David Brooks and Class

picture by Kimberly Elliott

In a bit of a surprise, David Brooks provides a useful breakdown of American class structure in his recent Atlantic article “How the Bobos Broke America.” Skipping the usual wise-guy comments about Brooks, I’ll make several points about his classification of Blue and Red hierarchies at the bottom of the post.

  1. Blue Wealth/Red Wealth: Indeed, Blue wealth would be concentrated in tech and global businesses like banking, foundations and other large-scale non-profits. Likewise tech titans and the big banks are just as eager to avoid taxes and regulations as red oligarchs like Peter Thiel (PayPal wealth) and Larry Ellison (Oracle). Blue and Red oligarchs may have different cultural perspectives but share broad financial interests which would be the basis for most class analysis.
  2. Creative Class/Red Inheritance: Among the farmers and ranchers, small business owners, miners, and other skilled men of the “proletarian aristocracy,” there is a “crisis of inheritance” in which their ability to pass on businesses, farms, factory jobs, and other has been circumscribed by the concentration of business capital facilitated by mergers and acquisitions, financial innovation, and tech. The “Creative Class” also has an inheritance problem in that the only way for parents to facilitate the transfer of their status to their children is through admission and success in top tier colleges that qualify people for “elite” employment. That’s a dicey deal and the educational obsession of creative class parents has the desperate edge of avoiding downward mobility.
  3. Caring Class/Proletarian Aristocracy: The “Caring Class” would not necessarily be Blue and definitely are not in this Trump+60 area of Eastern KY. However, the distinction between the Caring Class and Proletarian Aristocracy is helpful in understanding the predominant politics of group members and understanding the downward pressure on wages and narrowing of opportunity that afflicts both employment groups. People can “make it” as nurses or as plumbers but opportunities for doing so continue to decrease.

Given the intensity of American political and cultural divisions, viewing class in terms of Blue and Red hierarchies is helpful. What is not helpful is Brooks focusing entirely on white people which means that only whites have status as economic and cultural figures in his article. It’s highly distorting. Brooks views (white) creative types as evincing a sense of cultural superiority over rural white conservatives that led to the Trump backlash. But what of black creative types like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Shonda Rhimes, Beyonce; black politicians above all Barack Obama, and black social movements like Black Lives Matter. It’s would be hard to imagine that black cultural creators have not had a big impact on the Trump Backlash or that this group doesn’t not have various kinds of relations to white cultural creators. To what extent do values of diversity weave together or separate white and black creators in various industries? It’s hard to imagine understanding the Trump Backlash without understanding that Obama, Beyonce, Oprah, and thousands of others are black people.

And David Brooks does not deserve credit for trying.

Blue hierarchy

Top Tier, Blue Oligarchy: “tech and media executives, university presidents, foundation heads, banking CEOs, highly successful doctors and lawyers. The blue oligarchy leads the key Information Age institutions, and its members live in the biggest cities.

2nd Tier: Creative Class: “broader leadership class of tenured faculty, established members of the mainstream media, urban and suburban lawyers, senior nonprofit and cultural-institution employees, and corporate managers . .”

3rd tier, Junior Creative Class: “younger versions of the educated elite . . . they work in the lower rungs of media, education, technology, and the nonprofit sector.

4th Tier: Caring Class: “low-paid members of the service sector: manicurists, home health-care workers, restaurant servers, sales clerks, hotel employees.”

Red Hierarchy

1st Tier, Red Oligarchy: “the GOP’s slice of the one-percenters. “Some are corporate executives or entrepreneurs, but many are top-tier doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who aspire to low taxes and other libertarian ideals.”

2nd Tier, Large Property Owning Families: “what we might call the GOP gentry.” “This wealth is held in families and passed down through the generations. This gentry class derives its wealth not from salary but from the ownership of assets—furniture companies, ranches, a local bunch of McDonald’s franchises.”

3rd Tier: Proletarian Aristocracy: “contractors, plumbers, electricians, middle managers, and small-business owners. People in this class have succeeded in America, but not through the channels of the university-based meritocracy, from which they feel alienated.”

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