When I was a grade-school student in Baltimore, young men with black skin were chased out of white neighborhoods with baseball bats. I went to an elementary school integrated barely a decade earlier. The folding chairs I set up in my middle school gym were still marked “George Washington Carver High School.” One of my most vivid memories as a child was a summer evening when the house on the corner was ablaze and my mother so upset and angry she was in tears. It had been firebombed because a Jewish family moved in. A couple of years later, in 1968, the city of Baltimore exploded in riots. Six people died, seven hundred were injured, and six thousand arrested.
On November 7, the United States Senate passed ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of an “individual’s actual and perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.” Though it has been hailed as a great advance for civil rights, there’s very little about the lives of gays and lesbians in 2013 that reminds me of the dire times of my youth.
On the contrary, these days homosexuality isn’t much of a disadvantage. In some contexts it’s chic and popular. Moreover, gays and lesbians are very successful and well-placed throughout society. There’s no data about the sexual orientation or “gender identity” of Ivy League professors, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they are dramatically overrepresented compared with the number of homosexuals in the general population. This is exactly the opposite of black professors, who are underrepresented, even today. The same difference appears with law partners at elite firms, tech millionaires, and much more.
I have no doubt that in many circumstances gays and lesbians feel put upon. A 2013 Pew study reports that 21 percent of LGBT respondents felt themselves discriminated against in hiring, pay, or promotion decisions. Sounds bad, but I’m virtually certain that obese individuals suffer from discrimination at much higher rates. Smokers find themselves discriminated against in hiring and promotion decisions; white males complain about reverse discrimination. Everybody has a grievance, some imagined, others justified.
It’s important to put the feelings of gays and lesbians (and others) into perspective. A different Pew study reports that 88 percent of black Americans believe they suffer from at least some discrimination, with 46 percent saying they suffer from a lot. Some of the respondents may misconstrue disadvantage as discrimination, but the social reality is plain to see. Yes, affirmative action works well for the talented few. But for the vast majority it remains a great disadvantage to be born black in America. That can’t be said today about those born with homosexual attractions.
Whatever one thinks of gay marriage, one has to admit that “the great civil rights issue of our time” addresses the needs of a very small number of people. The same goes for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It concerns the world of the one percent and their navel-gazing about “sexual identity.”
Last summer the Supreme Court of the United States declared a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Jeffrey Toobin commented, “The Supreme Court’s embrace of gay rights last week had an almost serene majesty. The obvious correctness of the Court’s judgment, its curt dismissal of a monstrous injustice, had a grandeur that requires little elaboration.”
Monstrous injustice? The case was brought by Edith Windsor. She litigated to get relief from taxes on the estate of her partner, Thea Spyer, whom she married in Canada in 2007. I don’t doubt that it galled her to pay more than $500,000 in taxes that a surviving, heterosexual spouse would not have to pay. (Tax laws have long allowed for tax-free spousal inheritance.) But, again, some perspective is necessary. Spyer died in 2009. In that year only estates greater than $3.5 million were subject to inheritance tax.
We’re a long way from a demand for civil rights rising up from the downtrodden.
By ordinary standards, Windsor and Spyer had a lot of money. It’s not surprising, therefore, that an admiring New Yorker profile of Windsor never leaves the world of the one percent. An apartment on lower Fifth Avenue, a vacation home in Southampton, many exotic foreign vacations over their long relationship. Her lawyer, also a lesbian, is a partner at a high-powered New York firm that sends them a courtesy limo to take a victory lap around Manhattan after the Court announced its decision. She has suffered. The rich are not exempt from the human condition. But her tribulations have been softened by wealth.
This elite self-absorption is not innocent. It never is. There are many more white women without high-school degrees in America than lesbians who want to get marriedand vastly more than there are “transgendered” people troubled about whether they are men or women. Those womenwomen living at a great remove from Edith Windsor’s privileged lifeare suffering an ongoing crisis in well-being. Since 1990, for example, their life expectancies have declined by five years. (Men without high-school degrees have suffered the same decline, though less dramatically.)
The social crisis this decline indicates seems to be of no interest to the New Yorker and its readers. I’m not surprised. Edith Windsor, ENDA, the agenda of gay rights organizationsour ruling class has reorganized “progressive” politics to serve itself.
Perhaps I seem hyperbolic. But consider this. Yale University isn’t famous for a Dignity of the Worker Week. Nor is it known for a Preferential Option for the Poor Week. It’s not even in the news every year because of a Save the Planet Week (that’s so very 1980s). No, Yale is known for Sex Week.
