Monday, June 28, 2010

What's the Matter with Connecticut?

I've just published an article of this title in the most recent issue of "The American Conservative," one of the best and most independent-minded journals available today, and one to which all readers here should consider subscribing (among other reasons, yours truly is now a "Contributing Editor").

In the article, I explore some reasons for the flip side of Thomas Frank's thesis in his book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" If it's the case that working class Kansans appear to vote against their class interests in their support of Republicans since the Reagan 80s, then it's no less the case that affluent voters in Connecticut and similar "Blue States" appear to be voting just as much against their own economic interests in their support of Democratic candidates. What gives?

Here's a bit of a taste of my argument. Subscribe to the magazine for the full essay.


The best guide on this subject remains the work of historian Christopher Lasch, especially his exploration of the rise of the meritocracy in the title essay of his posthumous book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. There Lasch excoriated the new meritocratic class, a group that had achieved success through the upward-mobility of education and career and that increasingly came to be defined by rootlessness, cosmopolitanism, a thin sense of obligation, and diminishing reservoirs of patriotism. The meritocracy had all but replaced the old aristocracy of the sort embodied by a Connecticut man like Prescott Bush, on the one hand substituting talent for privilege, but on the other hand replacing older forms of “noblesse oblige” with self-congratulation. Lasch argued that this new class “retained many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues,” lacking the sense of “reciprocal obligation” that had been a feature of the old order.

Toward the end of the 20th-century, this class of “meritocrats” began to congregate. This was a key finding of a series of books published in the early 2000s by Richard Florida. If the old aristocracy was dispersed throughout the country—likely residing in the nicer parts in any given city or town—the new meritocracy, called by Florida the “Creative Class,” fled smaller towns and settled in a relative few attractive urban settings. These cities, according to Florida, cater to the Creative Class with liberal lifestyle offerings such as a “teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between participant and observer, or between creativity and its creators....”

Not until 2009, with the publication of Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, did data become available that more adequately reveal what’s the matter with Connecticut. What Bishop found, in combining data used by Richard Florida with the kind of data that had been employed by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, was that a key difference between “Creative Class” cities and the rest of the country was a remarkable gap in what Putnam has called “social capital.” While Creative Class locations are successful in generating financial and creative capital, they are comparatively poorer in social capital. Bishop discovered that people living in non-Creative Class settings enjoyed “the comfort of strong families, bustling civic groups, near universal political participation, and abundant volunteering.” Creative Class cities, by contrast, “had fewer volunteers, lower church attendance, and weaker family connections.” Among other attractions for the Creative Class were “anonymity, the opportunity for self-invention, and the economic benefits of loose ties.”

Because of the sorting that has taken place, locales with large Creative Class concentrations are far less likely to engage in activities that would call upon deep reservoirs of social capital. Inclined toward individualism and a devotion to personal expression and development, and committed especially to success in their careers, members of the meritocracy rely not on each other for assistance and support, but rather expect the government to fill in the abandoned civic sphere. Thus their decision to support liberal politicians is a classic case of recognizing opportunity costs: rather than generate their own social capital, which would detract from their careers and their lifestyle experimentation, they are willing to use relatively ample economic resources to get someone else to do the job....

Members of the meritocracy are well-aware of those whom they have left behind, and rather than assuming the personal obligation of old to those less fortunate, they elect instead to pay an impersonal middleman—government—to deal with the aftereffects of what Wendell Berry has called the “strip-mining” of talent from every town and hamlet in the world. At the same time, they demand that everyone else pay up as well—what would have been personal forms of responsibility have instead been spread to the entire population, including those they purport to succor. As Christopher Lasch wrote, “obligation, like everything else, has been depersonalized; exercised through the agency of the state, the burden of supporting it falls not on the professional and managerial class but, disproportionately, on the lower-middle and working class.....”

Kansas needs to quit giving Connecticut a free pass: rather than framing the fight over issues in the “culture wars”—as important as those may be—Kansas needs to stop allowing Connecticut to pay a middleman to assauge its guilt. The best way is explicitly to connect the massive inequalities fostered by the new meritocratic arrangements that Connecticut enjoys with the bleeding-heart claims of its own purported liberalism and thereby—like the prophets of old—call them to account.


Stephen said...

This looks like a very interesting article, Prof. Deneen. I especially like the image of the "impersonal middleman." The depersonalization of obligation is a great problem today.

I do have one question, though: Does your article address the Marxist/Gramscian concept of "false consciousness" underlying Frank's book?

Ryan J. Carey said...

As historians, we're taught to be skeptical of narratives of decline (tragedies, in classical terms). I was also taught not to judge the past. So I was immediately struck by this post and the supposed loss of some aristocratic Eden in the recent past when communities were close-knit, supposedly inclusive, and worked together in a spirit of volunteerism to provide for those "less fortunate."

History in the service of politics is a dangerous game. Bad history in the service of politics is even worse. Your chronology here is rather incomplete. The moment that gave rise to the welfare state, from the Populist-Progressive era tot he Great Depression, saw a particular failure of the aristocratic ideology of noblesse oblige. The new aristocracy that arose during the industrial revolution - Robber Barons, captains of industry, tycoons, whatever - and the world they oversaw was built on the backs of a permanent underclass. Indeed, it depended on the existence of one. It was only after the the spirit of volunteerism proved totally insufficient, both materially and theoretically, that the state began to step in (and of course who those agents of the state were, why they stepped in, and who demanded this shift is a different story entirely).

The implication here is that we abandon the social wage. But where do we stop? Public schools? Roads? Fire companies. They used to be voluntary, too. Hey, let's all stand in line and pass buckets from the water main. Ooh. Sorry, no public utilities. We'd have to get rid of water too. I suppose if we abandon all those -- or zero-fund them or mismanage them so badly that they can do nothing but fail, which seemed to be the Bush strategy -- then we can get back to a time when the aristocrats did their duty, we all went to church, and of course as a result everyone lived in harmony with each other. Except of course all those who didn't: demonized immigrants, racial minorities, women, etc.

Rob T said...

Carey, you can be as skeptical of declines as you like, but skeptics rarely see the unique turns of history, they are too busy explaining them away. Even Obama has said we are experiencing a "coarsening of our culture."

The existence of a meritocracy with a cosmopolitan, rootless, self-serving/self-congratulating ethos does not depend on any historical comparisons to earlier aristocratic ages. It is simply a fact.

BTW, Florida's comments about street life are unintentionally hilarious. America has some of the most unwalkable streets and the most nonexistent street culture in the world. Where exactly are these musicians and artists who hang on the streets? Are they outside Starbuck's or Best Buy?