Posted in Culture, Higher Education, Inequality, Meritocracy, Wokeness

Michael Lind — The New American Elite

This post is a lovely essay by Michael Lind, which was recently published in Tablet magazine.  Here’s a link to the original.

In this piece, Lind provides a rich analysis of the history of the American elite.  The key to this story is that the elite used to be plural — a set of local elites in cities across the country.  They shared a white, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon (or at least Northern European) culture, but they often emphasized different components of this culture and worked hard to develop a distinctive local literary tradition and upper-class accent.  In contrast, the new elite is a cosmopolitan national entity with its own distinctive identity markers.  If a listing in the Social Register was the badge of membership for the old elite, ownership of an advanced degrees from one of the Ivy + universities serves this role for the new elite.

This analysis pushes back against the myth of America’s egalitarianism in its earlier years and also revises the current wisdom about the nature of what he calls today’s “overclass.”

In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.

The good part is that, “Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias.”  However, “Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.”  Here’s how he explains these cultural cues:

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter.

The new American elite, therefore, is distinctive in being national rather than local and grounded in badges of academic merit rather than proper birth.  But, in common with Mrs. Astor’s 400 Families (which dominated New York society in the bad old days), it is also defined by a rapidly shifting set of orthodoxies that distinguish us from them.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.

Mrs. Astor would approve.

Lind Pic

The New National American Elite

America is now ruled by a single elite class rather than by local patrician smart sets competing with each other for money and power

BY

MICHAEL LIND
JANUARY 19, 2021

In the third decade of the 21st century, the Social Register still exists, there are still debutante balls, polo and lacrosse are still patrician sports, and old money families still summer at Newport. But these are fossil relics of an older class system. The rising ruling class in America is found in every major city in every region. Membership in it depends on having the right diplomas—and the right beliefs.

To observers of the American class system in the 21st century, the common conflation of social class with income is a source of amusement as well as frustration. Depending on how you slice and dice the population, you can come up with as many income classes as you like—four classes with 25%, or the 99% against the 1%, or the 99.99% against the 0.01%. In the United States, as in most advanced societies, class tends to be a compound of income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, and race, in various proportions. There has never been a society in which the ruling class consisted merely of a basket of random rich people.

Progressives who equate class with money naturally fall into the mistake of thinking you can reduce class differences by sending lower-income people cash—in the form of a universal basic income, for example. Meanwhile, populists on the right tend to imagine that the United States was much more egalitarian, within the white majority itself, than it really was, whether in the 1950s or the 1850s.

Both sides miss the real story of the evolution of the American class system in the last half century toward the consolidation of a national ruling class—a development which is unprecedented in U.S. history. That’s because, from the American Revolution until the late 20th century, the American elite was divided among regional oligarchies. It is only in the last generation that these regional patriciates have been absorbed into a single, increasingly homogeneous national oligarchy, with the same accent, manners, values, and educational backgrounds from Boston to Austin and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. This is a truly epochal development.

In living memory, every major city in the United States had its own old money families with their own clubs and their own rituals and their own social and economic networks. Often the money was not very old, going back to a real estate killing or a mining fortune or an oil strike a generation or two before. Even so, the heirs and heiresses set themselves up as a local aristocracy. Like other aristocracies, these urban patricians renewed their bloodlines and bank accounts by admitting new money, once the parvenus had served probation and assimilated the values of the local patriciate.

These regional urban patriciates were similar demographically, at a time when the racial caste system that divided whites from nonwhites was accompanied by an ethnic caste system among whites. Within the white population, Anglo American Protestants, preferably Episcopalian or Presbyterian, were at the top, followed by Anglo Americans belonging to more vulgar denominations like the Methodists and Baptists. German and Scandinavian Americans could be honorary Anglo Americans. But Irish American Catholics, Jews, and Italian and Polish Americans occupied a lower rung. Mexican Americans occupied an ambiguous position. In some areas they were discriminated against as Blacks were, in others they were treated as the equivalent of low-status whites. Black Americans and Asian Americans were excluded.

The Anglo American Protestant patricians in every region and state shared a common Anglo American and Trans-Atlantic culture—but not a common national culture. Instead, they had regional cultures separately based on a common British and European heritage. This is so peculiar that it needs to be explained.

