“America as a Broken Society” is the third in a series of Salmagundi symposia, each built around a recent essay provocative enough to prompt a conversation. In this instance the essay is “How The Bobos Broke America,” its author David Brooks. It appeared in The Atlantic online edition on August 2, 2021. To puchase Salamgundi #214-215 which contains the full symposium or to subscribe to Salmagundi, please visit the shop on our homepage.
It was November 21, 2016, Day 13 of the new reality. I was reeling, like everyone else in my world (in our world, dear reader). The pieces were still falling from the sky. I didn’t buy the prevailing explanation on the left side of the political spectrum, that Donald Trump’s election was all about America’s incorrigible racism—Democrats had long ignored the white working class, whose fortunes had been sinking for decades—but even I was stunned by something that I read that day. It was an article in the New York Times, reported from a barbershop in black Milwaukee. Of the four men cutting hair that day, two hadn’t voted, one had written in the name of Bernie Sanders, and one had written in his own. A customer had lodged a protest vote for Trump. Another had voted for Hillary Clinton, but with a sense of resignation. “You can reason with them all day long,” he remarked about liberal Democrats, “but they think they know it all. They want to have control. That they know what’s best for ‘those people.’”
The Democrats were not just out of touch with Republican voters, I realized; they were out of touch with their own voters. They weren’t just disconnected from the white working class; they were disconnected from the non-white working class (and the middle class, no doubt, as well). They had no idea what was going on in this country, and no idea that they had no idea.
Two months later, on Inauguration Day, Jane Fonda appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher. The host posed a question on everyone’s lips: how could a majority of white women have voted for Trump? “That’s complicated,” Fonda replied. “I don’t think we’ve figured it all out yet. I don’t quite understand it.” No doubt. Around the same time, Rebecca Solnit published an essay in the London Review of Books that purported to provide an answer. There are a lot of women in this country—the ones in the red parts, implicitly—for whom, she said, it isn’t safe to think feminist thoughts.
Fonda is a smart person, and Solnit is a brilliant one—which makes what seems to me their utter missing of the point particularly telling. They assume that every woman is going to identify as a woman as the primary element of her self-conception (because they do), that that identity will dictate specific political choices (theirs), and that the only reasons someone wouldn’t so identify and so choose are either I don’t know (Fonda), false consciousness (Solnit), or racism (progressives more broadly). But let’s try to imagine a representative female Trump supporter. Let’s posit that she lives in a small town in the middle of the country, that she is a churchgoing Christian and therefore pro-life, that she belongs to a gun-owning family, that her son or brother or husband (or she herself) is a military veteran, that she didn’t go to college, and that she is a member of the working class. That gives her about eight points of identification any or all of which are likely more important to her than her sex, at least when it comes to her political behavior, that incline her to vote for Republicans, and that set her against—indeed, that make her justly feel reviled by—the elites who dominate the Democratic Party. In other words, the Democratic Party, and the class whose political expression it’s become, have given her at least eight reasons to believe that they hate her. Do we really think her sex is going to trump all that? Are we really so surprised she doesn’t vote with us?
As for why she doesn’t identify as a feminist, it is true, as Solnit says, that feminism is forever being demonized and distorted in this country, but it is also true that the two forms of feminism that are mainly on offer these days are the lean-in/girlboss/Sheryl Sandberg kind and the radical/Rebecca Solnit kind, and that neither is likely to hold much appeal for, is even speaking to, individuals who lie outside that same elite. Which means that even if our representative female Trump supporter did identify primarily as a woman, the progressive establishment would not know how to mobilize that identity—in plainer language, would not know how to talk to her or win her over, for the simple reason that, as with those men in Milwaukee, it has no idea who she is or what she wants.
So much for 2016. Four years later, it was clear that nothing had been learned. Trump improved his showing among women, gays, African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos. Progressive elites, still incapable of imagining their way into the experience of anyone beyond their well-upholstered bubble, had nothing to offer by way of explanation other than the usual identitarian arguments. White women identify with the patriarchy. Gay white men are just white men at this point. Asians are white-adjacent. Black voters who supported Trump had internalized the point of view of the oppressor. Especially confounding were the results among Latinos. Latinos are supposed to be the great salvation of progressive hopes, the cavalry that’s riding to the demographic rescue. So why were they drifting away? After all—and this appeared to have been the principal basis upon which the Democrats had sought to appeal to them—kids in cages. Kids in cages! Kids in cages! The phrase was intoned like a magic formula, and was felt to be dispositive.
But here’s the thing. Nobody cares about kids in cages—I mean really cares, cares enough to do something more than yell “kids in cages!” If the progressive political class had bothered to ask Latino voters what they do care about, the answer would surely have been: the same things as everyone else. The economy, healthcare, education, public safety—in other words, their own problems. They might also have discovered that many of them, maybe most of them, identify not as Latinos, per se, but as Americans; that many do not see themselves as marginalized or discriminated against; that the legal immigrants among them love this country, as immigrants typically do; and that those who came here legally resent those who did not (which may be why by far the biggest swing among those voters happened along the southern border). Indeed, two days after the election,Isvett Verde made some of these exact points in an op-ed column in the New York Times. “Latinos, like all Americans,” she wrote, “are motivated by the issues that affect them directly.” What’s more, she explained, there actually are no Latinos (a term created by the white elite) and certainly no “Latino voters” or “Latino issues.” There are Mexicans, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans—distinct cultures, histories, political traditions. Mainly, there are individuals. Verde, an immigrant, has gone, in her self-conception, from Cuban, to Cuban-American, to simply American.
