In the third decade of the 21st century, the Social Register still exists, there are still debutante balls, polo and lacrosse are still patrician sports, and old money families still summer at Newport. But these are fossil relics of an older class system. The rising ruling class in America is found in every major city in every region. Membership in it depends on having the right diplomas—and the right beliefs.
To observers of the American class system in the 21st century, the common conflation of social class with income is a source of amusement as well as frustration. Depending on how you slice and dice the population, you can come up with as many income classes as you like—four classes with 25%, or the 99% against the 1%, or the 99.99% against the 0.01%. In the United States, as in most advanced societies, class tends to be a compound of income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, and race, in various proportions. There has never been a society in which the ruling class consisted merely of a basket of random rich people.
Progressives who equate class with money naturally fall into the mistake of thinking you can reduce class differences by sending lower-income people cash—in the form of a universal basic income, for example. Meanwhile, populists on the right tend to imagine that the United States was much more egalitarian, within the white majority itself, than it really was, whether in the 1950s or the 1850s.
Both sides miss the real story of the evolution of the American class system in the last half century toward the consolidation of a national ruling class—a development which is unprecedented in U.S. history. That’s because, from the American Revolution until the late 20th century, the American elite was divided among regional oligarchies. It is only in the last generation that these regional patriciates have been absorbed into a single, increasingly homogeneous national oligarchy, with the same accent, manners, values, and educational backgrounds from Boston to Austin and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. This is a truly epochal development.
In living memory, every major city in the United States had its own old money families with their own clubs and their own rituals and their own social and economic networks. Often the money was not very old, going back to a real estate killing or a mining fortune or an oil strike a generation or two before. Even so, the heirs and heiresses set themselves up as a local aristocracy. Like other aristocracies, these urban patricians renewed their bloodlines and bank accounts by admitting new money, once the parvenus had served probation and assimilated the values of the local patriciate.
These regional urban patriciates were similar demographically, at a time when the racial caste system that divided whites from nonwhites was accompanied by an ethnic caste system among whites. Within the white population, Anglo American Protestants, preferably Episcopalian or Presbyterian, were at the top, followed by Anglo Americans belonging to more vulgar denominations like the Methodists and Baptists. German and Scandinavian Americans could be honorary Anglo Americans. But Irish American Catholics, Jews, and Italian and Polish Americans occupied a lower rung. Mexican Americans occupied an ambiguous position. In some areas they were discriminated against as Blacks were, in others they were treated as the equivalent of low-status whites. Black Americans and Asian Americans were excluded.
The Anglo American Protestant patricians in every region and state shared a common Anglo American and Trans-Atlantic culture—but not a common national culture. Instead, they had regional cultures separately based on a common British and European heritage. This is so peculiar that it needs to be explained.
Let us begin with what they shared: Trans-Atlantic culture. From the earliest days of the republic, the wealthy elites of even the most remote and Godforsaken parts of the South and West could afford to vacation in Europe. They would bring back the latest French and British fashions to rural Mississippi or Wyoming. Before the self-consciously regional Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, there was never any indigenous American architecture, just wave after wave of faddish European styles: Palladianism, Greek Revival, Gothic, Romanesque. The relics of these transient Europhile fads litter the United States in the form of courthouses and other old public buildings from coast to coast.
In contrast, local patriciates tried to boost their own authors at the expense of those in other American regions. My maternal grandmother, a schoolteacher for part of her career, belonged to the minor Southern gentry. She saw to it that my brother and I were introduced to the literary canon as educated white Southerners of the early 20th century conceived of it: A British substrate, consisting of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, overlain by Southern writers like Sidney Lanier, whose “The Marshes of Glynn” introduced me to the wonders of verse. The equivalent New England literary canon ran directly from Shakespeare and Milton and Pope and Scott and Tennyson to Emerson, Longfellow and Whittier and the other “Fireside Poets” (Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville only acquired their present status later, thanks to mid-20th-century academics).
In short, for two centuries there was a double competition among regional American oligarchies. On the one hand, the local notables, particularly those from the newly settled regions, had to prove they were not backward bumpkins, but were just as up-to-date with regard to European fashions as the patricians in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. On the other hand, some of them dreamed that the city they ran, whether it was Atlanta or Milwaukee, would become the Athens or Renaissance Florence of North America, and favored local writers, poets, and artists, as long as their work was in fashionable styles and did not inspire seditious thoughts among the local masses. The subnational blocs of New Englanders, Southerners, and Midwesterners fought to control the federal government in order to promote their regional economic interests.
The status of Harvard and Yale as prestigious national rather than regional universities is relatively recent. A few generations ago, it was assumed that the sons of the local gentry (this was before coeducation began in the 1960s and 1970s) would remain in the area and rise to high office in local and state business, politics, and philanthropy—goals that were best served if they attended a local elite college and joined the right fraternity, rather than being educated in some other part of the country. College was about upper-class socialization, not learning, which is why parochial patricians favored regional colleges and universities. If your family was in the local social register, that was much more important than whether you went to an Ivy League college or a local college or no college at all.
American patricians of earlier generations would have been surprised that rich people, many of them celebrities, would scheme and bribe university officers to get their children into a few top universities. Scheming to get into the right local “society” club—now that would have made sense.
