By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennet
When Harper’s sent Kurt Vonnegut to cover the 1972 Republican Convention, our bounciest misanthrope came back with his wiry hair standing on end. “The two real political parties in America are the Winners and Losers,” he growled. “The single religion of the Winners is a harsh interpretation of Darwinism, which argues that it is the will of the universe that only the fittest should survive.”
Well, things have changed slightly the last 30 years: Thanks to the Christian Right, none of our leaders would ever dare mention Darwin, except to say he shouldn’t be taught in schools. Beyond that, the Winners’ agenda is now far harsher than it ever was under Richard Nixon. The Bush administration has pushed through dividend tax cuts for the rich, while attempting to exclude millions of ordinary Americans (including U.S. troops) from other forms of tax relief. Even as it gives $80,000 write-offs to businesses that buy Humvees (gee, I wonder who in the company will be driving those puppies?), it’s proposing to change the Fair Labor Standards Act in a way that will cost several million hourly workers their overtime. Why, you can just re-define their work as administrative and the extra hours are free!
Although it’s fun to think so, such Darwinian social policies didn’t spring fully formed from Bush’s skull. They embody our reigning cultural ethos. Where America was once a country that took pride in backing the underdog, it now has no time for Losers. Citizens have learned to step over the homeless on streets, politicians ignore the dispossessed in favor of middle-class swing voters (have you ever heard Bush even mention “the poor”?), and pop culture has gentrified the idea of the outsider. Forget Norma Rae. Hollywood’s current notion of a populist heroine is Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, a rich girl who (assisted by co-star Sally Field!) must rise above the stigma of her hair color and Chihuahua.
Meanwhile, our Winners bask in a feeling of glory that recalls the era when John D. Rockefeller explained his fortune to a Sunday-school class with the words “God gave me the money.” Last year, the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver Terrell Owens outraged sportswriters when, after scoring a touchdown against the Seahawks, he pulled a Sharpie from his sock, autographed the ball and handed it to his financial adviser in the stands. Me, I didn’t understand why the media got so upset. After all, Owens’ silly stunt (which had me laughing out loud) was simply routine braggadocio in a land where radio host Jim Rome talks constantly about his popularity, Bill O’Reilly boasts about all the books he’s sold (he accuses his critics of “envy”), and President Bush, his smirk freshly re-installed for his fat-cat fund-raisers, feels no qualms about tossing out the hubristic phrase “my first term.”
Naturally, it’s not only the rich and powerful who are flush with pleasure at their privilege. Marx famously declared that the ruling ideas of any age are those of its ruling class, and it comes as no surprise that conservative intellectuals are currently crafting the Winners’ postmillennial ideology, from arguments for militarism to defenses of high-end consumerism. Indeed, over the last few years, we’ve been inundated with “hot” socio-historical books like Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, which insists that America has the duty to run the world, Joseph Epstein’s smug Snobbery: The American Version, in which the Northwestern prof riffs on status-mania from the seat of his $45,000 Jaguar, and James B. Twitchell’s Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury, a volume urging us to think of luxury as “the necessary consumption of the unnecessary.” (Now that’s a phrase I bet President Bush didn’t try out on the starving people of Liberia.)
Perhaps the most charming of these books is David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, a self-described piece of “comic sociology,” which argues that our new upper class represents sort of a Hegelian synthesis of bourgeois aspiration and bohemian lifestyle. Brooks is a master at giving us neoconservatism with a human face, and he fills his book with self-deprecating asides, astute social observations and good-humored swipes at the cultural excesses of the privileged. Still, he’s not a senior editor at the Weekly Standard for nothing, and Bobos is finally far less eager to question the values of Winners than it is to celebrate them. “Bobos have reasons to feel proud of the contributions they have made to their country,” Brooks writes. “Wherever they have settled, they have made life more enjoyable (for those who can afford it).” An entire vision of the world reveals itself in those parentheses.
Early in Bobos, Brooks argues that our new ruling class (which replaced the old WASP one) is a creation of America’s modern meritocracy. Those who rise do so because of their individual accomplishments, not through inherited status. And this, conservatives insist, is precisely as it should be. Which is why they oppose preferential systems such as affirmative action.