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.
Except, of course, for members of the elite. For the latest example of such thinking one need merely look at Adam Bellow’s In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History, a long (indeed overlong) new book that has prompted a media frisson. You see, its author is the son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Saul Bellow, and though his parents split when he was 3, Bellow has doubtless spent most of his 40-odd years dealing with the fact of his paternity — living up to Dad, trading on his name, dealing with charges of nepotism.
Frankly, most readers will skim the fine points of Bellow’s sweeping argument — which discusses the nepotistic behavior of everything from the Kennedy clan to slime mold (seriously) — in order to reach what he has to say about present-day America. And here, the basic idea is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from our conservative writers — a defense of the ruling order. Bellow argues that the so-called New Nepotism, which we Americans now enjoy, is a good thing because the privileges of birth have become bound to “the iron rule of merit.” That is, although the children of the rich and powerful clearly have more opportunities than the rest of us — posh schools, open doors, powerful allies, a sense of comfort with the elite — this is a far cry from traditional nepotism in which parents hired their kids outright or pulled strings to land them a good position. Whatever your connections today, Bellow insists, you still have to earn your success. Bill Walton can’t just call up David Stern and get his son Luke a good NBA contract.
Now this is quite true (Kate Hudson’s “stardom” notwithstanding), and I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the iron rule of merit would have rewarded Adam Bellow, who is brainy, writes well and has good commercial instincts (he published Dinesh D’Souza’s ghastly right-wing best-seller Illiberal Education). But what of Colin Powell’s son, Michael, who’s head of the FCC? What of Dick Cheney’s daughter Elizabeth, now a deputy assistant secretary of state? What of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who’s married to Senator Mitch McConnell and had as acting solicitor for the Labor Department, Eugene Scalia, the son of — you guessed it.
And then, of course, there’s George W. Bush, who Bellow, perhaps wisely, gives only two brief mentions in a 565-page book. Until his early 40s, Dubya lived like my cousins back in Iowa — he was a lazy student, tireless party animal, lousy businessman and superb mama’s boy. But where my cousins now work at a John Deere plant, Bush is the president — thanks to his dad’s connections and to having his equally connected brother running Florida on an election night when it was extremely handy having kinfolk in charge. Not exactly a career that leaves one wanting to praise nepotism.
Nor does the lacerating June 20 piece in the Los Angeles Times, which chronicled the latest way corporate America now buys votes in Congress. Unable to give our representatives all the money that’s necessary, companies simply hire as lobbyists the children of U.S. senators whose votes affect their industry. For instance, John Breaux Jr. and the distinguished Chet Lott (a failed country musician and pizza-parlor manager in Kentucky) suddenly landed high-paying jobs as lobbyists for BellSouth. Why? Their fathers, Louisiana Senator John Breaux and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, just happened to be on the Senate committees that voted on telecommunications legislation.
Predictably, Breaux and Lott (and all the others in Congress with lobbyist relatives) swear that they’d never, ever give any special break to a corporate cause just because their own flesh and blood happened to be representing it. Just as predictably, cases like this don’t get a whole lot of play by Bellow, who, with the suaveness of one who can declare the Borgias “a remarkable family,” insists that nepotism is actually an “art” that can be practiced well or badly. I don’t know about Bellow, but I’d say that BellSouth and the Lotts practiced it pretty damn well — for themselves anyway. Perhaps they asked, “What would slime mold do?”