Upper-class women were the chief enforcers of local “society.” Anybody who thinks that women are somehow naturally more generous and egalitarian than men has never encountered a doyenne of high society. Mrs. Astor’s 400 families in New York had their counterparts throughout the United States, from the Mainline elite in Philadelphia to the Highland Park set in Dallas.
As in the novels of Jane Austen, the daughters of the local ruling class had to be married to a young man from a good family, if the dynasty was not to fall into disgrace. Until recently (and to this day, in some circles) a young woman’s debut in society was, if anything, more important than marriage itself, since the debutante ball helped to define her eligibility for a high-status marriage.
When I explain all of this to friends from other countries, they tend to be surprised, if not suspicious of my account. What about frontier egalitarianism? Wasn’t America dominated by the just-folks middle class in the 19th and 20th centuries? Isn’t America in danger now, for the first time in its history, of becoming an Old World style hierarchy?
The egalitarianism of the American frontier is greatly exaggerated. Some of the myth comes from European tourists like Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Martineau, and Dickens. For ideological reasons or just for entertainment, they played up how classless and vulgar Americans were for audiences back in Europe. On their trips they mostly encountered the wealthy and educated, who might have been informal by the standards of British dukes or French royalty, but who were hardly yeoman farmers. If these famous tourists had spent their time in slave cabins, immigrant tenements, miners camps, and cowboy bunkhouses, they might have gotten a different sense of how egalitarian America actually was. Elite Americans might have been more likely than elite Brits to smile politely when dealing with working-class people, but they were no more likely to welcome them into the family.
The Western frontier was not entirely a myth, to be sure. My great-great-grandfather proposed marriage to my great-great-grandmother by handing her a letter from horseback before riding north on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, and a distant uncle was murdered by outlaws on the road outside of Austin in the 1880s. But the Wild West or boomtown era everywhere was brief. The first white settlers in a region may have been trappers or small farmers or ranchers or outlaws or pirates, but once Native Americans had been removed to reservations and the railroad was in place, the area was rapidly gentrified. The rich moved in, bought up the good land, built mansions and the local opera house in the current European style and drove the frontiersmen and their families out.
White poverty in the United States today is concentrated in greater Appalachia, because the Scots Irish settlers, often illiterate squatters, were priced out of other areas and ended up in the hills of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the Texas Hill Country. As soon as the affluent discover the scenic views in those areas, they will be forced to move once more, just as old-stock families are already being priced out of the Texas Hill Country by rich refugees from California, bringing with them their cultural heritage of trophy wineries and boutiques, New Age spirituality and organic cuisines.
Because there was no single national American elite, there was never a single Western frontier. New Englanders moved west in a band to the south of the Great Lakes, and then moved eastward and inland from ports on the Pacific Coast. While the Scots Irish followed the hills, the Southern planter class acquired cotton-friendly soil from Virginia along the Gulf of Mexico to central Texas, where the coastal plain collides with the southernmost part of the Great Plains. As the historians David Hackett Fischer and Wilbur Zelinsky have pointed out, these parallel bands of east-to-west settlement brought separate Anglo American cultures, reflected in everything from codes of honor to town layouts (town planners in greater New England laid out village greens with churches and schools, while Southern towns tended to be centered on the courthouse).
In short, a historical narrative which describes a fall from the yeoman democracy of an imagined American past to the plutocracy and technocracy of today is fundamentally wrong. While American society was not formally aristocratic it was hierarchical and class-ridden from the beginning—not to mention racist and ethnically biased. What’s new today is that these highly exclusive local urban patriciates are in the process of being absorbed into the first truly national ruling class in American history—which is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others.
Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias. As recently as the 1970s, an acquaintance of mine who worked for a major Northeastern bank had to disguise the fact of his Irish ancestry from the bank’s WASP partners. No longer. Elite banks and businesses are desperate to prove their commitment to diversity. At the moment Wall Street and Silicon Valley are disproportionately white and Asian American, but this reflects the relatively low socioeconomic status of many Black and Hispanic Americans, a status shared by the Scots Irish white poor in greater Appalachia (who are left out of “diversity and inclusion” efforts because of their “white privilege”). Immigrants from Africa and South America (as opposed to Mexico and Central America) tend to be from professional class backgrounds and to be better educated and more affluent than white Americans on average—which explains why Harvard uses rich African immigrants to meet its informal Black quota, although the purpose of affirmative action was supposed to be to help the American descendants of slaves (ADOS). According to Pew, the richest groups in the United States by religion are Episcopalian, Jewish, and Hindu (wealthy “seculars” may be disproportionately East Asian American, though the data on this point is not clear).
Membership in the multiracial, post-ethnic national overclass depends chiefly on graduation with a diploma—preferably a graduate or professional degree—from an Ivy League school or a selective state university, which makes the Ivy League the new social register. But a diploma from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university by itself is not sufficient for admission to the new national overclass. Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.
Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.
Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.
Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths—in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite. A decade ago, as a member of the American overclass you could get away with saying, along with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but I strongly support civil unions for gay men and lesbians.” In 2020 you are expected to say, “I strongly support trans rights.” You will flunk the interview if you start going on about civil unions.
More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter. America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify—which, among other things, proves the idiocy of the “Russiagate” theory that Vladimir Putin brainwashed white working-class Americans into voting for Trump by memes in social media which they are the least likely American voters to see.
Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.
Mrs. Astor would approve.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.