In 2000, columnist David Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise, hailing the dawn of a new phase in America’s longstanding story of meritocracy. The “bobos” were a peculiar breed — part bohemian, part bourgeoisie — blurring class divides in a way that would introduce a new form of enlightened, activist citizenship in a country with an otherwise ambivalent middle class.
“The bobos didn’t necessarily come from money, and they were proud of that; they’d secured their places in selective universities and in the job market through drive and intelligence exhibited from an early age,” writes Brooks in a retrospective essay at The Atlantic. “… X types defined themselves as rebels against the staid elite. They were – as the classic Apple commercial had it – ‘the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.’”
It’s the same group that researcher Richard Florida famously called the “the creative class” – educated upstarts who could spin magic and mystery from their ideas and initiatives, transforming enterprises and institutions across whatever cities and streets they touched.
Back then, Brooks was optimistic, believing the bobos offered the promise of a more diverse, dynamic, and class-agnostic society. “The educated class is in no danger of becoming a self-contained caste,” he wrote at the time. “Anybody with the right degree, job, and cultural competencies can join.” Now, over 20 later, Brooksbelieves he was wrong, calling that earlier prediction “naive.”
Alas, rather than promoting a deeper, wider diversity through decentralized institutions, the creative class continues to push the needle toward greater consolidation and conformity, from land-use regulations to the educational bureaucracy and beyond. To no surprise, it’s a trend that’s been matched by outright resistance among the working class and their counterparts – those who feel alienated from opportunity and increasingly cynical about the supposed “openness” of American society.
“The bobos – or X people, or the creative class, or whatever you want to call them – have coalesced into an insular, intermarrying Brahmin elite that dominates culture, media, education, and tech,” writes Brooks. “Worse, those of us in this class have had a hard time admitting our power, much less using it responsibly.”
Echoing many of the same themes of his 2012 book, The Social Animal, Brooks highlights three specific areas where power concentration and cultural consolidation have become most pronounced.
First, [the bobos have] come to hoard spots in the competitive meritocracy that produced us. As Elizabeth Currid-Halkett reported in her 2017 book, “The Sum of Small Things,” affluent parents have increased their share of educational spending by nearly 300 percent since 1996. Partly as a result, the test-score gap between high- and low-income students has grown by 40 to 50 percent. The children of well-off, well-educated meritocrats are thus perfectly situated to predominate at the elite colleges that produced their parents’ social standing in the first place. Roughly 72 percent of students at these colleges come from the richest quarter of families, whereas only 3 percent come from the poorest quarter. A 2017 study found that 38 schools—including Princeton, Yale, Penn, Dartmouth, Colgate, and Middlebury – draw more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent.
Second, we’ve migrated to just a few great wealth-generating metropolises. A few superstar cities have economically blossomed while everywhere else has languished. The 50 largest metro areas around the world house 7 percent of the world’s population but generate 40 percent of global wealth. Just six metro areas – the San Francisco Bay Area; New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; and London – attract nearly half of the high-tech venture capital in the world.
This has also created gaping inequalities within cities, as high housing prices push middle- and lower-class people out. “Over the past decade and a half,” Florida wrote, “nine in ten U.S. metropolitan areas have seen their middle classes shrink. As the middle has been hollowed out, neighborhoods across America are dividing into large areas of concentrated disadvantage and much smaller areas of concentrated affluence.” The large American metro areas most segregated by occupation, he found, are San Jose, San Francisco, Washington, Austin, L.A., and New York.
Third, we’ve come to dominate left-wing parties around the world that were formerly vehicles for the working class. We’ve pulled these parties further left on cultural issues (prizing cosmopolitanism and questions of identity) while watering down or reversing traditional Democratic positions on trade and unions …
… These partisan differences overlay economic differences. In 2020, Joe Biden won just 500 or so counties—but together they account for 71 percent of American economic activity, according to the Brookings Institution. Donald Trump won more than 2,500 counties that together generate only 29 percent of that activity. An analysis by Brookings and The Wall Street Journal found that just 13 years ago, Democratic and Republican areas were at near parity on prosperity and income measures. Now they are divergent and getting more so. If Republicans and Democrats talk as though they are living in different realities, it’s because they are.
Such trends have been pointed out before, and with great care and nuance, whether one looks to Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” or Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic.”
Among the bobos-dominated media, however, the divide tends to be characterized through a series of overly simplistic narratives – enlightened elites vs. working-class rubes, compassionate globalists vs. blood-and-soil nationalists, open-society liberals vs. closed-society scaredy-cats, diversity-lovers vs. diversity-haters.
When it comes to the populist piece of the equation, such narratives contain plenty of truth. But what about the bobos side of the blame?
To what extent have “diversity” and “openness” become mere buzzwords, backed by little commitment or consequence, and serving instead as fancy fronts for precisely the opposite? Likewise, to what extent does such entrenchment exacerbate the worst elements of the very counterculture it claims to oppose and despise?
“For all its talk of openness, the creative class is remarkably insular,” Brooks writes. “In ‘Social Class in the 21st Century,’ the sociologist Mike Savage found that the educated elite tended to be the most socially parochial group, as measured by contact with people in occupational clusters different from their own. In a study for The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley found that the most politically intolerant Americans ‘tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves.’”
Rather than using their power and privilege to preserve freedom and diversity, the creative class has largely coalesced around all-or-nothing advocacy, from the culture-warring of woke capitalism to the cookie-cutter conformity of higher education to the fatal conceits of central-planning elites. Rather than freeing civil society to do what it does best, our elites have largely deflected such responsibilities to the state, hoping that top-down control will do the heavy lifting of social harmonization.
“I didn’t anticipate how aggressively we would move to assert our cultural dominance, the way we would seek to impose elite values through speech and thought codes,” Brooks explains. “I underestimated the way the creative class would successfully raise barriers around itself to protect its economic privilege – not just through schooling, but through zoning regulations that keep home values high, professional-certification structures that keep doctors’ and lawyers’ incomes high while blocking competition from nurses and paralegals, and more. And I underestimated our intolerance of ideological diversity.”
When it comes to using policy to correct perceived social inequalities, Brooks points to the right low-hanging fruit: education, zoning, and licensing. I would add price freedom, as well.
But at a cultural level, the real source change remains at the lower levels of society, including among the bobos themselves. While the prospects of social and economic mobility may be dimmer than they ought to be, and despite the constant entry of new obstacles and challenges, freedom and opportunity are still widely available across American life.
Indeed, outside the realm of policy, we have plenty of work to do. Problems of plenty continue to trickle down from cultural elites into all else, distorting and discoloring our notions about work and vocation, trade and exchange, marriage and family, or wisdom and education. At the level of our cultural imaginations, there’s a tug-of-war over the basic meaning of the good society, one that posits the preservation of freedom against the exultation of conformity.
In such an environment, we ought to be careful that our resistance doesn’t mirror the reactive approach of prevailing elites, promoting our own notions of top-down conformity and methods of “conservative-friendly” coercion. Instead, we can promote a freedom that flows higher than the narrow dualisms of our age – individualism vs. collectivism, localism vs. globalism, and so on. It is up to each of us to be the moral witnesses of such freedom, in our families, churches, schools, businesses, and communities.
In an age where social conformity continues to gain cultural esteem, whether promoted by large, private enterprises or through the collectivized power of the state, a revival of the “middle layers” or “mediating institutions” of society is sorely needed. As we continue to preserve the liberties that makes a varied witness possible, we can continue building and rebuilding society right where we are.