Summers described numerous trips that he had made during his years at Treasury to review antipoverty programs in Africa and Latin America, and in American inner cities. “I don’t think I ever went to Akron, or Flint, or Toledo, or Youngstown,” he admitted. To Democratic policymakers, poverty was foreign or it was black. As for displaced white workers in the Rust Belt, Summers said, “their problems weren’t heavily on our radar screen, and they were mad that their problems weren’t.”
Summers still supports trade agreements, including nafta. The problem, he said, is that few people understand the benefits: the jobs created by exporting goods; trade’s role in strengthening other economies, thereby reducing immigration flows from countries like Mexico. The “popularization of politics,” he said, keeps leaders from pursuing controversial but important policies. If the Marshall Plan had been focus-grouped, it never would have happened. Globalization creates what Summers called a “trilemma” among global integration, public goods like environmental protection or high wages, and national sovereignty. It’s become clear that Democratic élites, including him, underestimated the power of nationalism, because they didn’t feel it strongly themselves.
Summers described the current Democratic Party as “a coalition of the cosmopolitan élite and diversity.” The Republicans, he went on, combined “social conservatism and an agenda of helping rich people.” These alignments left neither party in synch with Americans like Mark Frisbie: “All these regular people who thought they are kind of the soul of the country—they feel like there was nobody who seemed to be thinking a lot about them.” In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published his final book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.” He used the term “cosmopolitan élites” to describe Americans who are at home in the fluid world of transnational corporations, dual citizenship, blended identities, and multicultural education. Such people dominate our universities, tech companies, publishers, nonprofits, entertainment studios, and news media. They congregate in cities and on the coasts.
George Packer, “The Unconnected”, The New Yorker (31 October 2016), 54.