I’m Facebook friends with a woman who has been in Democratic Party politics since we attended high school together. Since then, she’s worked for power politicians, (unsuccessfully) run for office, and played a central role in the public takedown of an elected official. She has a degree from an Ivy League institution, as does her husband, who works in finance. Hers is the quintessential lifestyle of the urban elites.
And boy, do I mean elite. There are vacations to Italy and the UK, foodstagramming at prominent eateries and bars in major cities, shows on Broadway, and weekend excursions to country estates. There’s the constant churn of attendance at upper-crust city events at beautiful historic locations. And that’s just since the economy started tanking earlier this year.
Her life is also quite activist. After the leak of the draft Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, she proudly displayed a photo of herself wearing an “Abortion is Normal” T-shirt. She participates in pro-choice rallies and pride parades. Her social media is littered with the customary lefty commentary on racism, climate change, homophobia, transphobia, and every other alleged mental illness of which conservatives allegedly suffer. She proudly shares how she is raising her elementary school-aged daughter — an impressive liberal activist in her own right — to champion the same sentiments and causes.
Yet things aren’t always easy for my old classmate. She’s made enemies in the Democratic Party. She recently posted about the many people who tried to “destroy” her during a recent public scandal. She regularly reminds her followers that she, like so many of them, is a victim — a victim of the patriarchy, of bigotry, of sexism, of racism and white supremacy (she’s white, but her husband and child are not). Those old white men ruin everything…except her dad who was in the military. He’s cool, and a good rhetorical prop to cite on social media for Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to #supportourtroops. “That’s politics, Baby!”
The woman is, in sum, the perfect encapsulation of our urban establishment elites. She is what Christopher Caldwell calls, in his book The Age of Entitlement, one of the “winners,” who has attended the right schools, secured the right jobs, lives in the right neighborhoods, and holds to the right opinions. The global economy works for her and her family, and she has learned to navigate the language of wokeism and grievance with a deftness and dexterity that portends future political success.
But this culture has profound tensions.
Perhaps most obviously, her life (and that of her family) is unattainable for an increasing number of her fellow American citizens. Even before the latest economic downturn, the middle class was shrinking and a record number of Americans were relying on the government for housing, food, income, student aid, and other assistance. Americans are racking up consumer and school debt at record rates, losing their savings, and being laid off in growing numbers.
My high school classmate has made attacking the fossil fuel industry a centerpiece of her public political agenda (how to square that with regular trans-Atlantic excursions is not a struggle for her). Yet most Americans, many of whom can’t afford gas prices that are at record highs, don’t have the luxury of living a “clean energy life.” Then again, as a metropolitan, she doesn’t have to worry so much about prices at the pump.
There’s also the tensions associated with victimhood. It is a game everyone, or at least everyone seeking to advance themselves in our leading institutions, must learn to play. Thankfully, there is an ever-metastasizing list of victim categories one can choose from, spanning not only race and ethnicity, but sex, gender, and class, among other things. There’s something for everyone! Admittedly, sometimes that can get tricky when one victimhood category castigates another — see the whole “white women’s tears” dustup of years past.
It’s also a bit more complicated when the people claiming victimhood status sit comfortably and confidently atop our premier institutions, from government to big business to the academy to the entertainment industry. My high school classmate enjoys the blessings of three of those four! Nevertheless, our managerial elite “anywheres” tell us it is they, not those deplorable proles in Appalachia, who are the victims of our modern global economy. Have you seen what they are charging for ethically sourced chocolate?
How can people like my high school classmate reconcile these narratives? We can certainly speculate. Many have insulated themselves from their political opponents, no longer viewing them simply as adversaries across the aisle, but contemptible enemies to be crushed (that, I’d willingly admit, is a problem among some on the right, as well). I still remember a few brief exchanges with my old classmate in a junior year introductory philosophy course. Since then her world has been entirely one of liberal institutions and ideology. I wonder how many times she’s had her beliefs questioned. The fact that so much of the pro-choice rhetoric since the Dobbs court leak has focused on an alleged “theocracy” — despite the proliferation of non-religious arguments by the Court and pro-life groups — shows how little people are capable of fairly and dispassionately considering alternative opinions.
There’s also a certain mentality that comes with being a member of the aristocracy, as Joel Kotkin labels our establishment class in his book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism. When you are a member of the elite, the rules start to bend if they apply at all. It becomes possible to rail against systemic, institutional racism, even if those institutions and meritocratic standards are the very means by which you achieved your status and success. It becomes possible to condemn the very same police that protect your penthouse apartment or posh suburban community from criminals. It becomes possible to declare the need for radical social and economic engineering, as long as your own children still have advantages over everyone else.
None of this is all that new. It’s well cataloged in Tom Wolfe’s brief but brilliant Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, in which members of 1970s New York high society glory in the excitement of welcoming members of the Black Panthers into their exclusive soirées. Bankers and academics munch little Roquefort cheese morsels in crushed nuts and sip their luxury cocktails while congratulating themselves for their progressive attitudes on race and sex. They have lived to operate in the worlds of affluence and activism. In 2022, the two align quite seamlessly. And yet people still scratch their heads at the intensity of antipathy towards the urban nobility.