Let us begin with what they shared: Trans-Atlantic culture. From the earliest days of the republic, the wealthy elites of even the most remote and Godforsaken parts of the South and West could afford to vacation in Europe. They would bring back the latest French and British fashions to rural Mississippi or Wyoming. Before the self-consciously regional Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, there was never any indigenous American architecture, just wave after wave of faddish European styles: Palladianism, Greek Revival, Gothic, Romanesque. The relics of these transient Europhile fads litter the United States in the form of courthouses and other old public buildings from coast to coast.

In contrast, local patriciates tried to boost their own authors at the expense of those in other American regions. My maternal grandmother, a schoolteacher for part of her career, belonged to the minor Southern gentry. She saw to it that my brother and I were introduced to the literary canon as educated white Southerners of the early 20th century conceived of it: A British substrate, consisting of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, overlain by Southern writers like Sidney Lanier, whose “The Marshes of Glynn” introduced me to the wonders of verse. The equivalent New England literary canon ran directly from Shakespeare and Milton and Pope and Scott and Tennyson to Emerson, Longfellow and Whittier and the other “Fireside Poets” (Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville only acquired their present status later, thanks to mid-20th-century academics).

In short, for two centuries there was a double competition among regional American oligarchies. On the one hand, the local notables, particularly those from the newly settled regions, had to prove they were not backward bumpkins, but were just as up-to-date with regard to European fashions as the patricians in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. On the other hand, some of them dreamed that the city they ran, whether it was Atlanta or Milwaukee, would become the Athens or Renaissance Florence of North America, and favored local writers, poets, and artists, as long as their work was in fashionable styles and did not inspire seditious thoughts among the local masses. The subnational blocs of New Englanders, Southerners, and Midwesterners fought to control the federal government in order to promote their regional economic interests.

The status of Harvard and Yale as prestigious national rather than regional universities is relatively recent. A few generations ago, it was assumed that the sons of the local gentry (this was before coeducation began in the 1960s and 1970s) would remain in the area and rise to high office in local and state business, politics, and philanthropy—goals that were best served if they attended a local elite college and joined the right fraternity, rather than being educated in some other part of the country. College was about upper-class socialization, not learning, which is why parochial patricians favored regional colleges and universities. If your family was in the local social register, that was much more important than whether you went to an Ivy League college or a local college or no college at all.

American patricians of earlier generations would have been surprised that rich people, many of them celebrities, would scheme and bribe university officers to get their children into a few top universities. Scheming to get into the right local “society” club—now that would have made sense.

Upper-class women were the chief enforcers of local “society.” Anybody who thinks that women are somehow naturally more generous and egalitarian than men has never encountered a doyenne of high society. Mrs. Astor’s 400 families in New York had their counterparts throughout the United States, from the Mainline elite in Philadelphia to the Highland Park set in Dallas.

As in the novels of Jane Austen, the daughters of the local ruling class had to be married to a young man from a good family, if the dynasty was not to fall into disgrace. Until recently (and to this day, in some circles) a young woman’s debut in society was, if anything, more important than marriage itself, since the debutante ball helped to define her eligibility for a high-status marriage.

When I explain all of this to friends from other countries, they tend to be surprised, if not suspicious of my account. What about frontier egalitarianism? Wasn’t America dominated by the just-folks middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries? Isn’t America in danger now, for the first time in its history, of becoming an Old World style hierarchy?

The egalitarianism of the American frontier is greatly exaggerated. Some of the myth comes from European tourists like Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau, and Dickens. For ideological reasons or just for entertainment, they played up how classless and vulgar Americans were for audiences back in Europe. On their trips they mostly encountered the wealthy and educated, who might have been informal by the standards of British dukes or French royalty, but who were hardly yeoman farmers. If these famous tourists had spent their time in slave cabins, immigrant tenements, miners camps, and cowboy bunkhouses, they might have gotten a different sense of how egalitarian America actually was. Elite Americans might have been more likely than elite Brits to smile politely when dealing with working-class people, but they were no more likely to welcome them into the family.

