Social Inequality Between Elites and Non-Elites

The elitism / populism issue is one of the richest themes right now in American politics.

1. David Brooks on Charlie Rose a few days ago touched on it, at around minute 10:14. Until 1964 college educated and non-college educated families were basically the same: voting rates were the same, divorce rates were the same, volunteer rates the same. That's changed. Now, college educated couples have half the divorce rates of high school graduate couples. College educated people trust government more. So in terms of lifestyle and social attitudes the differences are greater.

The economics differ too — educated folks make a lot more money now than before because there's a premium paid to those who can use their head over hands — but the promise of American democracy, according to Micky Kaus, was never economic equality but rather social equality. Douthat: "It's social equality, defined less by money than by manners and mores, that we're in danger of losing – social equality that's undercut both by the struggles of the working class and by the worship of success that defines too much of elite life." To be sure, the thickness of your wallet affects manners and mores.

Either way, America today can be sliced into two parts: the vast majority of citizens with high school diplomas or a little bit more, and then the 28% of the people who have bachelor's degrees. These two groups self-segregate in where they choose to live, who they choose to marry, what kind of media they consume, and how they relate to society's institutions. To enter either world from the other side is becoming an increasingly foreign experience.

2. Brooks says Obama needs to get out more and interact with "the people." (By that he means the non-coastal folks.) I'm never understood how this is supposed to happen, especially since it is a massive ordeal anytime the President physically travels somewhere. Does a two hour staged visit to a small town in South Dakota give him insight he doesn't otherwise have about their state of mind?

3. Michael Kinsley, who now writes for The Atlantic, writes a post in support of Jacob Weisberg's column blaming the country's problems on the "childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large." Kinsley says "the people" really are dumb and ignorant, and to have faith in their "bedrock of common sense" — as Charles Krauthammer would like — is actually more condescending than just calling a spade a spade. Arnold Kling analyzes the exchange.

17 comments on “Social Inequality Between Elites and Non-Elites
  • What if it wasn’t a two-hour staged visit to a small South Dakota town? What if, instead, it was four hours having in impromptu unscripted dinner with a truly randomly selected family from, say, rural Wisconsin? And what if that random selection were repeated once a month for twelve months, all across the US? Dinner with the family in South Central LA, in rural Northern New Mexico, etc.

    I realize the costs of this would be enormous, at least for Obama. (Not so much for other politicians). But I also wonder if the benefits might be even more enormous. Might be a fun thing to start a not-for-profit to do – arrange a meeting with a random constituent!

  • It would be interesting to see the results. I guess I'm skeptical that
    anything less than sustained period of time with a family, say, would offer
    more insight than what he already knows and can read in reports. Ie, I'm not
    sure one four hour dinner teaches him much more. At some point — 20 hours?
    40 hours? with a family — he gains insights beyond what he has.

  • I suspect it would depend a lot on the politician. Some would learn a lot even in a brief spell, others might learn little. Having some introductory facilitation might help. As you say, longer periods would likely be more useful.

  • Would you please define “elite” and “non-elite?” I think these terms are a moving target, for you and others, and a convenient tool to support other beliefs you hold.

    I think liberals are really struggling to understand the Tea Party movement, and it’s even more disturbing off-shoot, the Birther movement, and that one way of trying to get some insight is to view it through the lens of social class. That’s not going to hold up under scrutiny, but it makes for a coherent argument — just like the argument that a lack of economic opportunity foments radical jihadism, another opinion that isn’t supported by the facts. I was watching a Noam Chomsky interview on recently, and he draws parallels to Weimar Germany: fascists gained widespread support not through the lower classes but through the disaffected middle class. Just as suicide bombers and radical jihadists come from the ranks of the highly-educated and affluent, the most disruptive of the conservative revolutionaries in the US right now seem to be well-educated and economically stable — certainly college-educated and white-collar.

  • "the most disruptive of the conservative revolutionaries in the US right now
    seem to be well-educated and economically stable — certainly
    college-educated and white-collar." – Do you have any proof or deeper
    anecdotal evidence of this? I don't know who the "conservative
    revolutionaries" are, but we if look at the Sarah Palin revolution, I do not
    think her wide legion of supporters are well-educated and white collar.

