All-Consuming Liberalism

A dozen years back Goodman David Brooks entered the cultural pantheon through an oddly incisive book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. The title charmed as Brooks asserted that a new generation of elites was upon us. Living well – not political clash – was the best revenge. What Brooks recognized and what Mitt Romney missed was that aesthetics mattered as much as economic interest in establishing political culture.

I think of Bobos when I assay the broadsheet of Brooks’ current employer, The New York Times. One can count on the editorials of the Times to embrace the most progressive respectable position: the stance of the established Statist elite. And one can count on the adverts in the Times to inspire the warm glow of Veblenian pecuniary emulation. I think of Bobos, too, when I peruse the New Yorker or even such ostensibly apolitical, but fully progressive, sources such as Time Out New York (or, from my prairie perch, Time Out Chicago).

These journals are committed to the goals of redistribution of income, environmental sustainability and ecological responsibility, and rabid, compulsive consumption capitalism. Perhaps there is no inherent contradiction between caring about people and caressing things, but the sections of the paper rarely seem as one. Recently in the Sunday Review, the Times’ editorialists promoted more regulations on health care and financial services, a more welcoming immigration policy with support for new arrivals, and one of their columnists, Ezekiel Emanuel (Rahmbo’s brother, Ezbo) is in high dudgeon about companies providing the wrong snacks for their employees (“an additional serving of potato chips every day led to a 1.69-pound weight increase over four years”). The mandarins of the Times did not comment on sea levels or climate change, but wait.

Along with these exhortations, the Times also delivered a posh 156 page Style Magazine: a testimonial to Ferragamo, the Ritz, and the Caymans. The best of living if living well is the best of life. The two sections as juxtaposed represent the Bobo paradox: a commitment to increased state involvement to achieve justice and collective betterment and a commitment to free-market consumption to achieve status recognition and personal desire.

Yet, re-reading Bobos in Paradise inspires the belief that, like any anodyne composite, social commentary should come with an expiration date. Following Calvin Trillin’s mordant observation of the shelf life of new books, this expiration date is likely to fall somewhere between milk and yogurt. Brooks recognizes the cultural changes among his elites (he embraces his inner and outer Bobo). The desire for omnivorous perfection trumps all. This will lead, he believes, to a twenty-first century political age in which the bohemian 1960s merge with the bourgeois 1980s in a triumph of triangulation. This makes David Brooks all smiley-face. He proclaims that successful politicians “seek a Third Way beyond the old categories of left and right. They march under reconciling banners such as compassionate conservatism, practical idealism, smart growth, prosperity with a purpose” (p. 256). He avers, “Thanks in large part to the influence of the Bobo establishment, we are living in an era of relative social peace. The political parties, at least at the top, have drifted toward the center. For the first time since the 1950s, it is possible to say that there aren’t huge ideological differences between the parties . . . Bobos have begun to create a set of standards and mores that work in the new century. It’s good to live in a Bobo world . . . . they have the ability to go down in history as the class that led America into another golden age .”(p. 268, 270, 273)

How Y2K; how September 10th. Brooks trips on the prognosticator’s fallacy: what emerges today, will grow in the future. But in 2012 American politics the third way has been overtaken by ways one and two. As our politics divides and fragments, the culture of consumption proceeds apace.

The Bobos have seen their trust erode and trust funds bounce back. This ideological strain has taken root, most dramatically among progressives, who, according to research, are less given to personal charity than their compeers. (For conservatives consumption poses no moral challenge and tithing is Godly). For Bobo progressives enforced compassion and unfettered consumption are yoked virtues. Both for more established progressives (the Times and the New Yorker) or for aspiring ones (Time Out magazines), the front of the book and the back of the book operate in an uncomfortable, but economically necessary, synergy. The encomiums to buy evermore are often enough at odds with the editorial content, but the editorials depend on the slickly depicted products, both those presented in paid advertising and those aspiration goods promoted by journalists. That the contradiction is unspoken is essential to its power.

As we gaze from the bloodied political fields of 2010 and 2012, we chortle at Brooks’ belief in a moment in which those like him, whether Democrats or Republicans, will merrily rule without much concern of the consent of the governed. Elites often believe that their path – the first way, the third way, or the highway – is inevitable. But elites should not sleep well when their power ignores the unwashed. These masses pressure their representatives to stand firm and even elect their favored tribunes, both the Occupiers, not (yet?) invested in Times Style conspicuous consumption and the Tea Party whose consumption tastes are more Wal-Mart than Patek Philippe. Brooks spies an emerging golden age of elite consensus: how’s that workin’ out for you?