David Brooks is a perceptive and often hilarious social critic, as in his book Bobos In Paradise. Brooks has less background as a political analyst, but during the last Presidential campaign he put his sociological observations to work in columns like this one, titled “Bitter At the Top” and dated June 15, 2004. (The column is archived, and I don’t know whether it will be available to anyone else.) Brooks writes:
It’s been said that every society has two aristocracies. The members of the aristocracy of mind produce ideas, and pass along knowledge. The members of the aristocracy of money produce products and manage organizations. In our society these two groups happen to be engaged in a bitter conflict about everything from SUV’s to Presidents. You can’t understand the current bitter political polarization without appreciating how it is inflamed or even driven by the civil war within the educated class.
I think that last phrase is exactly right: there is, indeed, a civil war going on within America’s “educated class.” Brooks continues:
[T]he contest between these elite groups is often about culture, values and, importantly, leadership skills. What sorts of people should run this country? Which virtues are most important for a leader?
Again, it is hard for anyone who lived through the 2004 campaign to deny the truth of that observation. Brooks writes:
Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what might be called university skills….Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline.
Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.
Many people on each side bitterly resent it when members of the other group hold power. Members of the knowledge class tend to think that Republican leaders are simple-minded, uncultured morons. Members of the business class tend to think that Democratic leaders are decadent elitists.
The contest between rival elites certainly doesn’t explain everything about our politics. But with their overwhelming cultural and financial power, these elite groups do frame the choices the rest of the country must face. If not for the civil war within the educated class, this country would be far less polarized.
Those words certainly ring true. Brooks has pursued this same theme in other columns, including, more recently, this one, which again is archived, titled “A Short History of Deanism.” Brooks returns to the theme of a civil war within America’s elites, this time through the prism of the transition from multi-purpose, broad-based groups like Ralph Kramden’s “Raccoons” to the single-issue groups that dominate American politics today. Brooks writes that this kind of change “reshaped politics”:
Since the 1960’s there has been a breakdown in the machinery that allowed Americans to work together across class and other divisions. The educated class has come to dominate, and the issues of interest to that class overshadow issues of interest to the less educated and less well off.
But the two parties were affected unequally. The Republican coalition still contains some cross-class associations, like the N.R.A. and evangelical churches, which connect corporate elites to the middle class. The Democratic coalition has fewer organizations like that….Not coincidentally, Republicans have a much easier time putting together electoral majorities.
This kind of sociological analysis is by no means unique to David Brooks; other pundits have written about the emergence of the “new class” in America and other countries. But Brooks’s approach, with his references to a “civil war” within America’s “elites,” is eerily reminiscent of a much more exhaustive analysis of the state of American politics by our friend David Lebedoff, as most recently articulated in The Uncivil War: How a New Elite Is Destroying Our Democracy. I have no idea whether Brooks is familiar with David Lebedoff’s writings on these issues, which go back to 1978. But if you find Brooks’s socio/political observations intriguing, I’d recommend that you check out The Uncivil War for a far more in-depth treatment of the subject.
In The Uncivil War, Lebedoff describes the origins of the New Elite, which can briefly be described as those whose claim to authority resides in their superior intelligence, as measured in our current meritocracy. David’s descriptions are always insightful and frequently very funny. His analysis of how the New Elite took over, and came to depend upon, the judiciary, is brilliant. But the unique element of David’s exposition is his explanation of how the growth of the New Elite changed the nuts and bolts of American politics, ultimately resulting in a real threat to our democracy. David writes from the perspective of one who was present at the creation: for most of his life, he was a Democratic Party activist. He was on the scene in 1968, when, in his view, the New Elite seized control of his party.
I don’t think there is any serious doubt that the “uncivil war” between rival elites that David describes is a central feature of our political landscape. In my opinion, the jury is still out on his theory that the rise of the New Elite led directly, through such measures as the proportional representation adopted by the Democrats after 1968, to a fraying of consensus, a weakening of the parties, and the rise of divisive, single-issue politics. But his theory is an intriguing one, formulated by one of the keenest observers of our public scene and informed by a lifetime in the political arena. It deserves to be widely read and widely debated.
So, if you find ideas about the divisions in our political life like those expressed by David Brooks and other pundits intriguing, check out The Uncivil War. You will find a far fuller and more sophisticated exposition of the battle between elites that largely defines our current politics.