    At the basic level an elite equals someone in the minority of a group. In
    this case we're talking about college educated people (a minority of

  • The Brooks piece is far and away the most fascinating for me since concretizes the divide that Facebook and MySpace made apparent (fleetingly as Facebook consumes all social networking). I worked a year with dozens of temp employees under me (I had to constantly fire the unproductive ones), and it was a window into another world. Differences that I would have otherwise ascribed to cultural background or economic status were better explained by a educational chasm.

    Re: Weisberg/Kinsley: I find it irritating that he only wants the lower class to be poor in specific ways. It’s ignorance–rank ignorance, I tell you!–when people reject the healthcare overhaul, but rejection of efforts to reform the unquestionably doomed Social Security system is…well, we don’t know because I don’t recall Kinsley or Weisberg discussing the point at the time.

    I do reject the conservative thesis that ‘Mericans still have gumption and good old fashioned horse sense. Balls. We are a very different nation than we have been, see Brooks, and we can’t fall back on “thus it has ever been” as an excuse.

    Final point: Obama can’t meet the people now. That has to happen earlier, and organically. You have to seek a job or experience (volunteer as a career counselor at a city college, for instance) that requires you meet people across class and economic divides. I can’t remember if it’s you or Charlie Hoehn that’s always talking about meeting lots of people early on. That’s true outside of networking and famous people. It’s good to meet people who are going to struggle to get by, because it helps you understand why.

    I wonder if this function wasn’t served by local organizations at one time: you met guys in the Elks lodge from all different walks. Alternatively, I don’t think we should underestimate the significance “discriminatory effect” challenges to credential tests: college has become a massively inefficient substitute for proficiency tests in all sorts of industries (Charles Murray has a lot of good things on this point).

  • “You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue… I do not wish to be mixed up and confused with these preachers of equality. For, to me justice speaks thus: ‘Men are not equal.’ Nor shall they become equal!”
    – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

  • Based only on anecdotal information, it also seems that many “high-school only” folks (particularly in groups) also halted their emotional development at the same time as they ended their education. It would be interesting to get real data on this.

  • A minority is not an elite. Black people are a minority. In previous posts, you defined elite as being graduates of Ivy League colleges, then backed away from that. I certainly agree that people with a college degree are a minority, but I don’t understand what you think makes them an elite.

    Start with Ben McGrath “The Movement” in The New Yorker 2/1/10 for Tea Party demographics.

    The independents who voted Scott Brown into office are among the “conservative revolutionaries” I’m referring to, along with Glenn Beck’s listeners. Conservative insurgents may be a better term.

    I don’t know what the “Sarah Palin revolution” is. She entered office as a reformer and left as a celebrity; she lost the one national election she participated in. What revolution is that? I don’t think of her as a viable candidate anymore than I think of Oprah as a viable candidate. Her base of support is clearly broad, but what are they supporting? Independents in an overwhelming Democratic district taking a Senate seat away from Democrats: that is a revolution.

    The argument that Obama, or the Democrats, are “out of touch” with the “average American” is a tricky one. It’s mostly an opinion, and it has the hallmarks of a manufactured opinion, which is probably why it’s being made so loudly. If the “average American” believes that fiscal stimulus during the worst recession since the Great Depression is the same as “out-of-control spending,” is the best path forward really a listening tour? If the average American complains about a $700 billion stimulus package at the same time they say Obama isn’t focusing enough on “jobs,” is “interaction” with the “average American” a good idea? This is a PR war.

  • Show me where I "backed away" from Ivy League college statement — they are
    an elite, too, they they are not the *only* kind of elite.

    An elite always is a minority. A minority is not always an elite, I agree.
    Elites tend to have disproportionate power or influence. College grads are a
    minority with disproportionate power. There are varying minority groups that
    fit this bill.

    This particular post could have been titled "Social Inequality Btwn Educated
    and Non-Educated," but "elite" implies a broader set of differences between
    the two groups. As I wrote, education begets other differences in manners
    and mores.

    I disagree with your analysis of Sarah Palin.

