Noblesse Oblige, the Class Divide, and Race

This essay by Sam Goldman in the New York Times is quite good. The heart of the argument is that we need to face up to the fact that America has a ruling class. America has always been characterized by what Tocqueville called the “equality of conditions.” That is, although some had more money and some had less money, we all felt ourselves equally capable of making money. The differences between us weren’t about class; they were about whether, to put it proverbially, our ship had come in.”0 We defined our class by money accumulation and little else. Whereas the aristocrats in previous ages felt an obligation to those below them, there was no need for what Goldman calls “noblesse oblige” because all started in roughly the same boat.

But that’s all different now. As Charles Murray shows in his remarkably egalitarian book, Coming Apart, America has broken into two. There’s a professional, cosmopolitan class which, even if they’re not swimming in money, is certainly comfortable enough to replicate themselves by sending their children to expensive private schools. And, on the other hand, there’s a working, non-professional class, that, even if they can make ends meet (and they often can’t), see little prospect for advancement in a world that no longer makes sense to them. At best, their children can score very high on the SATs, go to private school, and join the professional class. Even “going to college” doesn’t guarantee entrance if it’s not the “right” college that open up the subsequent professionally successful doors. This is why those who occupy this class obsess about their children’s college acceptance; if they fail to get into the “right” college, they might fall out of this class. So, except for that small pretense of meritocracy, this has become essentially an aristocracy.

The difficulty is, however, that the professional class keeps pretending that it’s not. And, because their world is populated almost entirely by those who are also in their class, they fail to see the signs of their privilege. Whereas aristocrats of the past understood themselves as privileged and behaved with a noblesse oblige as a result, these new aristocrats think they owe the world nothing except their success. Still believing that the “equality of conditions” has persisted, they believe the non-professional class is there because they didn’t work hard enough. They think they have no obligation to others because those beneath them could have been better. And insofar as they fail to perceive themselves as aristocrats, it’s not even clear that they imagine there are people “beneath” them. Instead, they see the non-professional class as being essentially uncultured and even uncivilized. The remarks about “fly-over country” and “mouth-breathers” betray their elitism. To the extent that “fly-over country” embraced Trump, they can attribute their elitism to the low character of those on the other side. So far from feeling a noblesse oblige, they feel what they think is justified contempt for the “MAGA-hat-wearing-racist-mouth-breathers.”

The difficulty facing America right now is that, even as the professional class is relatively oblivious of this class divide insofar as they can hide it from themselves, the non-professional class is now completely aware of the divide. They believe that the professional class does not treat them as equals. Feeling that they are not being treated as equals, the election of Trump seems to me to have been a kind of guttural scream at the injustice of a system that seems to be rigged against them. And it’s a system that seems rigged against them even as the winners claim everyone has an equal shot. There have always been winners and losers in America, but, as long as everyone felt they had a shot to win, they thought the game legitimate. The losers no longer think this game is legitimate. Whether you’re a white kid growing up in rural Tennessee or a black kid growing up in Gary, Indiana, you just don’t have the same shot as the rich kid going to private school in Palo Alto. But, instead of recognizing their concerns and acting with grace and humility toward them, the winners degrade them further. It should be said, however, that the professional class doesn’t degrade the black kid from Gary further. But that’s related to another part of the problem to which I turn next.

This divide isn’t soluble by simply lambasting the losers as uncivilized racists. Nor, on the other side, is it soluble by calling the winners “rodents” and “zombies,” as Glenn Ellmers did in his recent piece in The American Mind. I’m honestly not sure what the answer is except that I know, as my daughter would say, those aren’t it. I also know that it has to begin by us all admitting what is more and more obvious: there’s a deep class divide in America in which access from one side to the other is nearly insurmountable. And, although race is a proxy for one part of the divide, it cannot be reduced to race. In fact, the white liberal attempt to reduce it to race has begun resembling, perhaps at a subconscious level, the flip side of the attempt by Southern rich people to destroy the progressive movement by dividing poor blacks from poor whites. If they could move beyond the race question, non-professional whites and non-professional blacks would likely find they have more in common than they think. In fact, I’m tempted to say that this might be the first step toward something better.

8 thoughts on “Noblesse Oblige, the Class Divide, and Race

  1. It is hard to see how the data support this interpretation. Class division was not as stark as the picture you paint. Biden received slightly more college educated support but not a whole lot more. Trump received slightly more working class support but not a whole lot more. A shift of a relatively small percentage in each category either direction could have produced a landslide for either candidate. There are much more significant divides between evangelicals and everyone else — with the latter overwhelmingly for Trump. And white males went strongly for Trump, including many in the professional class. Blacks went overwhelmingly for Biden. Latent racism, though hardly the only factor, seems a much more potent one than class. Trump licensed open racism. Gender not the only factor, but seems to be more powerful than class. See the demographics:

  2. One further point: a bigger puzzle is why so many college educated voters, including so many in the so-called professional class voted for Trump.

    1. In other words, you cite data from the election. My point is more about a class divide that’s partially reflected in the election, but not reducible to it. But the fact that red vs. blue breaks along urban/suburban vs. rural/exurban lines certainly suggests something about that relationship.

  3. I would say first that my argument has much less to do with the election and more to do with a deepening class divide like we’ve never before seen in America. As for the election, my argument regarding Trump was to suggest that some of red America, most of whom fall into the non-cosmopolitan class embraced Trump for reasons arising from this class divide. I also don’t think those numbers capture the argument, but perhaps that’s because professional/non-professional isn’t all that useful as a dividing line. Cosmopolitan/non-cosmopolitan, perhaps? Elite educated/non-elite educated.
    The more general point is that the nature of the political parties arises from but doesn’t strictly represent this class divide. The fact that an overwhelming number of those who either teach at or attend elite universities vote Democrat indicates that divide. Those in the elite world pretty consistently identify with the Democratic Party. But, on the other hand, I think there are still lots of Americans who are voting the same way their parents voted and for whom these partisan divides are all occurring in clouds far above their heads. And the poll numbers reflect that. Fiorina’s book, Disconnect, is good on that last point.

  4. I agree that cosmopolitan/rural is more striking than professional/non-professional. And I did, perhaps mistakenly, think that you were talking about the election — as the support for Trump certainly is a puzzle.

    1. I would still say that professional/non-professional is certainly related to the cosmopolitan/rural distinction insofar as it’s partially the cause of that distinction. People pursuing professional careers tend to migrate towards urban areas. And I guess I would say that I was trying to use what seems to me to be a class divide to think more about the election rather than using the election to illustrate a class divide.

      1. A number of working class and poor urban districts vote overwhelmingly Democratic. A number of small cities in largely rural states with upper middle class and college educated professionals vote overwhelmingly Republican. There are plenty of non-college educated voters in east and west coast urban areas and plenty of professionals in middle America.

  5. More rigorous explanations can be found in Nicole Mellow’s book, The State of Disunion: Regional Sources of Modern American Partisanship.

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