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Issue No. 28 (October 2001) -- Mark Satin, Editor

An upper class fit
for the 21st century

Tell me where you stand on the question of the American “upper class” -- memorably brought to the attention of my generation by C. Wright Mills’s book The Power Elite (1956) -- and I’ll tell you what your politics are.

Most political reportage today simply ignores the existence of the upper class, just as it did in Mills’s day. That may make life easier to take for most Democrats and Republicans.

Mills’s prominent disciple William Domhoff argued that Mills wrongly downplayed the existence of a full-blown corporate “ruling class” and the need to destroy it (see Who Rules America?, 1967). You can still find echoes of Domhoff in books by people like Pat Robertson and David Korten.

Mills’s other prominent disciple, Digby Baltzell, took a third tack (see The Protestant Establishment, 1964). On the one hand, he pointed out that all societies have ruling classes, elites, “establishments,” and always will. On the other hand, he argued that, in the U.S., the upper class is not conspiratorial or all-powerful -- it shares power with voters and interest groups.

Baltzell’s nuanced view of the upper class is the view adopted -- explicitly -- in two just-published books, John Judis’s Paradox of American Democracy (Pantheon, 305 pp.) and David Brooks’s  Bobos in Paradise : The New Upper Class (Simon & Schuster, 284 pp.). As a result, both authors are able to give us an extraordinarily clear-eyed view of the upper class today, and what it lacks.

Talented sell-outs

I can remember reading John Judis in the 1970s in journals like Socialist Revolution. Now he appears regularly in GQ and The New Republic, but he hasn’t lost his youthful fascination with the underside of power.

The “paradox” of American democracy that he refers to in his title is that in America, at least, elites and democracy seem to need each other.

In the Progressive Era, in the New Deal, during the early 1960s, elites “bolstered” democracy by acting as “impartial mediators” between polarized groups like business and labor. They “saw their role as conciliatory, as bringing classes and interests together rather than siding with one against the other.”

They did even more: “The elites and elite policy groups [such as the Council on Foreign Relations] advocated the development of policy based on fact and knowledge. They nourished public trust in government by defending and explaining complex decisions that the ordinary voter did not have time to study. And they . . . carried forward a tradition of disinterested public service against the venality and corruption that interest groups have often encouraged in public life.”

But elites aren’t performing any of these functions today, Judis says (calling it the “apostasy” or “abdication” of the elites), and for democracy’s sake, he wants to knows why. He comes up with essentially two answers:

-- They were intimidated by the Reaganauts in the 1980s, and never really recovered.

-- They literally sold out. Beginning with Kissinger in the late 70s, many politicians and administrators who might have played the role of “wise persons” in universities or moderate think tanks after leaving office, instead became phenomenally well-paid consultants, lobbyists, and the like. “By making it appear that even the most distinguished Americans could be bought, they contributed to public cynicism about all political opinion, including that of elites.”

Judis’s solution? Well, he’d like to see a change of heart among the upper classes, a return to the ethic of placing “public service above private gain.” But he’s not holding his breath.

Bourgeois bohemians

David Brooks is considerably younger than Judis’s Sixties crowd, and though he writes for the conservative Weekly Standard, he also writes for Newsweek and does commentary on NPR. And in Bobos in Paradise, he does something truly daring. He declares that we have a new upper class -- then happily introduces that class to itself.

And he does it with such panache and good humor (he describes his methodology as “comic sociology”) that you don’t realize, at first, how serious he is. Or how sensible: He gives his New Class characteristics and potentials that even John Judis might appreciate.

Look, he says, we upper class folks are not a conspiracy of the well-bred (Domhoff’s view). We’re not even a small group of smart, well-connected people with a laggard social conscience (Judis’s view). We’re a “large, amorphous group of meritocrats who share a consciousness and who unself-consciously reshape institutions to accord with [our] values.”

Let him explain. . . .

Meritocrats: According to Brooks, in an astonishing act of Christian charity (or whatever), admissions officers at elite colleges and universities wrecked the Protestant Establishment. First they let in the Jews, then the women and minorities. Then they set up affirmative action for the minorities. Now any bright kid who’s willing to work super-hard has a chance to grab the ring.

The only down side of this situation (for the upper class) is that members of the class “can never be secure about their children’s future. . . . Compared to past elites, little is guaranteed.”

Shared consciousness: Upper class is no longer primarily about guilt-ridden grandchildren living off legacies. It’s about the information age, in which the rewards for “intellectual capital” have skyrocketed. It’s about the higher reaches of the high-tech and information industries.

Those who excel in those industries have a special kind of consciousness. From the Sixties, they take a free-spiritedness and a love of spiritual and intellectual ideals. At the same time, though, from the Eighties they take ebullient personal ambition and a love for the commercial world that makes folks like Judis (hunkered down at GQ) suspicious.

The product of those contradictory impulses is the Bourgeois Bohemian, or “Bobo.”

“This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites,” Brooks writes in a typically bemused but not disapproving passage. “They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out. . . .”

The way Bobos deal with this tension is the key to their politics. “[T]hey do what any smart person bursting with cultural capital would do. . . . They reconcile opposites.”

They preach “civility.” They seek to improve the “quality of life.” They call for the kinds of “spiritual” improvements that Professor Fogel advocates below, and that the Children’s Defense Fund is seeking to base a movement on (see cover story).

Brooks puts it nicely when he says, “The main thrust of Bobo politics is the effort to restore the bonds of intimate authority. . . . Intimate authority isn’t mainly about . . . laws; it is about setting up patterns, instilling habits, and creating contexts so that people are more likely to exercise individual responsibility.”

For Judis, the ideal upper class stands above the fray; for Brooks, any upper class inevitably shapes the fray as well. “[T]he central [political] disagreement today is not the sixties versus the eighties,” he says. “It is between those who have fused the sixties and the eighties on the one side and those who reject the fusion on the other.”

The new upper class is all about fusing the sixties and the eighties. It is, ironically, the only “political vanguard” that activists like Judis and me have ever seen.

Reasons for hope

For all their differences, Judis and Brooks both want the upper class to play a healing, reconciling role in the larger society. And Brooks agrees with Judis that the current upper class lacks what Brooks calls “a public service ethos.”

They differ over the cause. Judis -- a Sixties man to the end -- says it’s boorishness and greed. Brooks -- sounding defensive for the first and last time in the book -- says it’s still a young upper class, still in the process of consolidation. I’d like to offer a third explanation, consistent with both of theirs.

In the Sixties and Seventies, at least half a million young people -- appalled by the Vietnam war and the state of the world in general -- rejected the notion of “success” and dropped out of the mainstream for good . . . or at least, for long enough to destroy their chances for dramatic upward mobility. As the draft dodger counselor in Toronto from 1967-69, I often felt like Holden Caulfield’s backup -- catching bright, sensitive, tormented kids after they’d fallen off the cliff beyond the rye field.

If the Sixties dropouts had followed the career paths that, by their abilities, were open to them, many would have ascended to the upper class. And many would have eventually played the healing, reconciling, public interest-y roles that Judis and even Brooks envision.

It’s because the most gutsy and principled idealists of my generation are missing from the upper class, that the upper class is not playing a more public-spirited role today. But subsequent generations’ idealists have not dropped out, which is why Brooks is right when he says it’s just a matter of time.


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