    I may not understand your last paragraph, but to the extent you are equating
    the $700 billion stimulus as the same as "focus on jobs," I also disagree
    with that analysis.

  • David Brooks says, “The people who try to divide it [politics] on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists.”

    I admit to sharing Matt Taibbi’s feeling that David Brooks looks like a professional groveler/ass-kisser.

    Trying to cast Obama as an ivory-tower elitist who has no idea what it’s like to get out and sweat with the common folk is beyond disingenuous, considering Obama’s life story till he was twenty.

    Brooks saying that Obama needs to get out more and interact with “the people” is Palinesque in its brazen cynicism and arrogance.

    It’s political propaganda that Brooks should have kept sequestered on the pages of Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, where he belongs.

    And the ill-educated idiots in Sarah Palin’s and Glen Beck’s pseudo-populist legion of supporters are certainly being used by the ruling class of the right who are their real oppressors.

    Social ‘equality’ is an evolving concept and an unrealized ideal in the US since the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson wrote the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

    Ross Douthat says: “It’s social equality, defined less by money than by manners and mores, that we’re in danger of losing…”.

    There is not now, and never has been, social equality, in any sense, in the United States.

    You say, Ben, “Until 1964 college educated and non-college educated families were basically the same…”

    How could this be when Blacks were still disenfranchised from voting in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965?

    American exceptionalism is a myth– the US and that racist windbag David Brooks have no justification for lecturing anyone on the subject of social equality.

  • "Trying to cast Obama as an ivory-tower elitist who has no idea what it's
    like to get out and sweat with the common folk is beyond disingenuous,
    considering Obama's life story till he was twenty." – But the last 20 years
    have hardly been common-folk for him. He's been in the tower a very long
    time. And now the White House — doesn't get more insular than that.

    "You say, Ben, "Until 1964 college educated and non-college educated
    families were basically the same…"" Perhaps the qualification should be
    WHITE families….

    Calling Brooks a racist windbag is excessive.

  • It might be excessive in this context, but I thought the screed he wrote at the NYT while bodies were still buried in the rubble of Haiti was excessive.

    For a privileged white elite to hector suffering and grieving black people in the depths of their agony with phrases like “programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism” left a very bad taste in my mouth.

  • After reading the views-split-right-down-the-middle, I feel the real issue is not Elitism V. Populism as much as it’s about seeking what’s the best cultural construct for effective functional administration.

    I somehow think it’s gonna take years of repair work to get the world out of the mess in which it finds itself thanks to nutty creeps that drive secret agendas wearing caps of a CIA or ISI that are touted as fact finding intelligence agencies but in effect which have the singular task of driving elected governments to fulfill their dubious missions (Does anyone think if Obama came ahead of Bush, the Iraq war wouldn’t have happened?).

    When things go bad, the buck stops at the seat of the incumbent government dragging the citizenry into pointless debates as the one we are engaged in now.

  • First of all, thanks for the shout out to South Dakota. We really are common, average, decent ‘Mericans, so long as you don’t go anywhere near our legislature.

    But what would be gained from this meeting? Likely, he would have a mediocre, carb-heavy, vegetable light, meal and would talk to people stunned into silence. Even if pressed to get over the fact that they were having the President for dinner, they would likely spout talking points (i.e. their political crib sheets) and generally display an unnuanced perspective of issues Obama thinks about every day. At best he would learn two things: 1) “How they live” by gathering information from visual, non-verbal cues and 2) “Their big problems/concerns” by a combination of visual and verbal cues. At worst, whichever staffer picked the lucky family will have succeeded in swaying Obama to think about “real Americans” in a way that conforms to the staffer’s world view, but not necessarily a representative American family.

    The bottom line is that in order to be a politician, you must be elite. If you can’t talk, write, or speak correctly (much less dress/appear correctly) you will not be elected. Unfortunately for the social welfare function we have implicitly chosen in this discussion (some brand of utilitarianism), the chances of a politician successfully removing herself from the context of her elite upbringing to understand the wants/needs of the common man while at the same time knowing what is best for the common man are most certainly low.

    Finally (or not), our implicitly utilitarian social welfare function could start an entirely new conversation…

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