The Western frontier was not entirely a myth, to be sure. My great-great-grandfather proposed marriage to my great-great-grandmother by handing her a letter from horseback before riding north on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, and a distant uncle was murdered by outlaws on the road outside of Austin in the 1880s. But the Wild West or boomtown era everywhere was brief. The first white settlers in a region may have been trappers or small farmers or ranchers or outlaws or pirates, but once Native Americans had been removed to reservations and the railroad was in place, the area was rapidly gentrified. The rich moved in, bought up the good land, built mansions and the local opera house in the current European style and drove the frontiersmen and their families out.

White poverty in the United States today is concentrated in greater Appalachia, because the Scots Irish settlers, often illiterate squatters, were priced out of other areas and ended up in the hills of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the Texas Hill Country. As soon as the affluent discover the scenic views in those areas, they will be forced to move once more, just as old-stock families are already being priced out of the Texas Hill Country by rich refugees from California, bringing with them their cultural heritage of trophy wineries and boutiques, New Age spirituality and organic cuisines.

Because there was no single national American elite, there was never a single Western frontier. New Englanders moved west in a band to the south of the Great Lakes, and then moved eastward and inland from ports on the Pacific Coast. While the Scots Irish followed the hills, the Southern planter class acquired cotton-friendly soil from Virginia along the Gulf of Mexico to central Texas, where the coastal plain collides with the southernmost part of the Great Plains. As the historians David Hackett Fischer and Wilbur Zelinsky have pointed out, these parallel bands of east-to-west settlement brought separate Anglo American cultures, reflected in everything from codes of honor to town layouts (town planners in greater New England laid out village greens with churches and schools, while Southern towns tended to be centered on the courthouse).

In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.

Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias. As recently as the 1970s, an acquaintance of mine who worked for a major Northeastern bank had to disguise the fact of his Irish ancestry from the bank’s WASP partners. No longer. Elite banks and businesses are desperate to prove their commitment to diversity. At the moment Wall Street and Silicon Valley are disproportionately white and Asian American, but this reflects the relatively low socioeconomic status of many Black and Hispanic Americans, a status shared by the Scots Irish white poor in greater Appalachia (who are left out of “diversity and inclusion” efforts because of their “white privilege”). Immigrants from Africa and South America (as opposed to Mexico and Central America) tend to be from professional class backgrounds and to be better educated and more affluent than white Americans on average—which explains why Harvard uses rich African immigrants to meet its informal Black quota, although the purpose of affirmative action was supposed to be to help the American descendants of slaves (ADOS). According to Pew, the richest groups in the United States by religion are Episcopalian, Jewish, and Hindu (wealthy “seculars” may be disproportionately East Asian American, though the data on this point is not clear).

Membership in the multiracial, post-ethnic national overclass depends chiefly on graduation with a diploma—preferably a graduate or professional degree—from an Ivy League school or a selective state university, which makes the Ivy League the new social register. But a diploma from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university by itself is not sufficient for admission to the new national overclass. Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite. A decade ago, as a member of the American overclass you could get away with saying, along with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but I strongly support civil unions for gay men and lesbians.” In 2020 you are expected to say, “I strongly support trans rights.” You will flunk the interview if you start going on about civil unions.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter. America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify—which, among other things, proves the idiocy of the “Russiagate” theory that Vladimir Putin brainwashed white working-class Americans into voting for Trump by memes in social media which they are the least likely American voters to see.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.

Mrs. Astor would approve.

Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the University of Texas at Austin, a columnist for Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

Posted in Culture, Meritocracy, Politics, Wokeness

Harris — The Key to Trump’s Appeal

This post is a transcription of a piece by Sam Harris, published in his podcast Making Sense on the day before the election.  It’s the most stunning analysis I have seen about the key to Trump’s appeal. 

I’ve seen some good things about the way he has tapped into the resentments of middle and working class Americans, who feel left behind by the coastal meritocracy.  See my post about Arlie Hochschild’s wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land and my post on Michael Sandel’s book, Tyranny of Merit.  So on these issues, I can see how he would look attractive compared to a meritocrat like Hillary Clinton.  But that still doesn’t explain how people could put up with someone whose character is so obviously appalling.

What Harris does here is show that his appalling character is in fact central to his appeal.  For people who feel disrespected by the meritocracy, it’s attractive to have a leader who is himself so unrespectable.  He’s one person who will not and cannot look down on you, because he’s as low as it goes.  Here’s the core of Harris’s argument:

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. 

