synthetic zero

October 31st, 2009

Watching old Cary Grant movies on Roku/Netflix makes me think about the odd realignment of what people think of as “snobbery” in America; time was, films depicted the sophisticated, urban American as upper class, wealthy, with a Republican, patrician manner. And voting patterns matched this; rural white people were willing to vote in large numbers for Democrats (at least in some elections) as recently as Jimmy Carter. Now, however, TV, movies, blogs, etc., depict “snobbish” urban Americans as upper middle class (instead of upper class), liberal, and Democratic, and the rural poor have, strangely, aligned themselves with the party of the wealthy.

Of course, well-educated urban areas have always been more liberal, but it’s strange that the term “snob”, which people used to apply primarily to the conservative upper class now seems to be applied primarily to the educated urban middle class.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure, but I have some ideas. In the 60’s, Ivy League schools dramatically expanded their financial aid programs; this changed, for example, Harvard’s student body from predominantly wealthy to predominantly middle- to upper-middle class; this expansion of affordability of the school was correlated with an increase in average test scores: these schools became smarter and more middle-class. With this shift came a shift in the perception of the “elite”: as the typical Ivy League student became more middle class, middle class aesthetics, dress, and manners became, oddly enough, more symbolic of being part of this elite. When I was in college, most of my classmates dressed casually, almost self-consciously trying to avoid appearing stereotypically patrician, and even my classmates from wealthier backgrounds tended to hide this fact, for the most part. You can see this shift in perception very clearly in Whit Stillman’s hilarious depiction of the fading pre-college debutante scene in Metropolitan, in which upper class, Ivy League-bound teenagers subtly but unmistakably begin to recognize the passing from dominance of their class, and its replacement with a newer, smarter, more successful group of people from “normal” backgrounds. But even as Ivy League students began to shift their perceptions, so too did the public at large; the word “elite” no longer applies to the super wealthy so much as the well-educated, bright, urban populations of the coasts.

At the same time, of course, the Republican Party shifted its rhetorical strategy. In an attempt to find a way to gain popular appeal, the party came up with a strategy based on various powerful populist ideas; freedom, small government, but in addition, as a way of appealing to at least some of the rural poor, they started to champion small-minded religious fundamentalism. Although the poor still votes primarily Democratic, the rural white poor now votes Republican; a historic and rather odd shift. What the Democrats have failed to recognize is they need to clearly articulate that Republican policies are not about freedom so much as they are about lack of accountability; they’re not about increasing the freedom of the public, they’re about decreasing public scrutiny of what large corporations are doing. However, something strange happened along the way; old Establishment Republicans lost control, to a large extent, of the party they built; and the rural poor, who outnumber them, have largely taken over. Ironically, this caused a large number of former Establishment Republicans to vote Democratic in the last election; it’s hard to know whether this is a harbinger of a permanent realignment of the wealthy elites with the liberal “elites”, reunifying the Ivy League with the upper classes, or if this was a one-time phenomenon which we’ll see reversed in future elections. Unless the Democrats find a new populism, however, the “elite coastal snob” moniker may continue to hurt Democratic attempts to reach out to the heartland.

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