Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There
by David Brooks
Simon & Schuster. 276 pp. $25.00
A minor but persistent theme of this year’s campaign coverage has been the remarkable symmetry in the personal background of the presidential nominees. Al Gore and George W. Bush may stand apart on matters of policy, but both, we have been reminded, are the products of vast privilege—the wealthy, privately educated, and politically connected sons of a WASP establishment that is, thank you, quite alive and well. As the New York Times headlined a dual profile, “From the Ruling Class, Meet the Next President.”
David Brooks agrees that America is still run by an identifiable elite. Only, it is not the old WASP elite represented by the likes of Gore and Bush, and its dominance is visible in the pages of the Times not just occasionally but every single Sunday—in the paper’s wedding announcements. Here, Brooks archly observes, we find the socially prominent nuptials of our real ruling class, “the Résumé Gods”:
When you look at the Times wedding page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Frères joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude. . . . The Times emphasizes four things about a person—college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession—for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.
More importantly, he stresses, these “markers” have become accessible in recent decades to talented and ambitious Americans of every description, especially those who are neither male, nor white, nor Protestant.
In his insightful and highly entertaining new book, Brooks—a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a wide-ranging contributor to a number of publications, including COMMENTARY—explores the peculiar tastes, manners, morals, and ideology of those who now stand atop the American pecking order. His method, as he describes it, is “comic sociology”—more P.J. O’Rourke than Daniel Bell—but he also recognizes (if not, in the end, as fully as he might) that the character of our elites is a serious matter. As they go, so goes much of the country.
According to Brooks, today’s upper class is the product of two seemingly contradictory legacies of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, both of them intimately tied to American higher education. On the one hand, it was during this era that the premier universities in the U.S. became considerably more meritocratic, embracing standardized tests and admitting students “on the basis of brains rather than blood.” Out went the gentlemanly “mediocrities from the old WASP families” and in came unprecedented numbers of, among others, Jews and women.
In short order, however, these same universities were overtaken by a powerful countercultural tide. Politics and sex were key elements in this rebellion, Brooks concedes, but at its core was “a challenge to conventional notions of success:” Repelled, or so they said, by a social code based on income, possessions, and respectability, the student radicals of the 1960’s declared their determination to lead lives grounded in “spiritual and intellectual ideals.” Their new cardinal virtue: “self-expression.”
For Brooks, the great accomplishment of the educated elite that has emerged during the 1990’s is to have reconciled the ethic of meritocratic achievement with the spirit of creativity and personal emancipation. The impressively credentialed couples smiling out benignly from the wedding pages of the Times have found a way, he writes, to combine “the corporate imperative” and the “antiestablishment style.” They are aggressive entrepreneurs who dress like hippies, world-class physicians who practice yoga, international financiers who worry about the rain forests and conscientiously recycle. They are, in Brooks’s coinage, “bourgeois bohemians”—Bobos.
As Brooks appreciates, the most visible—and easily parodied—expressions of this Bobo “synthesis” have to do with consumption. Abhorring the idea that they might be “pawns in a mass consumer society,” the prosperous members of the educated class have become, instead, connoisseurs of everything they eat, drink, and wear. They order not a regular cup of coffee but “a vente almond Frappuccino made from the Angolan blend with raw sugar and a hint of cinnamon,” and they belly up to the bar to select “one of 16,000 microbrews,” picking their way “through winter ales, Belgian lagers, and blended wheats.” As for clothing, they can never have “too much texture,” especially of the third-world or backwoods variety, and they delight in high-tech adventure gear, from fleeces and parkas to hiking boots and glacier glasses.
When it comes to big-ticket items, Bobos assiduously avoid “the old clichés of conspicuous consumption”; for them, material things are not mere possessions but a deep reflection of their personalities. Money may be spent lavishly, Brooks notes, but only on things that can be interpreted as practical or edifying. A $65,000 Range Rover is a “tool.” A “mega-kitchen” with nickel-plated state-of-the-art appliances is “a sign that you do your own chores.” And expensive travel to remote, rustic locales—the hill country of Provence or Tuscany, the mountain hamlets of Nepal or the Andes—is a necessity of sorts, a respite for “spiritual development.”
Indeed, what most strikes Brooks about the world of Bobo pleasure is its relentless emphasis on usefulness and responsible moderation. Far from being the reckless hedonists sometimes portrayed by their critics, today’s elites, he argues, have introduced a whole new set of sumptuary laws and social regulations. Smoking, hard liquor, and fatty foods are emphatically out; driving without a seatbelt is “positively immoral,” exceeded in depravity only by the grave sin of “unsafe” sex. By contrast, regular visits to the health club are a must, and physically demanding hobbies like mountaineering and marathon-running are de rigueur. Bobos share “the bohemian impulse to experience new sensations,” Brooks writes, but they invariably harness it to the bourgeois cause of “self-improvement.”
