A Kinder, Gentler Overclass
David Brooks, the author of Bobos in Paradise, explains why bourgeois bohemians are here to stay.
In the fifties and sixties, Brooks explains, the Protestant establishment fell victim to a new meritocratic ethos which, thanks to the educational-testing movement, began conferring status according to educational achievement rather than inherited wealth and breeding. Although many of the bright Baby Boomers who gained access to top schools initially scorned wealth, these well-educated idealists often became rich in spite of themselves, as the information economy began lavishly rewarding their knowledge and education. In the nineties, these newly well-off antimaterialists found ways to reconcile their unexpected wealth with their high-minded ideals. The result, Brooks writes, is a new upper class whose "grand achievement" has been the creation of "a way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirit rebel."
Bobos lavish their money not on luxuries, but on necessities like kitchens and bathrooms, splurging on Corian countertops, slate shower stalls, and stainless steel refrigerators. The most popular Bobo leisure-time pursuits are strenuous or edifying (like hiking or ecotourism) rather than hedonistic. And Bobo job offers (even in the business world) claim to hold out potential for personal growth and self-discovery. Brooks dissects this new Bobo lifestyle with perceptive humor:
To calculate a person's status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes. A zero in either column means no prestige, but high numbers in both rocket you to the top of the heap. Thus, to be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to perform a series of feints to show how little your worldly success means to you.... You will devote your conversational time to mocking your own success in a manner that simultaneously displays your accomplishments and your ironic distance from them. You will ceaselessly bash yuppies in order to show that you yourself have not become one. You will talk about your nanny as if she were your close personal friend, as if it were just a weird triviality that you happen to live in a $900,000 Santa Monica house and she takes the bus two hours each day to the barrio.
While it is doubtful that many readers will see themselves in every aspect of Boboism as described by Brooks, few will make their way through the book without flashes of self-recognition.
Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek, and a commentator on NPR and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He recently spoke with me by telephone.
Bobos in Paradise shrewdly describes the peculiarities of American elites of the 1990s, just as Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class addressed the elites of the 1890s. And your playfully descriptive approach to your subject (which you call "comic sociology") is reminiscent of Paul Fussell's insightful and humorous depiction of American class distinctions in his book Class (1983). Did these, or any other works, inform choices you made in writing Bobos in Paradise?
I read both books, and I actually mentioned both of them in my proposal. But neither of them were quite like my book. Fussell's is too nasty for my taste. He's sort of acerbic about every class except for his own—the university class—which he called the "X Class."
As for Veblen's book, critics have taken it as satirical, but he said he meant it as a serious work of sociology. I think it's a great book and something I learned a lot from. But I didn't aspire to go quite as deep as he did.
No books are exactly like mine—most sociologists don't try to tell jokes, and most comedy writers don't have pretensions the way I do. But there are a bunch of books from the late fifties and early sixties, like The Establishment, by Digby Baltzell, and The Status Seekers, by Vance Packard, that are more in the vein of what I was trying.
What I admire about writers from that time is that they weren't overly specialized: you felt free to theorize and put out your ideas about everything. Now the careerism of academia has taken over, and the etiquette is that one has to stick to one's own little furrow.
If you had to pick a male and a female Bobo posterchild for 2000, who would they be?
On the male side, I think you'd have to choose Bill Gates, who dresses like a grad student but turns out to be this ruthless businessman.
And for a woman, I think you can't do better than Hillary Clinton, because she marched in the sixties and traded currencies in the eighties, and she has a full stock of countercultural, progressive attitudes mixed with down-home ambition.
You mention that you first took notice of Bobo ascendance upon returning from a four-year stint in Europe. Is there something distinctly American about Boboism, or are European elites showing signs of Boboism as well?
I thought it was American when I wrote the book, but since then I've had calls and seen newspaper stories from all around the world saying, "It's just the same way here!" I've heard that from Japan and Sweden, and there have been about ten stories in the British press, and big stories in Brazil and Argentina. In the Parisian context they say there's a merging of the Left Bank and the Right Bank.
I always thought our business class was much more anti-intellectual than the others, so I thought the merger of commerce and art would be more striking here. But people abroad tell me they see the same sorts of patterns everywhere.
You point out that "Norman Podhoretz was practically burned alive for admitting in his 1967 memoir, Making It, that he, like other writers, was driven by ambition." Have you been criticized for writing so frankly about the jockeying for status that goes on in Bobo culture?
It's funny. I haven't received too many bitter attacks from anybody. Maybe from a few people who hate the Bobos and think I'm not tough enough, but from the Bobos themselves I've received two basic responses. One was typified by a woman who's got one of these massive kitchens and a beautiful McMansion. She called me and said, "This is so great that you're writing about these people. It's too bad we can't live that way!" And I felt like saying, "You are! You are, like, the epitome!" So there's the self-denial. But the more prevalent response is people who say they read it with some measure of pained embarrassment.
