Reihan Salam has written an interestingly revealing essay for Slate about how he came to be conscious of his class identity – and, implicitly, how that shaped his emerging political consciousness. He begins:
I first encountered the upper middle class when I attended a big magnet high school in Manhattan that attracted a decent number of brainy, better-off kids whose parents preferred not to pay private-school tuition. Growing up in an immigrant household, I’d felt largely immune to class distinctions. Before high school, some of the kids I knew were somewhat worse off, and others were somewhat better off than most, but we generally all fell into the same lower-middle- or middle-middle-class milieu. So high school was a revelation. Status distinctions that had been entirely obscure to me came into focus. Everything about you—the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the way you pronounced things—turned out to be a clear marker of where you were from and whether you were worth knowing.
By the time I made it to a selective college, I found myself entirely surrounded by this upper-middle-class tribe. My fellow students and my professors were overwhelmingly drawn from comfortably affluent families hailing from an almost laughably small number of comfortably affluent neighborhoods, mostly in and around big coastal cities. Though virtually all of these polite, well-groomed people were politically liberal, I sensed that their gut political instincts were all about protecting what they had and scratching out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to suggest taking it away from them. I can’t say I liked these people as a group. Yet without really reflecting on it, I felt that it was inevitable that I would live among them, and that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened.
So allow me to unburden myself. I’ve had a lot of time to observe and think about the upper middle class, and though many of the upper-middle-class individuals I’ve come to know are good, decent people, I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country. And I want them to stop.
Allow me to say, as a member of this same class, that I completely know where Salam is coming from, as well as where he’s arrived at. There’s a reason why SWPL is a thing, and there’s a reason why getting that it’s a thing is yet another SWPL class marker. There is something especially annoying about the smugness of those who mistake status markers for virtue, and who act as if these badges of virtue put them above any interrogation of their class interests. And it’s especially awful when you feel in danger of becoming one of these people.
And I understand where he’s coming from in terms of personal history as well. My high school experience was more like his experience prior to high school: we Bronx Scientists all felt like broadly middle-middle urban kids. (The difference has something to do with the Bronx versus Manhattan, and more to do with the near-decade difference in our ages; New York changed a lot in ten years.) But I had something more akin to Reihan’s shock when I got to college, where I regularly felt like the guy who didn’t own a proper jacket among the swells in their tuxedos.
When I interrogate myself honestly, though, that had very little to do with the actual class backgrounds of my college classmates, and mostly to do with my own psychosocial development. Yes, there were plenty of prep school grads and the like. But my roommates freshman year were from: Columbia, Missouri; Youngstown, Ohio; and Temple, Texas. Not a son of Groton among them; I, the son of a public high school teacher in the Bronx, was the sophisticated urbanite of the bunch. And frankly, they fit in, socially, better than I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t come from the right class; it was that I didn’t have any class – that, frankly, I was an argumentative slob.
It didn’t feel that way at the time, though. And that feeling – the feeling that I had been sized up by my betters and found wanting – was an important undercurrent leading me in a more right-wing direction politically a few years after graduation. Pecuniary interest was obviously important as well – I was working on Wall Street, and though my career had not yet taken off that was all the more reason to want to keep the path of that potential career as smooth as possible. But that kind of self-interest only makes it more important to find “objective” justifications for one’s opinions.
I’m not suggesting that Salam is animated by those kinds of resentments. Frankly, he has always presented to me as remarkably free of resentments. And he is nothing if not socially adept, in his unique, Salam-y way. I can’t even picture him being a slob. I’m just saying that a certain cliche – the bright, socially-inept striver identifying with a right-wing political program so as to stick it to his social “betters” – is a cliche for a reason: because it’s a pretty common. But it’s highly destructive of sensible analysis.
And that’s because any sensible analysis has to start with objective class interests, not the status markers of class.
Indeed, the heart of Salam’s complaint is precisely that the upper middle class have too much influence:
We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Salam proceeds to lay out a detailed brief against the mass upper class in policy terms: from their support for unproductive tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, to restrictive zoning rules that keep housing prices high in urban areas, to cartel-preserving licensure requirements that keep dental assistants from hanging out their own shingles, to a backwards immigration system that lets in nannies but keeps out doctors.