Compare this to the sanctimony that is coming from the other side of the culture wars, where the woke are wagging their fingers at the deplorables and denouncing them as irretrievably racist, sexist, and colonialist.  People who are the target of a lot of “bad dog” sermons from the cultural left may find it comforting to have a bad dog president who aspires to be nothing more. 

I hope you find this analysis as enlightening as I do.

Trump

The Key to Trump’s Appeal

Sam Harris

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast. This is Sam Harris. Okay. Well, it is the day before the presidential election. And I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to understand this, but you be the judge as to whether this should have been at all hard to understand. As all of you know, I’ve been struggling for years to understand how it is possible that nearly half of American society admires or at least supports Donald Trump.

I’ve spoken with Trump voters in search of illumination, but illumination never came. For instance, I had Scott Adams on my podcast to explain this to me. And he described Trump as a master persuader, perhaps the best he’s ever seen. But the problem for me is that I find Trump to be among the least persuasive people I have ever come across. Whenever I see him speak, I see an obvious con man and ignoramus. In fact, Trump seems to be so unaware of how people like me judge a person’s credibility that his efforts to appear credible, such as they are, always make him look ridiculous and even deranged. So the claim that he’s a brilliant persuader makes about as much sense to me as a claim that he’s a model of physical fitness would, right? In my world, the claim can be disproven at a glance. And yet one thing is undeniable, right? Half the country views him very differently.

Now, until a few minutes ago, I had more or less reconciled myself to never understanding this. But I believe at this late hour on the very eve of the 2020 election, I have discovered a significant part of Trump’s appeal. In particular, I think I finally understand how he is supported because of his flaws, rather than in spite of them. That really is the key. How are all the things I find despicable in him not merely things that people are willing to overlook, but reasons in and of themselves why people support him? That’s what I didn’t understand until this moment.

Now, I have repeatedly described the man’s flaws on this podcast. To my eye, he lacks nearly every virtue for which we have a word:  wisdom, curiosity, compassion, generosity, discipline, courage. Whatever your list, he’s got none of these things, but his supporters know that. And he’s a paragon of greed and narcissism and pettiness and malice, real malice. This is a man who wears his hatreds on his sleeve and he will suddenly revile people who he claimed to admire only yesterday. While he demands loyalty from everyone around him, really above all else, he is an amazingly disloyal person.

All of this is right on the surface, so his appeal has been a total mystery to me, but I believe I have now solved that mystery. Again, I don’t know why it took me so long, because many of these thoughts have been in my head since the beginning. And I’ve certainly heard people describe some parts of this picture, but the whole image just fell into place. It’s like one of those magic eye illustrations where you’re staring at a random dot stereogram forever, and then finally the embedded 3D image just pops out. And this picture of Trump’s appeal is really best understood in comparison with the messaging of its opponents on the left. That’s how you can see it in stereo. That’s how the image finally pops out, so taking the Trump half of this picture.

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. Trump is fat Jesus. He’s grab them by the pussy Jesus. He’s I’ll eat nothing but cheeseburgers if I want to Jesus. He’s I want to punch them in the face Jesus. He’s go back to your shithole countries Jesus. He’s no apologies Jesus.

And now consider the other half of this image. What are we getting from the left? We’re getting exactly the opposite message, pure sanctimony, pure judgment. You are not good enough. You’re guilty not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers. The crimes of slavery and colonialism are on your head. And if you’re a cis white heterosexual male, which we know is the absolute core of Trump’s support, you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist barbarian. Tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee. It’s the juxtaposition of those two messages that is so powerful.

Now, I’m sure many of you have understood this before me, but for whatever reason, this image just became crystal clear. Needless to say, everything I’ve said about Trump previously still stands for me. I consider him to be terrifyingly unfit for office, and I consider most of his personal flaws to be public dangers. I think because of who he is as a person, he has harmed our politics and diminished our standing in the world to a degree that might take decades to repair. I sincerely hope we rid ourselves of him tomorrow, but I believe I now understand the half of the country that disagrees with me a little better than I did yesterday. And this makes me less confused and judgmental, less of an asshole probably, which is always progress.