The New Meritocracy
Christopher Lasch would not have been surprised by the way in which so much of contemporary politics is now organized around the material and psychological needs of elites. In the aftermath of the 1960s he observed, “Cultural radicalism has become so fashionable, and so pernicious in the support it unwittingly provides for the status quo, that any critique of contemporary society that hopes to go beneath the surface has to criticize, at the same time, much of what currently goes under the name of radicalism.”
And go beneath the surface he did. His theoretical constructions aren’t always convincing. His most famous book, The Culture of Narcissism, depends too heavily on Freudian categories for the development of a grand theory of post-industrial society. But he’s a consistent source of perceptive insights that arise from his fundamental loyalty to working people and their communities.
He saw the obvious: “What does it profit the residents of the South Bronx to enforce speech codes at elite universities?” He also saw the less obvious: how working and lower-middle class communities have declined and new elites have ascended to an unprecedented position of predominance. This has come about to some degree because of economic changes, especially globalization, which has undermined the power of labor in America and increased that of capital, and because of migration to the suburbs, which do not have the ethnic homogeneity of the old urban neighborhoods. But it’s also a function of the way in which we’ve altered the composition of our elites and thus transformed our implicit assumptions about the nature of social authority.
In the early years after World War II, the WASP establishment was still predominant. Its claim to privilege depended on perceived competence, but it also rested on an older social hierarchy of Northern European heritage and family status. In this relatively static system, working-class and ethnic communities were subordinate, but they had a strong sense of solidarity, their own activists and leaders, and some social and economic power.
Gradually and then more rapidly, a meritocratic system came to define elite identity. By and large we see this as a gainequal opportunity rather than silver spoons. Lasch did not dispute this moral judgment. But he thought through its implications. He had an intuition that the meritocratic engine driving our new elite contributes to the decline of working-class culture, political power, and well-being.
When James Conant, president of Harvard, established the SAT as an admissions requirement, his goal was to expand the talent pool for elite education. Civilian head of the Manhattan Project, he recognized that brainpower was crucial for ensuring American predominance after World War II. Our power would increasingly depend on technical know-how, an insight that has become universalized in today’s common wisdom that all manner of success flows from education.
The whimsy of DNA scatters talent widely. The idea behind the SAT was to find the best and the brightest in middle- and working-class high schools, allowing elite institutions to take over their advanced education and train them for higher roles in society. It wasn’t a perfect system, but the meritocracy worked reasonably well, so much so that it has become the ruling ideology, not only for higher education but for the allocation of wealth and power in society as a whole.
This new meritocratic elite has a unique psychological and social profile. In a fashion not unlike that of the economic elite that emerged during the industrial age, they see themselves as self-made. Bill Clinton, Jack Lew, David Axelrod are latter-day Andrew Carnegies and Henry Fords: It’s my unique talent, my résumé, my achievements that bring opportunity, status, wealth, and power. “Meritocracy,” Lasch observed, “has the effect of making elites more secure than ever in their privileges.” I merit them; I deserve them.
This sense of entitlement is unappealing, but that’s not as corrosive as the atomized individualism the meritocratic system encourages. Lasch was a champion of “loving memories.” These are what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory,” communal loyalties and traditions that bind us together and create a spirit of sacrifice for the common good. The meritocracy severs those chords.
It does so in an obvious way by removing talented young people from their places of loving memories. They are the natural leaders of local government as well as ethnic and working-class communities. But the meritocracy ships them off to elite institutions and trains them to take their places in an increasingly globalized nomenklatura. (NYU, Yale, and other universities now trumpet their roles as training grounds for “global leaders.”) This decapitates older communities, which is one reason we no longer have organic, neighborhood-based networks of union bosses, ward bosses, and church groups to organize and represent the interests of the working classes.
They become members of the new ruling class. This class is concentrated in affluent neighborhoods that are so expensive that they might as well be gated. The new elite has separate schools for their children, separate health clubs, separate security lines at airports, even a separate cuisine of organic, locally sourced food.
Not surprisingly, they also have an increasingly separate view of reality, which is what interested Lasch. As another sociologist, Alvin Gouldner, observed in the late 1970s, the new elite is not bound together by ethnic or national loyalties, nor by a thick moral consensus. Instead, they share “a culture of critical discourse.”
As a recent open letter by Columbia faculty observed, the university encourages “a critical and constantly questioning consciousness.” The new Harvard guidelines for general education stipulate that students should now “understand how meanings are produced and received.” Elites are not part of culture; as critical observers they stand above the culture they’re in.
This remoteness from “loving memories”something very evident in today’s elites marinated in irony and serenely confident of the obvious correctness of their view of realityconstitutes the “personality type” Lasch described as narcissistic. This does not mean selfish or self-centered. Elites can be philanthropic and committed to social causes of all sorts, often thinking in terms of therapeutic, legal, or economic interventions designed to get the best results. What it means is this: As I stand at a distance from particular cultures and communities, I constitute myself.