So do people invite you over and then not know whether to give you fava beans or Kool-Aid?
I get a lot people saying "My house is off the record" when I go over there. But my own house is so pathetic that I have no grounds on which to judge others.
Nicholas Lemann has written (in a 1996 Atlantic article), "Clearly a group of Americans exists that is affluent, highly educated, professional, and liberal. But the extent to which this group and 'the elite,' defined economically, are the same has been wildly exaggerated by people who have spent their lives in the liberal-professional subgroup. Most books about the elite make it sound like a clonally enlarged version of the population of the rarefied enclaves where the authors live: Manhattan, Cambridge, Palo Alto, and Washington, D.C., west of Rock Creek Park." Do you think that your perception of the educated elites has been magnified by living in Washington? How evenly is Bobo culture distributed?
Saying that it only prevails in places like Cambridge, Palo Alto, New York, and Washington strikes me as like saying, "You know, the Roman Empire wasn't powerful—it only prevailed in Europe and the Middle East." I mean, Cambridge, Washington, Palo Alto, and New York are pretty important parts of the country—the trend-setting parts of the country. So, no, it's not everywhere, but it's certainly prevalent.
And the other thing is that it's very hard to point to places that are Bobo-free. If you want to get away from it, maybe you could go to a stock-car race. But even there they probably serve wine or something. The cultural influence is so strong that it trickles down. In discount malls they now have chi-chi nature stores at cut-rate prices, and K-Mart and Target are now turning themselves into boutique-type places with knock-off Crate & Barrel stuff. So really, you have to go to the South Pole if you want to escape it.
You commend the intellectual culture of today for engaging with the mainstream rather than renouncing it in favor of lofty abstractions, as intellectuals did in the 1950s. What do you make of the contention (by such authors as Michael Janeway, in Republic of Denial, or James Fallows in Breaking the News) that, in this age of celebrity punditry, journalism is straying from serious consideration of the issues into mere grasping after money and celebrity?
Well there are some idiots who know nothing who go on MSNBC or Fox or CNN and mouth off. We all know who they are. And they tend not to write books. Or at least not books that anybody pays attention to.
But there are others who are more substantive. Jim Fallows worked in the White House, edited U.S. News—a mass magazine— and works for more highbrow magazines as well like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Somebody like him (or Nick Lemann or Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Doris Kearns Goodwin) is much more engaged in the marketplace and in political life than, say, Edmund Wilson was. Maybe those figures don't have the literary-critical monumentality of Edmund Wilson, but it seems to me that the life they're leading is exactly the sort of life that public intellectuals should lead.
You write that one of the defining aspects of Boboism is a noncommital attitude toward religion. If, as you say, Boboism holds a hegemonic position in American culture, does this mean that the Christian Right is less culturally and politically influential than is often imagined?
I think that was demonstrably true this year in the presidential primary campaign. Evangelical Christians have become more affluent and better-educated. Affluence has worked its magic on them; they've become softer and more forgiving. There's just less of a mood of anger and a feeling that all of society is going to hell. So the style of religious politics they go in for is not the angry Jerry Fallwell style, but the soft, lovey-dovey George W. Bush style.
You talk a lot about how the many different forms of bohemianism were essentially revolts against the bourgeois status quo. Do you think there is likely to be a revolt against Boboism? If so, what might it look like?
When I wrote the book proposal and sent it around to publishers, my last chapter was about the coming backlash. It made sense to me, because there's talk of widening income gaps, and there are certainly widening social gaps -- between the people who shop at a Restoration Hardware, for example, and the people who wouldn't get all the verbal references at a store like that, all those sly references to F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and such. But as I went around the country, I didn't find much social resentment.
Actually, I saw a woman get arrested at a Restoration Hardware in Palo Alto for yelling at some of the rich customers. She was yelling "You rich bitch!" and things like that. I thought, Here's real social resentment—here comes the revolution! But other than that incident I really didn't find much. What I did find was a society that doesn't resent the elites—that doesn't have a clear sense that some people are better than others. Everybody seems to belong to their own little clique. There's no sense of inferiority. And therefore no sense of resentment.
So does that mean that Boboism is here to stay?
I don't see anything toppling it. I don't see any mass populist revolt against it. What I do see is an elite that's very good at co-opting things. Marx said the most dangerous elites were the ones who could absorb the talented members of the oppressed classes. And thanks to admissions committees and outreach programs and things like that, Bobos are very good at absorbing talented people into their ranks. So I really see this group lasting and lasting and lasting.
So it's kind of like "The End of History" (as Francis Fukuyama would have it) for our culture?
Yes, this is the subtext of my whole book—the question of whether or not we've reached the end of history and it's all going to end in this tepid, boring, big kitchen. This is something I've been debating with friends -- whether Bobos can ever rouse themselves to do something heroic and lead more inspiring lives. Without much evidence, I hold the hope that they can.