It’s all very Institute for Justice – but it’s also the kind of stuff that Matt Yglesias, liberal scion of the mass upper class, has been writing about for years. In other words, you can contextualize the kind of policy criticism Salam is making within a general libertarian critique (government will always be co-opted by those who already have power; here are examples how upper-middle-class professionals use government to shut the gate on the middle class; we need less government so nobody can rig the game that way). Or you can contextualize it within a general left-wing critique (here are examples of how upper-middle-class liberals act to protect their class interests to the detriment of the poor and middle class; we can’t let a left-wing politics be compromised by the need to keep a large and wealthy class on-side just because it makes the right sounds; we need a class-based politics that doesn’t get hijacked by cultural politics). These are both frameworks for talking about how to reduce the political influence of a favored class, and create an opening for new entrants.
But Salam doesn’t make either argument. Instead, he’s says we need to guilt the upper middle class into being a more civically-responsible gentry:
What can we do to break the stranglehold of the upper middle class? I have no idea. Having spent so much time around upper-middle-class Americans, and having entered their ranks in my own ambivalent way, I’ve come to understand their power. The upper middle class controls the media we consume. They run our big bureaucracies, our universities, and our hospitals. Their voices drown out those of other people at almost every turn. I fear that the only way we can check the tendency of upper-middle-class people to look out for their own interests at the expense of others is to make them feel at least a little guilty about it. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
It reminds me of the way that Charles Murray ended Coming Apart with a similarly exhortatory plea – successful people just shouldn’t shut the gate; instead, they should spend more time in Fishtown because . . . well, because they should.
Salam’s complaint up front is that upper middle class liberals act like they are distinctly virtuous – they obey the law, pay taxes, raise their kids right, and have all the right political opinions – and that this virtue exempts them, in their own minds, from criticism, allowing them to be as ruthless as they like in protecting their individual interests. But by calling for a more virtuous gentry, Salam isn’t puncturing their pretensions – he’s implicitly endorsing them. Because if they aren’t actually any better than anybody else, then why expect them to be?
The thing is, it’s completely normal for people to pursue their own economic interests. That’s precisely what you’d expect people to do under most circumstances. It’s when people act against interest that requires explanation. So why the fury that the upper middle class, as Salam sees it, acts out of selfish motives? Why say that this behavior threatens to destroy everything great about America? Why make this about the kind of people the upper middle class are? If the problem is that they have too much power, then that’s the problem. And let’s talk about how to tackle that.
Because here’s the thing: there is no virtuous class out there. Contra William F. Buckley, a collection of random names from the Boston phone book would do a terrible job running the country. Take a look at the fate of lottery winners and reality television stars if you want to see what happens when fortune and fame descends on individuals nearly at random. The urban mass upper class has a host of ridiculous pretensions about itself – and more’s the pity for them. (Er, us.) But if you think the pretensions to virtue of other distinct classes that are more generally endorsed by the culture don’t have pernicious political and social effects, well, I’ve got a military-industrial complex to sell you.
My advice to would-be class traitors like Salam is: don’t let your predispositions get in the way of your analysis. Here’s a good example of what I mean from right here in New York. Our Mayor, Bill de Blasio, hails from Park Slope, the capital of mass upper class Brooklyn. (That’s my neighborhood as well.) It would be very easy to assume that, as such, he must be following precisely the playbook that Salam describes: posturing as a liberal but in fact acting to preserve the prerogatives of the mass upper class.
But, at least in terms of housing development, the mayor has done something rather different, and has pursued a very pro-development line. I cannot tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with brownstone owners raging about how this mayor is worse than Bloomberg, how he doesn’t care about preserving the historical character of neighborhoods or about the opinions of the local community – he just wants to build. This is not what Park Slope thought it was buying.
Now, de Blasio is trying to yoke that pro-development stance to an affordable housing plan that perhaps Salam would be skeptical of as being too regulatory in nature – but that’s not my point. My point is that de Blasio is acting against precisely the entrenched class interests that Salam thinks are so problematic – against the people who want to pull up the drawbridge. But his cultural politics line up perfectly with the kinds of liberals Salam knows dominate the mass upper class.
Which matters more? That, it seems to me, is the question.