However, constituting one’s own life is an extraordinarily fragile project. We’re social animals with a deep need to belong. Put in psychological terms: I cannot validate and affirm myself, because the affirmation that the self needs can only come from others, not the self.
As a consequence, at the very same time our elites insist upon their critical independence and right to make their own choices about how to live, they use their power to attack any hints of traditional criticism that makes them feel vulnerable. Still further, they demand social affirmation and won’t tolerate dissent.
Thus political correctness, perhaps the most telling feature of today’s elite culture. The politically correct are invariably those who think of themselves as the best of people. Unlike the ordinary run, they have risen above xenophobic patriotism, racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and every other ism. We’re inclusive! Political correctness compliments the vanity of elites. It’s a sign of their moral right to rule.
At the same time, political correctness serves as a powerful weapon with which to destroy competitors for power and status. A traditional Christian doesn’t disagree with the ruling consensus; he’s a homophobe. A parent who opposes sex education for ten-year-olds doesn’t have moral standing to speak; he’s benighted. Others get dismissed as economically naive, or as unable to recognize cultural differences. The cultural progressive knows how traditional authority workswill to power, patriarchy, heteronormativity, or what have you. Anybody with a real education is in the know about these things! That’s why Toobin is confident that it “requires little elaboration.” The people who don’t “get it” are by definition unqualified to rule.
Lasch was an implacable enemy of this elite hauteur. He came to believe that cultural progressivism of the sort that wants to tear down existing forms of life to rebuild them in accord with new and supposedly better principles “boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people.” Failed postwar urban planning provided one of his favorite examples. Were he alive today, redefining marriage might be another.
A democratic culture isn’t one in which we’re all guaranteed access to consumer goods, as if equality were a matter of everyone’s being satiated to the same degree. Nor is it one in which everyone enjoys equal access to a freedom to organize their personal lives as they wish. Democracy requires empowered citizens capable of self-government. Lasch’s insight was that this capacity depends on traditional knowledge adapted and reformed within actual communities of ordinary people trying to live with dignity in the modern world. That wisdom is imperfect, as is always the case. The communities animated by it are defective. Which aren’t? But without this traditional knowledge most of us become disoriented individuals with little capacity to resist the bureaucratic, therapeutic tyranny of the new meritocrats.
New York’s New Mayor
Bill de Blasio wasn’t identified at the outset as strong candidate in the Democratic primary race. Christine Quinn, a lesbian political insider from Manhattan (she’s speaker of the City Council), had lots of rich liberals backing her and was widely considered the obvious choice. Bill Thompson, an African American who ran against Bloomberg four years ago, had name recognition and a presumptive advantage with the black vote. And then there was Anthony Weiner, about whom the less is said the better. In the final month de Blasio emerged as the frontrunner and then secured the nomination with a strong showing among Democratic voters. He then sailed to a historic victory in the general election over the charisma-challenged Republican, Joe Lhota.
His appeal was obvious. Alone among the candidates he ran a populist campaign. He attacked what many regard as a sacred dogma: that New York is so much better now than it was in previous decades. He emphasized instead that there are two New Yorks, one that works very well indeed for wealthy people, and the other that doesn’t for middle- and working-class people.
De Blasio’s proposed policies aren’t likely to make things much better for the working- and middle-class people his rhetoric energized. The discontent that makes the populism work has very deep, structural sources. The new mayor will run a global city that reflects global transformation that can’t be changed by taxing more here and spending more there.
That transformation has created three cities, not two. One city, let’s call it the Rich City, is focused in Manhattan, with new outposts in Brooklyn. An indispensible hub of the global economy, the Rich City provides large rewards, and its residents make a lot of money. Although it’s an extremely expensive place to liveprivate elementary day schools cost more than $30,000 per year, and rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan start at $5,000 a monthif you’re rich it’s very pleasant, which is why people who make money elsewhere (or inherit it) come here to play. It’s also the place where talented and ambitious people come in large numbers. They’re not rich, at least not yet, but they too buy locally sourced food (“field to fork”), drink special coffees (double soy latte), and otherwise participate in the elite ethos of the Rich City.
The second city is the Middle-Class City. These are people who live on Pelham Parkway, Bay Ridge Boulevard, and Hylan Boulevard. Some are retired longshoremen or factory workers. (In 1950, New York City had the largest manufacturing base in the United States, employing nearly one million people.) But increasingly they’re public employees. There are 500,000 government employees living in New York today, 300,000 of whom work for the city. This Middle-Class City is indeed under financial stress, as are middle-class Americans as a whole, which is one reason de Blasio’s populism resonated.
