I've been reading-- listening to, to be precise-- David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, which is a few years old (2000?). It's very interesting. I can recognize the class he's describing-- the "bo"-hemian "bo"-urgeoisie, a.k.a. the "creative class"-- and I guess I'm part of it, have been for most of my adult life. I remember the desperate yearning to go to a "top school," the feeling of having arrived upon setting foot on an Ivy League campus, the need to be with people like myself; a certain value system, derivative of the high school nerd in a way yet defining its own brand of cool, pro-achievement, pro-intellect, vaguely anti-materialist, with a streak of romanticism and sympathetic to the revolutionaries in much of history but esteeming contemporary civilization, wanting adventure but quietly anticipating worldly success. All that, not as an idiosyncratic ethos but as the attitudes of a certain demographic, attitudes one assumed in a person encountered in certain social contexts, e.g., a Harvard party or a job fair. The "resume gods," as Brooks calls them, or the "meritocrats," for he dates their rise to Harvard's decision to let the SATs play a major role in college admissions decisions, thus excluding the less bright members of the old WASP elite. (I've heard that Bush couldn't have gotten into Yale if he'd applied a few years later.)
It is a class, for example, in which environmentalism amounted to a substitute religion, one in which participation was voluntary and varied in degree, but a complete ignorance of which would be disdained. Religion is the right word: it's regarded as something sacred. I remember a conversation I had about endangered species in Hawaii. I questioned whether it mattered whether some endangered beetle went extinct. What percentage of the population even knows it exists? How much pleasure do they really get out of it? This was sacrilege: to apply a utilitarian value standard to such a question is inappropriate, obscene. My interlocutor was amazed at the challenge, and thought it was some kind of tasteless joke. It wasn't that, but I wasn't taking a stand, either: I really don't know what to think about such questions. But it's part of a pattern. I've always resisted, argued against, or sometimes let smolderingly but quietly dissented from, the "bobo" value system. There is a certain egalitarianism, rejection of (open) greed, appreciation of arts and the intellect, work ethic and sometimes intellectual bravado, spirit of adventure, tolerance and open-mindedness, casualness and rationality in it that I like. But there are elements, too, of superstition, hypocrisy, and snobbishness. Environmentalism is one instance. There is little or no evidence that genetically modified foods are particularly dangerous; the objections to it have a certain theological flavor. Top-school education and trips to Europe are status symbols. And an egalitarian ethos is combined with an uneasy awareness that the lifestyle one enjoys, or at any rate confidently expects in due course, involves getting and spending incomes hundreds of times more than billions who are morally one's equals, or at any rate, to whom it would be gauche to admit feelings of open superiority.
As I was trying to work through these contradictions a strange convergence occurred. What can we do about world poverty?-- that was the question. Send them money? But bad governments-- and not all the governments of poor countries are bad, but many are, and most of them in the worst-off countries are-- will divert the aid to themselves (like the "oil for palaces" in Saddam's Iraq). So a radical answer suggests itself: overthrow the bad governments. And another radical answer: let them come here. And just as I was thinking these things the president of the United States had the same thoughts. He led a "coalition of the willing" to liberate one of the world's two or three most despicable tyrannies and, at great cost. Then he took a bold stand for immigration reform, using rhetoric that assumed away the moral stigma some try to attach to illegal immigration.
So I became a strong Bush supporter. But this was unusual, and even anathema. I grew accustomed to being at luncheons, at parties, in seminars where contempt for Bush was taken for granted. I felt like a Bolshevik in tsarist Russia, my dissent smoldering within. Argument was the ground on which I felt confident. An argument I might win; indeed I think the one thing it is easy for a smart Bush-supporter to do is to take all comers in any argument, if only because the Bush-hating establishment has so over-reached that anyone who is vaguely allied to the prevailing coffee-shop opinions is sure to make lots of untenable claims. It is tenable that Bush was, overall, a mediocre president. But that Bush is "the worst president in American history," etc., is untenable, and anyone who takes that line can be ripped to shreds, as long as the battle goes on long enough and remains on the turf of fair argument. Which is why they won't let it be played out on that ground. I learned, back in my Harvard years, that there are social contexts where argument is a faux pas. I learned to let my dissent smolder inside, to make a feint here, to adopt a skeptical tone there, to signal a bit, for my conscience's sake, but not to let my opinion out. It sometimes created moral conflicts, because it was quite acceptable to make anti-Bush sneers, and to be silent was to be complicit, but to argue was boorish.
Bobos, as a class, rebelled against Bush, but they didn't have much in the way of arguments against him. Or rather, they had arguments, but not arguments that commanded general assent, either within the bobo class or among other groups with whom the bobos wanted to make alliances. And some of the arguments were borrowed from the arsenal of Pat Buchanan-type nationalist-isolationists, or the anti-globalization left, or realists in the Nixon-Scowcroft tradition, or other lines of thought with which the bobos had little sympathy. I think the reason the bobos really hate Bush is that he robbed them of their innocence by taking some of their ideals and applying them in a way they were too delicate and dilettantish to accept. They liked to see themselves as cosmopolitan and humanitarian. They supported intervention against genocide in Bosnia, or Rwanda. But to support a full-scale war-- that was too much to ask! Yet they could not not support the liberation of Iraq and still represent the End-of-History liberal-democracy-for-all values that they took for granted, that they had assumed, casually and half-consciously, as their moral self-image. Or rather, they could-- but only as respectful dissenters, e.g., "I support the general goal of opposing totalitarian regimes like Saddam's, and the use of military force for helping poor people is often appropriate, but I'm not sure this action just now is the best choice." But to say that is to affirm the legitimacy of the liberation, and even the grand strategy, and to reduce one's differences to a quibble over tactics. So the finely honed intelligences of the educated class was squandered on sophistries and sneers to shut out the uncomfortable new message preached by Bush in the language of values so similar to the bobos' own.
Now is the moment of the bobos' revenge. Obama is their icon, their representative. It was they who poured their millions into his campaign coffers. They are just sure their man can run things better than the "frat boy," the "cowboy," the one who got into Yale before the SAT raised Ivy League standards. Obama personifies their tolerance, their optimism, their cool, smooth intelligence... and their resume obsessions, their smugness, their incoherence, their unfamiliarity with sacrifice or-- in McCain's words-- "a cause greater than self." I think we may be seeing the crisis of the bobo class. The economic crisis is shaking their confidence in themselves and their futures. And the Obama administration is looking a little like a college graduate who aces his exams and then gets out into the world and discovers he doesn't have any marketable skills. Will his supporters want to take ownership of this administration six months, a year, from now? For eight years the bobos have been telling themselves that all would be well with the world if only the East Coast coffee-shop crowd were running it. What they're realizing now is that this narrative was misclassified. It was a myth by which a certain class of people defined their identity, not a coherent, let alone true, theory of the world. It's unraveling, and the bobos may unravel with it.