The Pew Foundation discovered in a recent poll that tensions over inequality in wealth now outrank tensions over race and immigration. But income inequality isn’t really the problem. A new upper class is the problem. And their wealth isn’t what sets them apart or creates so much animosity toward them.
Let’s take a guy — call him Hank — who built a successful auto-repair business and expanded it to 30 locations, and now his stake in the business is worth $100 million. He is not just in the 1%; he’s in the top fraction of the 1% — but he’s not part of the new upper class. He went to a second-tier state university, or maybe he didn’t complete college at all. He grew up in a working-class or middle-class home and married a woman who didn’t complete college. He now lives in a neighborhood with other rich people, but they’re mostly other people who got rich the same way he did. (The new upper class considers the glitzy mansions in his suburb to be déclassé.) He has a lot of money, but he doesn’t have power or influence over national culture, politics or economy, nor does he even have any particular influence over the culture, politics or economy of the city where he lives. He’s just rich.
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The new upper class is different. It consists of the people who run the country. By “the people who run the country,” I mean two sets of people. The first is the small set of people — well under 100,000, by a rigorous definition — who are responsible for the films and television shows you watch, the news you see and read, the success (or failure) of the nation’s leading corporations and financial institutions and the jurisprudence, legislation and regulations produced by government. The second is the broader set, numbering a few million people, who hold comparable positions of influence in the nation’s major cities.
What makes the new upper class new is that its members not only have power and influence but also increasingly share a common culture that separates them from the rest of the country. Fifty years ago, the people who rose to the most influential positions overwhelmingly had Hank’s kind of background, thoroughly grounded in the American mainstream. Today, people of influence are characterized by college education, often from elite colleges. The men are married not to the girl next door but to highly educated women socialized at the same elite schools who are often as professionally successful as their husbands. They were admitted to this path by a combination of high IQ and personality strengths. They are often the children — and, increasingly, grandchildren — of the upper-middle class and have never known any other kind of life.
As adults, they have distinctive tastes and preferences and seek out enclaves of others who share them. Their culture incorporates little of the lifestyle or the popular culture of the rest of the nation; in fact, members of the new upper class increasingly look down on that mainstream lifestyle and culture. Meanwhile, their children are so sheltered from the rest of the nation that they barely know what life is like outside Georgetown, Scarsdale, Kenilworth or Atherton. If this divide continues to widen, it will completely destroy what has made America’s national civic culture exceptional: a fluid, mobile society where people from different backgrounds live side by side and come together for the common good.