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A New David Brooks Article Takes A Look At How The Cultural Elite Broke America


If you look around you in America today, you can see the problems everywhere - right? - political polarization, economic inequality, dysfunction on how to tackle the big issues of our time, be it COVID, climate change, racial justice. New York Times columnist David Brooks says one group of people shares a huge part of the blame. He calls them Bobos. They're highly educated and moneyed. They flock to urban metropolitan areas and performatively lean towards more liberal values. To use a word they like to use, he thinks they have become very problematic. David Brooks is also a contributing writer to The Atlantic, and his latest column is called "How The Bobos Broke America." And he joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.

DAVID BROOKS: Great to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we know of whom we speak because you are talking about the cultural elite, right?

BROOKS: More or less. It's sort of the group I grew up in, people who are defined by high education. Back in 2000, I wrote a book called "Bobos In Paradise," and I noticed a whole code of conduct, and it had replaced the old WASP code. And it was basically people with '60s values and '90s money who thought it was gauche to spend money on a yacht but supercool to spend money on a $20,000 AGA stove.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you wanted to update this now why?

BROOKS: So the book I wrote in 2000 was largely quite positive. And one of the things I said in there was that anybody can join the Bobos. You go to college, you get a degree, and you're in. That turned out to be the most naive sentence I've ever written because over the last couple of decades, Bobos - or creative class is another name for them - have done three things. One, they've invested massively in their kids, so their kids have a huge advantage in getting into these colleges. Second, they moved to a few wealth-generating cities, and that's both jacked up housing costs in those cities. And third, they've taken over the Democratic Party, and the working class has tended to leave left-wing parties.

And so they've done three things to spark a counterreaction against us, and that reaction takes the form of what a French anthropologist called the boubours, who are boorish bohemians. These are people like the Trump supporters. And then just rural America doesn't like us. And so you've sparked this reaction, and I think that's responsible for a lot of the conflict we see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, you know, you're basically just arguing that the old elite has been replaced by a new elite, which is operating in pretty much the same way, but just has different codes.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And that's what surprised me, because the whole idea of the elite that grew up, you know, more or less in the '90s and the 2000s was we were not going to be like the old elite. They were the people who put in structural systems to preserve their own power, and we were not going to be like that. And we've put in different ones. And in the book, I quote a man who taught at a fancy prep school in New England, and he said, what my school teaches is ease.

And so it's not sort of upper-crust polish the way it was with the WASPy elite, but it's this sense of openness. And so a student with ease knows how to treat her teacher with the right level of deference, but also chumminess. A student with ease knows how to treat the cafeteria worker in a way that feigns equality while really recognizing vast inequalities. And so you can only learn ease if you're around elite circles. And that's a code of conduct that we now recognize in each other. And if somebody doesn't possess some of these qualities, we don't like them in our circle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You wrote, I underestimated our intolerance of ideological diversity over the past five decades - the number of working-class and conservative voices have been sort of winnowed out of elite institutions. But one could argue conservatives might have done that to themselves by embracing more extreme views that deviated from the middle that you say it's important to preserve.

BROOKS: I would say there was a winnowing. We've told a lot of people in America that their route to success is not going to lead to the good life. We've told them their voices aren't worth hearing. And they reacted extremely badly. And the badness of the reaction is basically Trumpism. It's to deny truth. It's to celebrate the sort of bigotry that we are rightly offended by. But their bad reaction doesn't take away from the fact that they're reacting to something real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One could say that the financial inequality in this country is because of the policies championed by conservatives, like trickle-down economics. I mean, if you look at the pandemic and the Trump tax cuts and how well the wealthy did in what was supposed to be a recession, I mean, is it hard to blame one particular elite group for that?

BROOKS: Well, no, I don't think it's the only thing that's happening. I think the inequalities driven by globalization are real. The other big narrative in what - describes what's a lot of the conflict in our societies are the diversity narrative. We're moving from a white-dominated society to a non-white-dominated society or a society with no majority group. But I think this third narrative, that you had a creative class rise to prominence that everyone else reacted against, is also a big narrative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've always said that education is a good thing, though. That was what you thought. So what needs to happen then?

BROOKS: Well, first, I think what Joe Biden is doing is the right thing. He's - basically if you take the Biden agenda, it basically takes a lot of money and redirects it to the people who've been left behind by the information age economy. So that's the economic piece. But I think fundamentally we have to look at the meritocracy. It's crazy to build an entire society around one's ability to take tests and get good grades between age 15 and 25. We've just built this meritocratic system. And it wasn't just natural. We built it, built it around certain criteria for who gets to rise in society. And that criteria seems to be extremely narrow and has to be reformed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was columnist David Brooks. Thank you very much.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.