I write this in November 2021, in the wake of yet another electoral fiasco. Again, the same alibis, the same determined ignorance. “Virginia showed that white supremacy is alive and well.” No, Virginia showed that parents are worried that their children’s schools, like the culture at large, are being taken over by an ideology that no one voted for. I often think of something that Mike Huckabee would say to evangelical audiences when he was running for president. “I’m not coming to you,” he’d say, “I’m coming from you.” Unless the Democrats start coming, not to the parts of the country they’ve neglected or taken for granted (though that would be a start), but from them, then 2022 will look a lot like 2021, and so will 2024, and 2025, and 2026…
Thus far I have brought together two of David Brooks’s observations—that the educated elite has come to dominate the Democratic Party, and that it is the most socially parochial group in America—and explored the political consequences of that conjunction. Not every elite, it should be said, is so disconnected from the society around them. The conservative elite, it’s pretty clear, in fact, is not—a circumstance I attribute to the importance of evangelical churches, which serve as conduits from the grassroots to the party leadership, within the Republican coalition, as well as to the fact that businesspeople, unlike academics and opinion journalists, have to stay in touch with reality, in the form of consumer demand, or risk extinction. Also, they’re not snobs. But the disconnection of the blue elite, it seems to me, is more than sociological. It is, at bottom, psychic: a disconnection from their own reality, as well.
I think back again to the aftermath of 2016, this time to a different cultural artifact, the opening of Saturday Night Live on the second weekend after the election. There was good old Alec Baldwin, doing his familiar Trump routine: the jutting lips, the apelike stance. I laughed, but as I laughed I thought, how pathetic we are. They seize power with remorseless cunning, and all we can do is soothe ourselves with bedtime stories. The late-night political satirists, the standups, the Twitter wits, the speeches at the Oscars: what are these but an endless series of hollow rhetorical triumphs, the imaginative compensations of the losers?
But that is not the worst of it. Blue-state culture acts to reinforce the illusion, so well described by David Brooks, that the educated elite remains an insurgency within society. That we are part of “the resistance.” That it’s still the 1960s, and we’re still speaking truth to the powerful, still doing battle against the establishment. Of course, we are the powerful; we are the establishment. But we’ve backed ourselves into a moral corner where we can’t acknowledge that reality. America is evil, our catechism teaches us: capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal, white supremacist, cisheterosexist. But what if we are America? What if the people in charge of the system, the corrupt, oppressive system—indeed, who clawed their meritocratic way into the leadership class of that system—are us? Such thoughts, so obvious and yet so impermissible, perforce create an intolerable psychic dissonance. We must disavow, disavow, disavow: disavow not only our position in America, but America itself. Disavow the Founders; disavow Lincoln; disavow Columbus, Thanksgiving, the flag; disavow borders and national interests. “America,” for us, is NASCAR, guns, McDonald’s. “Americans” are fat, lazy, and stupid. Has there ever been another elite that repudiated the very country it led? We may not see ourselves for what we are, but everybody else does: hypocrites.
In Not for Profit, Martha Nussbaum discusses projective disgust, the process by which unacceptable parts of the self are repudiated and displaced. Projective disgust is at work, for example, when elite college students inveigh against their institution’s slaveholding past while continuing to reap its benefits. If they really wanted to cleanse themselves of that pollution, they would insist the institution give away a commensurate portion of its endowment, at whatever cost to financial aid, instructional quality, and institutional prestige. (They could also transfer, God forbid, to a state university.) And they would protest just as hard against their institution’s current financial entanglements—its investments in companies that exploit their workers, despoil the earth, and collude with autocracies—, the crimes that are being committed right now, in the present, on an ongoing basis, to provide for their comfort and advancement. But it’s easier to yell about a statue.
It seems no accident to me that wokeness began to emerge, around 2013, in the wake of the Occupy movement. Occupy returned the issue of economic inequality to the center of our public discourse, where it hadn’t been for decades—hadn’t been, that is, throughout the rise of the meritocratic elite. Now that elite was being called to account: for its self-enrichment, for engineering the mechanisms of its self-perpetuation. Wokeness, in that context, was a way not only to change the subject, but to restore to that elite its precious sense of moral superiority. We’re not oppressors, we could tell ourselves; we’re liberators. We’re not selfish; we’re righteous.
So why, for the liberal elite—the creative class, the bobos—is such a sense of superiority so necessary in the first place? Why isn’t it enough for them to have their handsome incomes, their status and prestige, their cultural and social power? Yet perhaps that’s precisely the problem. For people who believe, or need to believe they believe, in equality, in fairness, in “social justice,” privilege is awkward. How do you justify it? How can you assuage your guilty conscience? Claim that you deserve more because you work harder? That sounds Republican. Claim that you deserve it because you’re smarter? That sounds arrogant as well as arbitrary, an accident of birth. But claim that you’re just better? That’s the ticket. That puts the “merit” in meritocracy.
David Brooks calls for a transformation of our moral ecology (a call with which I agree) in order to transform the way we sort ourselves for status and success (a goal with which I also agree). In other words, he is calling for the meritocracy to overcome itself for the good of the country, as the WASP aristocracy did before them in the middle of the 20th century, an act that gave us, among other things, the college admissions process as we know it now, and thus the meritocracy itself. But the WASP aristocrats were brought up to the notion of self-sacrifice—of stewardship, of leadership, of honor, duty, country. Today’s elite is brought up to ambition, self-dealing, and self-promotion. It lacks the moral resources for self-overcoming. It will not step aside, and if it won’t it will be swept aside. The bill is coming due, and we have only just begun to pay.
William Deresiewicz is author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, The Death of the Artist and the forthcoming The End of Solitude: Selected Essays on Culture and Society, out in August of 2022. His work has appeared in Atlantic, Harper’s, The American Scholar, and many other publications. Our Spring-Summer 2021 issue contains a long interview with him.