The past decade has had the feel of a very good party. The economy is in its tenth year of expansion, and no one wants to see it end.
It is against the backdrop of today’s unprecedented prosperity that David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, has written Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Brooks describes the ideology, manners, and morals of the elite segment of society that dominates government, business, and academia today. He has produced a very readable and enjoyable book, but one that suffers from a few flaws.
Brooks begins by noting that this new upper class did not simply emerge in the past few years. Rather, it has been a generation in the making, with its roots in the great transformation of American higher education that took place in the 1950s and 1960s.
Relying on data compiled by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve, Brooks documents how in the early 1950s most students at Harvard and other Ivy League Schools were from affluent families. The average verbal SAT score for incoming freshmen at Harvard in 1952 was 583. By 1960, the average verbal SAT score for incoming freshman at Harvard was 678. In a very short period of time, elite higher education in America changed from the preserve of the privileged to those who possessed natural talent and ambition.
This was a natural consequence of America’s wealth—an affluence that had its origins in the 1920s, but was put on hold in the 1930s and 1940s by the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1920s, fewer than 10 percent of Americans attended college. With return of prosperity, enrollments rose dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s.
Brooks argues that this new system of merit can be seen in other places in society. He notes the New York Times wedding pages that once touted a bride’s debutante history and the groom’s club membership. Today the Times emphasizes academic achievement and professional success.
For Brooks, the elites of the Information Age are fascinating because they seemingly defy traditional labels. Traditional divisions between the bourgeois—the old-style “organization man”—and the bohemian—embodied by the 1960s anti-war and social activists—no longer seem to apply. After four years abroad in the early 1990s, he was struck upon his return to America that most elites seemed to have embraced both the bourgeois values of the “Reagan Revolution” and the bohemian values of the 1960s counterculture, hence his term “Bobo,” or “bourgeois bohemian.” In other words, the elites pursue serious career aspirations and seek to make a great deal of money, but continually try to appear socially conscious, tolerant, and laid back.
Brooks is at his best describing the Bobos. He knows where they live, and describes them with a keen attention to detail and a sense of humor.
He cites the research of sociologist Alan Wolfe, whose 1998 book, One Nation, After All, concluded that upper-middle-class Americans value religion but are unwilling to allow it precedence over pluralism. Brooks writes:
This tolerance and respect for diversity leads to a style of faith that is radically anti-contentious . . . . This is a morality, in other words, that doesn’t try to preach atop the high ground of divine revelation . . . . Instead, it is content with the workable and peaceful oases on the lower ground. It follows the path of least resistance between the two hills.
Indeed, “following the path of least resistance” is the modus operandi of much of elite America today. When attacked by critics, business leaders do not respond with a vigorous defense. Instead, they often buy off critics with charitable donations in order to appease them. It simply takes more time, energy, and effort to challenge critics, than to make partnerships with them. And in times of prosperity, businesses can certainly afford to do so—something that the critics certainly understand.
Most visibly, we see this non-confrontation in our politics. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have pioneered the concept of a “Third Way.” Such politics are said to transcend the conventional Left-Right political divide. Bill Clinton has spoken of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, and of “mending, but not ending affirmative action.” He once said of his view of using force in the Gulf War, “I agreed with the minority, but I would have voted with the majority.”
Near the end of the book, Brooks urges elites to reinvigorate public affairs. He errs, however, when he writes:
For Americans to become engaged once again in public life and proud of their public institutions . . . [the Bobos] have to assume a leadership role. They are the best-educated segment of society and among the most affluent, and yet by and large they have not devoted their energies to national life. Obviously, Bobos work in government and politics, but the public arena hasn’t become a focus of attention for the educated class as a whole.
This is flat-out wrong.
Almost from the beginning, the 1960s generation has acted as if it were the enlightened guardians of society. They have had a profound faith in government and have aggressively lobbied for its expansion. It was the smug self-confidence of the 1960s generation that led to the break with the path of steady, but slow, social progress that was opening up more and more opportunity for all Americans. Unfortunately, much of elite America has never had to sacrifice or endure a severe recession or depression, and as a consequence they are unfamiliar with the concepts of scarcity and trade-offs. The Bobos want it all—great jobs and a toned down version of 1960s politics. So long as the party continues, they’ll be able to have both.
Damon Vangelis is a program officer at the John M. Olin Foundation.