California aerospace industry,
centered in Los Angeles, employed hundreds of thousands, not only engineers but
skilled technicians, assemblers, and administrators.
picture has changed over the past decade. California’s tech manufacturing
sector has shrunk, and those employed in Silicon Valley are increasingly
well-compensated programmers, engineers and marketers. There has been little
growth in good-paying blue collar or even middle management jobs. Since 2001
state production of “middle skill” jobs—those that generally require two years
of training after high-school—have grown roughly half as quickly as the
national average and one-tenth as fast as similar jobs in arch-rival Texas.
job creation has changed,” says Leslie Parks, a long-time San Jose economic
development official. “We used to be the whole food chain and create all sorts
of middle class jobs. Now, increasingly, we don’t design the future—we just
think about it. That makes some people rich, but not many.”
midst of the current Silicon Valley boom, incomes for local Hispanics and
African-Americans, who together account for one third of the population, have
actually declined—18 percent for blacks and 5 percent for Latinos between 2009
and 2011, prompting one local booster to admit that “Silicon Valley is two
valleys. There is a valley of haves, and a valley of have-nots.”
The Geography of Inequality
caste, and land ownership increasingly distinguish California’s classes from
one another. As Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and the wealthier suburbs in the
Bay Area have enjoyed steady income growth during the current bubble, much of
the state, notes economist Bill Watkins, endures Depression-like conditions,
with stretches of poverty more reminiscent of a developing country than the
epicenter of advanced capitalism.
you get outside the Bay Area, unemployment in many of the state’s largest
counties—Sacramento, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Fresno, and
Oakland—soars into the double digits. Indeed, among the 20 American cities with
the highest unemployment rates, a remarkable 11 are in California, led by
Merced’s mind-boggling 22 percent rate.
amounts to what conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson has labeled
“liberal apartheid,” a sharp divide between a well-heeled, mostly white and
Asian population located along the California coast, and a largely poor,
heavily Latino working class in the interior. But the class divide is also
evident withinthe large metro areas,
despite their huge concentrations of affluent individuals. Los Angeles, for
example, has the third highest rate of inequality of the nation’s 51 largest
metropolitan areas, and the Bay Area ranks seventh.
current surge of California triumphalism, trumpeted mostly by the ruling
Democrats and their eastern media allies, seems to ignore the reality faced by
residents in many parts of the state. The current surge of wealth among the
coastal elites, boosted by rises in property, stock, and other assets, has staved
off a much feared state bankruptcy. Yet the the state’s more intractible
problems cannot be addressed if growth remains restricted to a handful of
favored areas and industries. This will become increasingly clear when, as is
inevitable, the current tech and property boom fades, depriving the state of
the taxes paid by high income individuals.
between the oligarchic class and everyone else seems increasingly permanent. A
critical component of assuring class mobility, California’s once widely admired
public schools were recently ranked near the absolute bottom in the country.
Think about this: despite the state’s huge tech sector, California eighth
graders scored 47th out of the 51 states in science testing. No wonder Mark
Zuckerberg and other oligarchs are so anxious to import “techno coolies” from
medieval times, land ownership, particularly along the coast, has become
increasingly difficult for those not in the upper class. In 2012, four
California markets—San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—ranked
as the most unaffordable relative to income in the nation. The impact of these
prices falls particularly on the poor. According to the Center for Housing
Policy and National Housing Conference, 39 percent of working households in the
Los Angeles metropolitan area spend more than half their income on housing, as
do 35 percent in the San Francisco metro area—both higher than 31 percent in
the New York area and well above the national rate of 24 percent. This is
likely to get much worse given that California median housing prices rose 31
percent in the year ending May 2013. In the Bay Area the increase was an amazing 43 percent.
skilled workers are affected by these prices. An analysis done for National
Core, a major developer of low income housing, found that prices in such areas
as Orange County are so high that even a biomedical engineer earning more than
$100,000 a year could not afford to buy a home there. This, as well as the
unbalanced economy, has weakened California’s hold on aspirational families,
something that threatens the very dream that has attractedmillions to the state.
a far cry from the 50s and 60s, when California abounded in new owner-occupied
single family homes. Historian Sam Bass Warner suggested that this constituted
“the glory of Los Angeles and an expression of its design for living.” Yet
today the L.A. home ownership rate, like that of New York, stands at about half
the national average of 65 percent. This is particularly true among working
class and minority households. Atlanta’s African-American home ownership rate
is approximately 40 percent above that of San Jose or Los Angeles, and
approximately 50 percent higher than San Francisco.