Are you hoping for some kind of mass activism?
Well, in my fantasy world they'd get re-energized by patriotic national service of some sort or another. But having said that, I don't have any specific idea about what they should do with all this great fervor. There was a pioneer ideal for a long time in American history, a sense that America had a unique mission in the world, and that people made tremendous sacrifices for it. Now that sort of spiritedness has faded away.
Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira argue in America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters that politicians could profit from courting the 55 percent of the American electorate who "bear little resemblance to ... the suburban college-educated professionals we hear so much about." A recent New York Times article pointed out that labor has been regaining political power recently. Do you think that the working class is starting to have a resurgent influence?
Not a rising one. One reason is that despite the emergence of a more energetic union leadership, it still is true that union membership is going down and down and down. What's left is mainly government workers. And they don't have the same fervor or working-class roots as people who work in manufacturing. Also, the sociologist Alan Wolfe tells me there's not a whole hell of a lot of difference between the lower-middle class and the Bobos on the matter of politics. They're both basically centrist. And even though the Bobos may impose certain values that they hold dear—for example, that smoking is worse than five of the Ten Commandments—the lower middle classes, who actually smoke more, don't seem to work up arguments to defend themselves. They just sort of accept the judgment of polite society that smoking is evil. It's the same thing with the issue of guns. So I don't see any rise of the proletariat.
You write that the old order, in which only hereditary aristocrats could attain positions of great power, "drove ambitious climbers—like LBJ and Richard Nixon—nearly crazy with resentment." Now that we're living in the Bobo era of meritocracy, will we see the same kind of frustrated, warped political scheming on the part of well-bred WASPs with low SAT scores?
I wish. I went around looking for well-bred WASPs who would defend WASPdom, but they've internalized their own oppression and they don't. I mean, you could make a case that the world of John McCloy and Dean Acheson was a better world than we have now. I half considered making the case. But as a Jewish kid from New York it's not really my place to defend the people who would keep people like me out.
I noticed that the old WASP club chairs—the big leather chairs—are now sold by Restoration Hardware and Crate & Barrel as just another archaic remnant of a charming dead culture.
What role do you think the ubiquity of chain stores like Pottery Barn, The Gap, and Restoration Hardware, to the exclusion of most others, plays in creating the semblance of uniform tastes? Are the buyers Bobo or are they merely victims of Bobo designers?
One thing we're not hurting for is options. I think it's stronger to make the other charge, that we have too many options—especially with the Internet making it much easier to sample retailers and other things throughout the world.
Families used to have one toothpaste and now they have five because each member of the family likes a different brand. And big companies have found ingenious ways of segmenting themselves to meet diverse tastes. So I don't see us all marching in lockstep to get our identical dishware from Crate & Barrel.
You close the book by saying that if Bobos "raise their sights and ask the biggest questions, they have the ability to go down in history as the class that led America to another golden age." What do you think could coax Bobos' attention away from their slate shower stalls and their twenty-grain bread and into an examination of the "big questions"? Is there a politician who you think could unleash the Bobo potential to make significant contributions to the civic good?
I thought John McCain could. That was explicitly his appeal—that we have to think of something larger than our self-interest. He's not a Bobo, actually. He has some Bobo traits, but the best parts of him are representative of an old warrior ethic—an aristocratic ethic believing in sacrifice and honor and glory and all sorts of old-fashioned ideas like that. The fact that people responded to him as much as they did makes me think that it's a time of hunger for something more.
The most important thing happening in the world today is genetic engineering, which is about to take off. I think that will force us to confront some fundamental subjects. It could be that we'll just decide that whatever's going to avert disease is worth it. Or maybe we'll decide that there's something wrong with engineering human beings. Those are the fundamental sorts of questions that science, if it keeps moving, will force us to confront. We'll have to think about eternal things—whether God made us and whether we can play God.
You are a politically conservative writer and a senior editor at a conservative publication, yet Bobos in Paradise is not an overtly conservative book. In what ways (if at all) do your political views manifest themselves in the book?
The only way I think my political views may have influenced the book is that, being conservative, I accept that all societies are unequal. Seeing inequality—seeing an elite—doesn't drive me crazy. Being a conservative makes me a little more dispassionate in contemplating the upper classes. I'm not hotheaded, and I'm not resentful about the fact that some people have more money or more education than others.
Tom Wolfe, another trenchant observer of the American scene, eventually turned to writing novels. Have you considered someday turning to fiction?
Well, I've thought about it, and I hope to do it someday when I'm old. But basically, what I decided at a reasonably early age is that fifty years ago novels may have set off big debates about what we're like and how we live, but today novels don't do that. Novel-writing has become a little sect of people who go to creative-writing seminars and Iowa workshops, and somehow it doesn't seem to have as big or as furious an interaction with the rest of the world. What I'm trying to do in the book is exactly what novelists used to do, which is describe how we live now.