Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

God Bless an American Gentry

Local elites do not actually run this country. But I wouldn't be complaining if they did.

I wish I lived in Patrick Wyman’s head. The full-time podcaster, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California, explains his understanding of American class structure in an essay published Thursday in the Atlantic.

As Wyman sees it, the real power in this country is held by “the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.” Because these local leaders are, according to Wyman, actually more powerful than more visible national and global elites, we can:

forget the skyscrapers and opulent country mansions, the elite family dynamics of Succession and the antics of the Kardashians and Kardashian-adjacent; look instead to the far more numerous multimillion-dollar planned golf-course communities and their controlling homeowners’ associations. Think about the informal property-development deals struck between sweating local grandees at the country-club bar in Odessa, Texas, or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Let’s set aside, for the time being, any potential ulterior motives for this line coming from a magazine owned by Steve Jobs’s billionaire activist widow and try to focus on the merits of the argument.

That’s difficult to do, as no argument is actually made. Wyman asserts that these local gentry hold the real power in America, and then at least strongly implies that this is a bad thing, but makes no effort to convince his readers that either of these is true. And neither of them is. Civic and business leaders with deep personal ties to a particular place and community have not been the dominant political power here for quite some time; but things would almost certainly be better if they were.

Politically, it is virtually indisputable that the vast majority of power is currently vested in the federal government, far removed not just from Americans’ concerns but their influence as well—including even the gentry outside Washington. Economically, power is disproportionately held by multinational organizations—including both highly visible, public-facing ones like Amazon, Walmart, and Apple, as well as less headline-friendly institutions like big banks and holding companies. Culturally, everything lies in the hands of a few Hollywood giants, the Big Five book publishers, and the handful of tech companies that dominate the digital space.

These top-level powers effectively create the world in which the rest of us operate. Even the gentry are subject to their impositions. Unlike true economic giants, the legal and regulatory environment in which they do business is almost entirely determined by bureaucratic powers as far removed from them as from the rest of us. Their area of economic influence is even further circumscribed by the aforementioned giants, as, for instance, a mid-size general retailer must both compete with a power like Amazon and operate within a market whose conditions are largely determined by it. Like the rest of us, the vast majority of the cultural products they consume—save for the small, local operations they are the most likely to fund—come from progressive-corporate hubs over which they have very little influence. To suggest that they are the real architects of the status quo simply because they are in the upper echelon within the system misses the very existence of the system and the multiple echelons above it.

Even worse, Wyman’s apparent suggestion that local leaders are more important players than the (inter)national elites above them who do operate the system itself, simply because they are “far more numerous,” is embarrassingly simplistic. Suffice it to say that Jeff Bezos has more power than not just the guy who owns ten storefronts in his modest metro area, but than a thousand American gentry with ten storefronts each in a thousand little cities across the country.

Which is all to say that the idea of American gentry wielding the bulk of power in 2021 doesn’t hold water for a minute. But it’s still worth considering who these American gentry are. These people straddle the line between the upper-middle and lower-upper classes. Some of them might fall within the 1 percent, but none crack the barrier of that .01 percent with whom populists really have a quarrel. They are business proprietors, multiple-franchisees, and others whose “wealth derives not from their salary—this is what separates them from even extremely prosperous members of the professional-managerial class, such as doctors and lawyers—but from their ownership of assets.”

They are effectively the same people as the small business bourgeoisie of Michael Lind’s highly regarded double horseshoe theory of American class divisions, one of the two lower prongs of the overclass, the other being the credentialed and salaried professional bourgeoisie to which Wyman, Lind, and yours truly all belong. One cannot help but wonder how much of Wyman’s essay stems from the common professional bourgeoisie animosity toward their small business counterparts, who are typically less aligned with the managerial elite, more conservative, and even include a few without college diplomas.

And Wyman seems to think he has stumbled upon a contradiction here: These American gentry are an important element of the new Trumpist right. But how could they possibly be populists when they themselves are elites, when inequality undoubtedly serves their interests? They have boats! Lind has made a less troubling version of the underlying mistake here too, suggesting in another relevant essay that “populists on the right tend to imagine that the United States was much more egalitarian, within the white majority itself, than it really was, whether in the 1950s or the 1850s.”

But right-populism is not about egalitarianism. It’s about protecting the interests of the lower classes against the predation of the uppermost elites. For that, the underclasses need overclass allies, and the subset most likely to side with them by far is the one ordered around physical, local property and less influenced by the progressive institutions that form the professional and managerial factions.

TAC‘s executive director noted part of this last year:

Physical communities are necessarily rooted in a specific, local place, and organizations and businesses develop inherent hierarchies—or, one might say, aristocracies. So perhaps herein lies the synthesis: a national populism, lived out with a healthy respect for the local and the aristocratic.

The fact that right-populism’s most powerful constituency consists of property-owners tied to physical places with prominent roles in their communities is not a “gotcha.” It’s a huge part of the point.

There will always be elites; only kindergartners and Frenchmen sincerely believe in an egalitarian society. But there are very different kinds of elites, and I’ll side every single time with the MAGA-hatted boomer with a Beamer, McMansion, and 25-footer over the owner of the Atlantic and her ilk.

Turning toward Trump at the end of his essay, Wyman implicitly acknowledges this conflict between two elites and two elite visions, and seems to slip up with a tacit admission that the gentry are at a disadvantage, but potentially on the rise:

The yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur: These were the people who, remembering or inventing their tradition of dominance over their towns and cities, flocked to Make America Great Again. As much as the United States loves to think of itself as an egalitarian paradise open to talent of any stripe, hierarchy and local power are no less the American way.

Amen to that, and God bless America.