feudalizing trend is likely to worsen due to draconian land regulations that
will put the remaining stock of single family houses ever further out of reach,
something that seems related to a reduction in child-bearing in the state. As
the “Ozzie and Harriet” model erodes, many Californians end up as modern day
land serfs, renting and paying someone else’s mortgage. If they seek to start a
family, their tendency is to look elsewhere, ironically even in places such as
Oklahoma and Texas, places that once sent eager migrants to the Golden State.
Breaking Down the New Feudalism: The
Emerging Class Structure
emerging class structure of neo-feudalism, like its European and Asian
antecedents, is far more complex than simply a matter of the gilded “them” and
the broad “us.” To work as a system, as we can now see in California, we need
to understand the broader, more divergent class structure that is emerging.
Oligarchs: The swelling number of billionaires in the
state, particularly in Silicon Valley, has enhanced power that is emerging into
something like the old aristocratic French second estate. Through public
advocacy and philanthropy, the oligarchs have tended to embrace California’s
“green” agenda, with a very negative impact on traditional industries such as
manufacturing, agriculture, energy, and construction. Like the aristocrats who
saw all value in land, and dismissed other commerce as unworthy, they believe
all value belongs to those who own the increasingly abstracted information
revolution than has made them so fabulously rich.
The Clerisy: The
Oligarchs may have the money, but by themselves they cannot control a huge
state like California, much less America. Gentry domination requires allies
with a broader social base and their own political power. In the Middle Ages,
this role was played largely by the church; in today’s hyper-secular America,
the job of shaping the masses has fallen to the government apparat, the
professoriat, and the media, which together constitute our new Clerisy. The
Clerisy generally defines societal priorities, defends “right-thinking”
oligarchs, and chastises those, like traditional energy companies, that deviate
from their theology.
Serfs: If current trends continue, the fastest growing class will
be the permanently property-less. This group includes welfare recipients and
other government dependents but also the far more numerous working poor. In the
past, the working poor had reasonable aspirations for a better life, epitomized
by property ownership or better prospects for their children. Now, with
increasingly little prospect of advancement, California’s serfs depend on the
Clerisy to produce benefits making their permanent impoverishment less
gruesome. This sad result remains inevitable as long as the state’s economy
bifurcates between a small high-wage, tech-oriented sector, and an expanding
number of lower wage jobs in hospitality, health services, and personal service
jobs. As a result, the working class, stunted in their drive to achieve the
California dream, now represents the largest portion of domestic migrants out of the state.
Yeomanry: In neo-feudalist California, the biggest losers
tend to be the old private sector middle class. This includes largely small
business owners, professionals, and skilled workers in traditional industries
most targeted by regulatory shifts and higher taxes. Once catered to by both
parties, the yeomanry have become increasingly irrelevant as California has
evolved into a one-party state where the ruling Democrats have achieved a
potentially permanent, sizable majority consisting largely of the clerisy and
the serf class, and funded by the oligarchs. Unable to influence government and
largely disdained by the clerisy, these middle income Californians are becoming
a permanent outsider group, much like the old Third Estate in early medieval
times, forced to pay ever higher taxes as well as soaring utility bills and
required to follow regulations imposed by people who often have little use for
their “middle class” suburban values.
The Political Implications of Neo-Feudalism
Marx, among others, has suggested, class structures contain within them the
seeds of their dissolution. In New York, a city that is arguably as feudal as
anything in California, theemergence of
mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio reflected growingantagonism—particularly among the remaining yeoman
and serf class— towards the gentry urbanism epitomized by Mayor Michael “Luxury
except for occasional rumbling from the left, neo-feudalism likely represents
the future. Certainly in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit with the
intellectual and political skills needed to oversee a neo-feudal society,
remains all but unassailable politically. If Brown, or his policies, are to be
contested, the challenge will likely come from left-wing activists who find his
policies insufficiently supportive of the spending demanded by the clerisy and
the serfs or insufficiently zealous in their pursuit of environmental purity.