But his populism disguises the fact that the Middle-Class City is very closely tied to the Rich City. Property taxes provide the largest source of income for the city, but it’s business and personal income taxes that provide an important 20 percent of the city’s $70 billion budget. This is why Bloomberg felt he was serving the middle class by paying so much attention to the needs of the Manhattan wealth-producing machines of real estate and high finance. Michael Bloomberg catered to the Rich City. He saw it as the goose that lays golden eggs, some of which can be harvested as tax revenue to subsidize everyone else.
The fragile relation between the Rich City and the Middle-Class Cityelite concerns about high taxes on the one side, and populist resentment over income inequality on one otherepitomizes the challenge facing America more broadly. Around 20 percent of Americans have the skills to come out ahead in globalization. The middle doesn’t do so well. These divergent paths strain the social contract.
As legislators rightly try to give the middle class a break, they look to the economic winners for revenue. Today the top end pays for more and more of the modern welfare state. This means that the Middle-Class City has contradictory interests. They resent the increasing divide between those who flourish in the global economy and those who don’t. But the continued flow of government support seeking to remediate their competitive disadvantages depends on ever greater financial success by the top 20 percent.
And then there’s the Immigrant City, which includes the working poor. They are as important for the economy of New York as the big earners. With jobs as cooks, cleaners, movers, store clerks, drivers, and much, much more, their $10 to $15 per hour wage makes the city possible. Without low wage labor, whatever was left of manufacturing would evaporate, the economics of running even the new-economy businesses would be threatened, and living expenses would skyrocket.
Again, New York tells the larger tale of America where low-wage labor has propped up living standards for the middle class, whether in the form of low-cost goods from China or low cost-services here at home. And again, there’s a fragile relation between the two cities. Low-cost labor drains higher-paying jobs out of the economy, threatening the middle class not protected by unions (which these days largely means public-sector unions). But without low-cost labor, the prices of a hamburger, a cab ride, dry cleaning, car repair, and much else would increase, diminishing even more the middle-class standard of living already compromised by the pressures of globalization.
Moreover, the interests of the Immigrant City at the bottom of the New York economy are often at odds with those of the Middle-Class City, something de Blasio’s populism disguises. The working poor are the people most likely to be harmed by increased taxes. On the one hand, rent is often their most crushing expense, and increases in property taxes get passed through to renters in the form of higher rents. On the other hand, entitlement spending in general favors the middle class. The working poor don’t benefit nearly as much as government employees, whose salaries and benefits gobble up a great deal of the city’s budget (and any tax increase). Increased income taxes also siphon off wealth that might otherwise be spent paying for their low-cost services. The bottom and the top of the new, globalized economy are by no means in harmony, but they have more in common than they do with the middle, which is a creature of the old economy.
We can argue about whether or not Bill de Blasio’s populism is a good or a bad thing. As Christopher Lasch saw, American populism provides an important check on our liberal elites. That’s why one of the great spokesmen for the postwar liberal establishment, the historian Richard Hofstadter, worked so hard to discredit it. We can argue about whether de Blasio’s really a populist. After all, for the most part he’s been just as much a part of the liberal establishment as Christine Quinn. We can argue whether he can fulfill the promise of his populist rhetoric. I don’t think he can.
But on this I think we should agree. His populism directs our attention to the fundamental problem facing America, which is how to forge a new, unified consensus in a society increasingly fragmented by globalization. He’s wrong to think there are only two cities. He’s right to want them to be one.
I think of him almost every day. Sometimes it’s with a vague feeling of inadequacy, even resentment. How did he get so much done, and so well? A column in the morning, a manifesto over lunch, and a movement launched by cocktail hour, leaving plenty of time for after-dinner conversation. But for the most part I’m very thankful. He created First Things. For two decades he filled its pages and gathered around the magazine a readership: ecumenical, orthodox, and determined to have a say in civic life. But for Richard John Neuhaus you wouldn’t be reading these words today.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of his death. In this issue former junior fellow Nathaniel Peters remembers his final months and days. My memories are less focused and certainly less poignant. For the most part RJN was for me what he was for so many, a confident (and very articulate) Christian voice. In my younger days his example gave me confidence. I too should refuse to be cowed by secularism. I too should speak as a believer, not defensively but as someone confident his faith can contribute to current conversations, not just about politics but about art, literature, and much more. That was a precious gift.
RJN’s portrait hangs in our office entryway. The photo was taken only a few years before his death. His expression neither is stern nor severe, as it sometimes could be when correcting errors and verbally spanking wayward Jesuits. He’s in his happy-warrior mood, relaxed, conversational. I often smile back. Thanks, Richard.