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The discreet terror of the American bourgeoisie

US society

The discreet terror of the American bourgeoisie

Elites thought they could have it both ways: capital gains and moral certainty

Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election strengthened and shattered the elite's worldview © AP

Almost 20 years ago, the columnist David Brooks caught the spirit of the age. His book Bobos in Paradise hailed the marriage between bohemian 1960s radicals and the money-chasing bourgeoisie of the 1980s. They had merged into the Clintons. In place of America’s Episcopalian elites came the meritocratic establishment. Anyone with talent could join. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his abilities,” wrote Mr Brooks.

This elite disliked glitzy consumption and lowbrow culture. Then, as now, Donald Trump topped the list of pariahs. His victory has strengthened and shattered their worldview. Beneath the conviction about Mr Trump’s wrongness lurks an angst that dare not speak its name. Mr Trump is a distraction from a reckoning that cannot be postponed forever.

What will America’s elites see when they look inwards? The first will be the shock of self-recognition. Bourgeois bohemians thought they could have it both ways: capital accumulation and moral certainty with no trade-offs. If you studied hard and earned merit, there was plenty of room at the top.

But there was a flaw in this thinking. America’s elites have stored more wealth than they can consume. This creates three problems for everyone else. First, elites invest their surpluses in replicating their advantages. Kids raised in poorer neighbourhoods with mediocre schools stand little chance. Their parents cannot match the social capital of their wealthier peers. The drawbridge is rising. The gap between the self image of meritocratic openness and reality is wide. Psychologists call this “self-discrepancy”. Economists call it barriers to entry.

Scarce goods, such as an Ivy League degree or living in a neighbourhood where you do not need a car, are manically contested © Getty

The second response to having such vast wealth is to create other kinds of scarcity. Since most people now have basic things — cars, smartphones and college education — material goods are no markers of success. Conspicuous consumption is played down. Scarce goods, such as an Ivy League degree or living in a neighbourhood where you do not need a car, are manically contested.

So are cultural advantages. America’s elites preach the gospel of a so-called stem education — science, technology, engineering and maths. But that is for other people. Social capital is about knowing what to say to whom and when, which is a sophisticated skill. Technical learning is for others. Children of the elites are learning how to raise money for philanthropic causes. Economists define this as a positional good. Sociologists call it virtue signalling. Mr Trump calls it political correctness.

The third challenge is the hardest to fix. Since there is too much capital chasing too few investment opportunities — what Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury secretary, calls “ secular stagnation ” — today’s America is cursed by an educational arms race. The jobs available do not match the qualifications millennials are acquiring. There is nothing relaxing about being a member of today’s aspiring classes. Kids must study harder and for longer than their parents to find jobs that do not often repay the effort.

The children of the wealthiest do not need student loans and live off their parents’ capital. The rest are struggling to justify the expense. It is as though they were led up to the promised land at sundown. The ratio of effort to outcome is rising. The more people study, the lower the returns to education. You always need more credentials, which most cannot afford. Instead of capital, losers accumulate frustration.

Which brings us back to Mr Trump. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, he said: “I love the poorly educated.” It seemed like a crass sentiment. But it appealed to many because it was the opposite of what other politicians would say. Mr Trump’s tweets betray his semi-literacy. He uses the word “their” when he means “there”. He talks of “unpresidented” when he means “unprecedented”. He uses quotation marks where they are not meant to “be”.

Mr Trump’s antics are a comfort blanket to the cognitive elites. He validates our moral superiority. Yet he eats away at it too. Somewhere in our bourgeois subconscious is the realisation that Mr Trump is no accident. He holds up a cracked mirror to our illusions. When we mock him, he draws strength. When he provokes, we stumble. Yet we cannot help ourselves. He is deeply outrageous.

Therein lies our deepest secret. We need Mr Trump just as he needs us. It is a ghastly symbiosis. Without Mr Trump, there would be no distraction. We might be forced to examine whether we live up to our own values. Do we love the highly educated? Do they deserve by virtue of credentials to be celebrated? Or should we revisit what we mean by a fair society? Answers sought by email or Twitter — but in correct English if you please.

edward.luce@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Divisions that date back to the founding of America / From Ethan Schwartz, New York, NY, US

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