economy in California and elsewhere likely will determine the viability of
neo-feudalism. If a weaker economy forces state and local government budget
cutbacks, there could be a bruising conflict as the various classes fight over
diminishing spoils. But it’s perhaps more likely that we will see enough slow
growth so that Brown will be able to keep both the clerisy and the serfs
sufficiently satisfied. If that is the case, the new feudal system could shape
the evolution of the American class structure for decades to come.
government “shutdown” can teach us a lot about American politics. Even after
it’s over, a central question will remain. Why did they do it? Why did
congressional Republicans trigger a shutdown for which they would predictably
be blamed and from which they could win few Democratic concessions? The
conventional answer blames stupidity, craziness and fanaticism. This is too
glib and partisan. It misses a deeper cause that, I believe, helps explain why
politics has become more dysfunctional.
dysfunctional, I mean that it’s less able to mediate differences and conflicts.
This is, after all, a central purpose of politics. Broadly speaking, conflicts
originate from interest groups and ideologies. The curse of U.S. politics is
that it’s become less about interests and more about ideologies — and
ideologies breed moral absolutes, rigid agendas and strong emotions.
sure, interest-group politics can involve huge stakes and fierce disputes:
farmers seeking subsidies, multinational companies plugging tax breaks, Social
Security recipients protecting benefits. Sometimes compromises satisfy
everyone, but even when they don’t, spillovers are usually modest. Although
adversaries may detest each other, their ill will tends to focus on narrow
contrast, ideological differences are expansive and explosive. To me,
“ideology” extends beyond an explicit political philosophy. It includes broad
differences in lifestyles and basic assumptions about America’s best interests.
In recent decades, ideological issues have occupied more of the political stage
for both left and right. The argument over the size of government is a proxy
for a deep divide. The left sees bigger government as a tool for social
justice; the right fears it’s a threat to freedom. Moral crusades abound.
“Saving the planet” (global warming) is one. Preventing “murder” is another:
that’s gun control for the left and outlawing abortion for the right. The
left’s campaign for “gay rights” is the right’s quest to save the “traditional
why partisan differences have widened is controversial, but they clearly have.
“[B]asic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in
the past 25 years,” said a 2012 Pew opinion study. One question asked about the
need for “stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” Among
Democrats, 93 percent agreed, the same as in 1992; for Republicans, agreement
was 47 percent, down from 86 percent in 1992. Large gaps have also opened on
the social safety net, minority preferences and immigration. Some centrists are
alienated; more count themselves as “independents.”
crucial difference between interest-group and ideological politics is what
motivates people to join. For interest-group politics, the reason is simple — self-interest.
People enjoy directly the fruits of their political involvement. Farmers get
subsidies; Social Security recipients, checks. By contrast, the foot soldiers
of ideological causes don’t usually enlist for tangible benefits for themselves
but for a sense that they’re making the world a better place. Their reward is
feeling good about themselves.
called this “the politics of self-esteem” — and it profoundly alters politics.
For starters, it suggests that you don’t just disagree with your adversaries;
you also look down on them as morally inferior. It’s harder to compromise when
differences involve powerful moral convictions. Indeed, if politics’
subconscious payoff is higher self-esteem, it makes sense not to cooperate at
all. Consorting with the devil will make you feel worse, not better. What’s
more satisfying is to prove your superiority by depicting your opponents as
dangerous, thoughtless and morally bankrupt. Cable TV and the Internet feast on
this relates to the present. Why do House Republicans persist when the
self-inflicted damage is so great? In a CBS poll this past week, 44 percent
blamed Republicans for the shutdown while 35 percent blamed the Democrats. One
answer is that “standing on principle” bolsters their self-esteem. Tea party
types can feel they’ve affirmed their moral courage.
the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) — the cause of so much conflict —
exemplifies the politics of self-esteem. Its main advocates, starting with the
president, all have health insurance; they won’t benefit directly. But the ACA
serves as a platform for them to assert their moral superiority. They care
about people, while their opponents are heartless. (Ignored is the fact that
improvements in people’s health will, at best, be modest. Many uninsured are
healthy; others already receive care.)
triumph of ideology is one of the great political upheavals of recent decades.
It is, of course, partial; it coexists with interest-group politics and always
will. It’s also full of paradoxes. On both the left and right, many activists
are intelligent, sincere and hardworking. But the addition of so many
high-minded people — usually “true believers” in some cause — to the political
system has made it work worse. It increasingly fails to conciliate or, on many
major issues, to decide.