David Brooks and the Myth of the New Fair Society


Rest easy, America! After our long march through the spiritless battle to prop up our inflammable paper economy, David Brooks has identified the true cause of our distemper: we have been lulled into a terminal state of civic distrust by an overly porous power elite.

Yes. The recruitment of our upper-class leaders has become more demographically open, Brooks notes, with the old WASP establishment giving way to a “meritocratic” scrum of other-than white male power brokers. And as a result, “we’ve changed the criteria for success. It is less important to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working.” But there’s a twist! “As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.”

Brooks then dutifully ticks off what he regards as the evidence: the financial system was run more smoothly a half-century ago, when affable clubby “blue-bloods” manned-and we do mean manned-the controls. (One can’t help suspecting that Brooks’ choice of 1960 and not, say, 1930 as the pertinent point of generational comparison here, is a way of letting the grand old WASP Wall Street era off with a Gentleman’s C.)

The last several decades have also seen the arts of government and journalism launched into Bobo social distinction, with reporters and government officials matriculating from elite professional schools, and forfeiting the jolly solidarity-in the case of the reporting caste-of a talent pool make up of “working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars.” As a result of the promiscuous and confusing demotic rejiggering of upward-tending achievement, the sober, Burkean gradualist outlook of the old WASP leadership class has succumbed to the giddy virtues of an ADD-afflicted credentialist elite, prizing “big swing” policy goals like the health care overhaul, fetishizing “transparency” and adopting rootless cosmopolitan “lifestyle habits” and “social attitudes.”

While of course abjuring any suggestion of a return to the old WASP order, Brooks can’t help but moan that the elite-trust crisis bespeaks “some serious problems” with the new talent-based social hierarchy.

This whole line of argument has, of course, been Brooks’ sturdy stock-in-pundit trade ever since his stupendously overrated book Bobos in Paradise catapulted him to his own elite renown in 2000. And the catalog of error in Brooks’ impressionistic “comic sociology” has only grown longer with the crashing failure of the paper economy that Bobos unwittingly celebrated.

One can only gesture broadly at the cavernous dioramas of fallacy and illogic on display here, but a good place to begin is with this column’s woeful opening assertion that the C. Wright Mills classic The Power Elite-published in 1956, the putative heyday of balmy aristocratic management of the investment economy-somehow chronicled the ongoing social dominance of WASP primogeniture. Mills did argue that old family fortunes continued to loom disproportionately over the country’s long-term wealth profile-but more important, he maintained that the defining structural features of the power elite arose from its mastery of the technocratic military state created in the first flush of the Cold War.

After all, he noted, the uniformity of social background in members of the new power elite didn’t translate into a straightforward defense of high-WASP tradition; nor was it the case, Mills noted, that “if they were, as social-types, representative of a cross-section of the population, that does not mean that a balanced democracy of interest and power would automatically be the going political fact…. Even if their recruitment and formal training were more heterogeneous than they are, these men would still be of a quite homogenous social type.” In other words? Elite occupations now created their own dominant social types, rather than flowing outward from old-boy networks of social prestige.

Indeed, Mills’ adoption of the term “power elite”-which also furnishes the title for Brooks’ column-was a conscious rejection of old Marxist notions of classbound transmission of wealth and interests across the generations, and an acknowledgement that “power” was indeed the telling social distinction of the Cold War era.

Hence the overlapping directorates of the military, the corporations, and the government served, in Mills’ view, as the most critical forcing beds of plutocratic interest. Mills’ power elite got its marching orders from the impersonal mandates of the government contract or corporate board-not via the exchange of sly winks and elbow nudges at the Harvard Club.

It’s no accident that Brooks so fundamentally misconstrues the point of the sociological treatise that lends his glib ruminations the aura of elite introspection. The alleged midcentury fire sale in WASP prestige is the great enabling myth of right-wing social analysis, since it allows its chroniclers to pose as tolerant meritocrats while continuing to engage the irresistibly lazy ruling-class sport of bemoaning rampant cultural decline. Joseph Epstein, Brooks’ forerunner in the counter-empirical conservative sideline in “comic sociology,” has gone so far, in his 2002 book Snobbery-a truly bracing study in casual conservative misogyny and homophobia-as to liken the peaceful surrender of WASP social power to the unilateral repeal of the British empire. This strongly suggests that he understands neither sociology nor imperial history.

And if one sets aside the allegedly earth-shaking erosion of institutional WASPdom, what Brooks takes to be the all-too-dynamic and Tocquevillian mass clamor for wealth and prestige in our age swiftly recedes from the American scene like a poorly choreographed flash mob. For while there may be more demographically diverse hands at the machinery of wealth and power today, the contemporary power elite is proportionally far smaller, and materially far better endowed, than it was in Mills’ day.

Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez found that from 2002 to 2006-basically, the last period of major expansion in the U.S. economy-fully three-quarters of all income gains in these United States went to the top 1% of earners; people making more than $382,600.

What’s more, Piketty and Saez found that there’s a power elite within that elite, with the narrowest .01% of earners commanding 5.46% of the country’s income. As for wealth inequality-the storehouse of stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets that furnish the permanent advantage of the upper classes in a way that a government affairs diploma never can-the picture is even more grotesquely top heavy, with the top 1% of our population possessing 34.6% of all privately held wealth in 2007, according to the research of New York University economist Edward Wolff.

Subtract home values from that reckoning to measure financial wealth, and things look worse still, with the 1% holding a full 42.7%. Meanwhile, the bottom 80% of Americans-basically wage and salaried workers with minimal dividend wealth, usually marshaled into volatile and insecure 401(k) plans-make do with 15% of the nation’s wealth.

The five-year period of economic expansion that ended in 2007 marked the first such interval since World War II in which the majority of Americans lost economic ground.

All sorts of compelling long-term implications for our social order proceed from this eye-popping data-from narrowing educational opportunities to spikes in infant mortality and long-term poverty. The David Brookses of the world, however, would have us believe that any effort-however anemic and cloture-strangled-to reform the ghastly inequalities of our health care system alone is somehow the “reckless behavior” of a jumpy and suggestible knowledge elite.

Or why not fret instead that since bank presidents may not live in the same towns where their branches set up shop, and are more likely to marry other bank presidents than their secretaries, like they did back in the gradualist, conformist fifties, we are facing a worrisome gap in “lifestyle patterns”? All of which makes the wheezing, wearisome tap-dancing act of Brooks’ post-boom “comic sociology” seem exponentially less amusing-if also a rather enormous fucking joke.

Chris Lehmann is definitely among the top 75% of income-earners in the whole United States!