The fact that these ascetic rituals serve to perfect the body rather than the soul is not lost on Brooks. Bobo religion, he concedes, tends to be a rather wan affair, and not just when it takes the form of horses-and-creeks “spiritualism” in the wilds of Montana. Even those members of the upscale class who venture into traditional churches and synagogues usually do so not out of any deep belief or commitment but rather because they long for “moral community”; they want to “belong”—but on their own terms, accepting only those practices and doctrines that conform to their modern, pluralistic sensibilities. Unfortunately, as Brooks recognizes, building “a house of obligation on a foundation of choice” is a “problematic” exercise, and as a result, seldom satisfies.
His assessment of Bobo morality and politics is similarly mixed, but more positive on the whole. Though distrustful of authority, today’s elites reject the antinomianism and radical grandstanding of their 1960’s forebears, favoring instead a mild and tolerant orderliness in personal and public matters.
They aim for decency, not saintliness, prosaic goodness, not heroic grandeur, fairness, not profundity. In short, they prefer a moral style that doesn’t shake things up, but that protects the status quo where it is good, and gently tries to forgive and reform the things that are not so good.
At the ballot box, this translates into an affinity for such “reconciling banners” as “compassionate conservatism” (Bush) and “practical idealism” (Gore), and makes Bobos leery of “podium-pounding ‘conviction politicians.’ ” In politics, as in so much else, they seek a “peaceful middle ground.”
In Brooks’s eyes, there is much to recommend in this centrist, meliorative attitude. It is, he believes, an appropriate and understandable response to the cultural and economic excesses of recent decades. What he finds lacking in it, however, is any animating public ideal or purpose, especially as compared to the dutiful patriotism of the old WASP establishment. For Brooks, the chief task ahead for members of the Bobo class is to turn their formidable talents to “re-energizing” national politics, pursuing a course of “reform at home and activism abroad” and, he hopes, ushering “America into another golden age.”
Like any broad, colorful portrait painted in bold strokes, Bobos in Paradise sparkles in many places but seems overdone or incomplete in others. The book abounds in perfectly rendered vignettes about the folkways of the educated class of the 1990’s, a number of them laugh-out-loud funny Nor is it surprising that David Brooks should possess such easy familiarity with this group or be so well disposed toward it. As he acknowledges from the start, he, too, is a Bobo, and writes in part from the personal experiences of himself, his friends, and his colleagues. “We’re not so bad,” he opines. “Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse, and edifying.”
From my own experience as a member of this class (and unbiased, I feel sure, by my embarrassingly conformist tastes in beer, vacations, and religious observance), I am inclined to agree. Today’s striving, cosmopolitan, bicoastal elite may not be precisely what Jefferson had in mind when he imagined a “natural aristocracy,” but it is nonetheless, as Brooks points out, an astonishing democratic achievement—a ruling class based not “on blood or wealth or military valor” but largely on educational attainments to which most Americans can now aspire.
I would hesitate, however, to classify myself or my peers as “Bobos” (and not simply out of a desire not to be mistaken for a pet chimp). For if the bourgeois half of the label is apt enough, the bohemian half amounts to little more than an affectation. Bohemianism, it should be recalled, is not just a set of niche-market consumer preferences; it is, by venerable tradition, a way of life. Looking back over the past several decades, one is impressed far less by the endurance of such genuine bohemianism as did arise from the 1960’s as by the awesome power of American capitalism to accommodate and co-opt even its self-styled critics.
This is not, of course, to deny the continuing influence of the liberationist, anti-authority dogma of the 60’s counterculture on many members of today’s educated elite (not to mention the rest of the country). But as Brooks rightly emphasizes, this is by and large a fairly sober bunch. Their personal morality and attitudes toward public life may be undemanding, even lax, but they are hardly libertines or radicals, and have even tried to revive certain traditional institutions, chattering endlessly about their own strongly felt need for “community” and “civil society.”
But just there may be the difficulty. After all, whatever problems the educated class itself has experienced in recent decades, it is not the sector of our society that has suffered most from the pathologies to which the creed of self-expression and personal liberation gave rise. As observers like William J. Bennett, Myron Magnet, and Charles Murray have long argued, our elites—by virtue of the qualities that make them elites—have been able to insulate themselves pretty well from the worst effects of their own ideas and attitudes. It is the less-well-off, especially the underclass, whose lives have been upended, if not destroyed.
David Brooks does not tell us much about the precise character of the public service that he would like to see performed by the educated set. But one must hope that it would include some long-overdue attention to the wider culture that this elite has done so much to foster, from the woeful state of many of our schools to the noxious emanations of our popular entertainment. His provocative book will certainly have done a good turn if, in addition to flattering and poking fun at “Bobos,” it actually encourages them to follow the example of the old WASP establishment by shouldering the responsibilities of their high standing.