Elite Self-Knowledge

Elite Self-Knowledge August 9, 2023

Columnist David Brooks has been considered the New York Times‘ token conservative, but he isn’t very conservative, and he is certainly anti-Donald Trump.  But, as the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (“bobos” referring to “bourgeois bohemians”), he is a keep observer of social class in America.

He has created a stir with a column in the New York Times entitled What If We’re the Bad Guys Here?  (Available outside of the paywall here.)  Acknowledging as his social class must that Trump is horrible, he raises the possibility that his fellow Ivy League-educated elite professionals may be to blame for Trump’s popularity.

I urge you to read all of his column, available for non-NYT subscribers here.  Below are some excerpts (my bolds):

Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.

The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation. . . .

Over the last decades we’ve taken over whole professions and locked everybody else out. When I began my journalism career in Chicago in the 1980s, there were still some old crusty working-class guys around the newsroom. Now we’re not only a college-dominated profession, we’re an elite-college-dominated profession. Only 0.8 percent of all college students graduate from the super elite 12 schools (the Ivy League colleges, plus Stanford, M.I.T., Duke and the University of Chicago). A 2018 study found that more than 50 percent of the staff writers at the beloved New York Times and The Wall Street Journal attended one of the 29 most elite universities in the nation. . . .

Armed with all kinds of economic, cultural and political power, we support policies that help ourselves. Free trade makes the products we buy cheaper, and our jobs are unlikely to be moved to China. Open immigration makes our service staff cheaper, but new, less-educated immigrants aren’t likely to put downward pressure on our wages.

Like all elites, we use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others. Using words like problematic, cisgender, Latinx and intersectional is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells, because they never know when we’ve changed the usage rules, so that something that was sayable five years ago now gets you fired.

We also change the moral norms in ways that suit ourselves, never mind the cost to others. For example, there used to be a norm that discouraged people from having children outside of marriage, but that got washed away during our period of cultural dominance, as we eroded norms that seemed judgmental or that might inhibit individual freedom.

After this social norm was eroded, a funny thing happened. Members of our class still overwhelmingly married and then had children within wedlock. People without our resources, unsupported by social norms, were less able to do that. As Adrian Wooldridge points out in his magisterial 2021 book, “The Aristocracy of Talent,” “Sixty percent of births to women with only a high school certificate occur out of wedlock, compared with only 10 percent to women with a university degree.” That matters, Wooldridge continues, because “The rate of single parenting is the most significant predictor of social immobility in the country.”

He goes on to make the case that Trump supporters are drawn heavily from the social classes that feel under economic, cultural, moral, and political assault from this new upper class.  “We can condemn the Trumpian populists all day until the cows come home,” Brooks concludes, “but the real question is when will we stop behaving in ways that make Trumpism inevitable.”

This strikes me as a rather remarkable exercise in elite self-knowledge.  It is also a refreshing use of the moral law.  The general practice in moral reflections is to show how good we are. But, as Luther demonstrates, a more healthy practice is to realize how bad we are.

I take issue, though, with one aspect of his argument:  the notion of “meritocracy.”  We’ll talk about that tomorrow.



Photo:  David Brooks (2022) by By Jay Godwin – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lbjlibrarynow/51984350396/in/album-72177720297879567/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=135144487

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