Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Two Elites, Two Anti-Elites

People talk a lot about elites these days. The Tea Party is supposed to be anti-elite, for instance, and it has created quite a stir. But not everybody means the same thing by the term.

Yes-answers to the following questions define one kind of elite:
1.     Do you own more than one home?
2.     Do you own a detached house with garden in town?
3.     Is somebody paid to drive you to work (in a car)?
4.     Do food and housing consume less than a quarter of your income?
5.     Do you have tax shelters or deferred income?

Yes-answers to the following define another kind of elite:
1.     Do you prefer live entertainment to TV?
2.     Do you own an iPhone?
3.     Do like restaurants that serve tiny portions for $30 each?
4.     Do you dislike beer, except when it comes from a local microbrewery?
5.     Do you like wine only when it’s from far away?
6.     Do you prefer $7 bread that is hard to chew?
Let’s call the first the economic elite, and the second the lifestyle elite. It’s pretty clear that the two are not highly correlated. People who live in the ritzy areas in town may have some of the habits of the lifestyle elite, but not necessarily because they like the things in question; the lifestyle elite are certainly not all rich.
Now, it seems that all the fuss in the US is about the lifestyle elite. Here is David Brooks, in Bobos in Paradise:
If you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity—your qualifications for being in the elite in the first place. [For a marriage ceremony] You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed up with Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church. You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. . . self-actualization is what educated existence is all about.
Clearly Brooks is talking about the lifestyle elites, and it is clear he is umm. . . upset with them.   
On the other hand, when Margaret Wente writes (in the Globe and Mail):
There’s another problem with the new über-elite (who are also mostly über-smart – you don’t get to run a zillion-dollar hedge fund if you’re dumb). The richer they get, the more out of touch. They only hang around with one another. They never ride the subway, and don’t know a single ordinary person, or even a semi-ordinary one. They’re also super-arrogant. They think they’ve got all the answers.
she is clearly thinking about the economic elite (though she is not upset by the wealth). The lifestyle elite tends to ride the subway.
Now here is a very strange thing about the current US mood. The kind of class rage that drove politics in Europe and parts of Asia in the middle of the last century is now redirected against the lifestyle elite. Well, there are certainly times when the lifestyle elite can be obnoxious--as when they talk about "fly-over states". But is there any other country in the world where, on the one hand, politicians are afraid to say they want to  raise taxes on incomes over $250,000 per year because to say this would lose them votes among lower middle class voters, and even among the unemployed, while at the same time you find admired public displays of rage like Brooks’s—directed against . . . wedding invitations?
It’s possible that this is just confusion—that some clever people like Brooks and Sarah Palin have found a way to rechannel class resentment so that it reacts against middle class behaviour. I don’t think so though. I think Americans just don’t like certain kinds of behaviour. They are upset by people who drink lattes. (In Canada, some like to play Starbucks off against Tim Hortons -- but I don't know that a lot of votes have swung one way or another based on this.) 
What’s is truly odd and inexplicable is this: how is it possible that something so ephemeral can become the engine of a potent political movement?