Writing for the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti paints a picture of an American political aristocracy possessed of a childish lack of self-awareness:
…I am referring to the cringe-inducing moments of false modesty. Wagner complains, “Every trip to the high-end knife shop in D.C.’s Union Market ‘costs us about $500.’” Weisberg reports, “Friends describe Kass as reserved,” despite the celebrity chef’s multiple television credits. Weisberg writes, “Their ideal Saturday night is dinner with friends—not a red-carpet event,” and then, in the very next sentence, notes, “In October, they attended the News and Documentary Emmys, at which Wagner was nominated, but sneaked in a side door to avoid the cameras.” Wagner describes her horror when she broke a heel on the way to a job interview with George Clooney (she got the job). Mention is made of Kass’s five post-college odyssey years, “cooking and eating his way around the world,” including “planting corn with Zapatista farmers in Mexico.” Weisberg describes Michelle Obama circa 2005-2006 as “an overtaxed working mom.”
But it would be a mistake to stop at the first read, for the reader to limit himself to his immediate reaction. Whatever emotions the article provokes, wherever one stands on the political spectrum, upon closer examination Weisberg’s text becomes a discomfiting ethnography of contemporary meritocracy, an acid test of how power is transacted in America today. Our politicians and celebrities, Democrat and Republican, paint an ideal picture of life where one’s success depends on hard work and initiative bolstered by community; where all Americans begin the race of life on an equal footing, and those who start off disadvantaged should be helped by some agency—whether in government or the private sector—until the contest is a fair one. The assumption is that, with the right institutional mix, one’s natural talents will carry one to the appropriate social station. It is not who you are but what you do that is supposed to count.
It is not every day that an article in Vogue magazine exposes the shaky foundations of democracy. But as I read “The Talk of the Town” for the second time I could not help noticing how these attractive, talented, up-and-coming thirty-somethings relied, again and again, on personal connections to get where they are today. Weisberg describes the couple’s success in terms of “personal intensity and random luck.” But the luck here is less random than he thinks. Kass and Wagner were lucky to be born to their parents, and if they have children their sons and daughters will be lucky to be born to them. They are members of a self-perpetuating milieu, a caste of right thinking yuppies whose position and wealth and patterns of consumption are the fruit of personal relationships spanning decades. There is income inequality, for sure, but there is also status inequality, and this latter form of inequality is a topic on which most bourgeois bohemians are silent…
It’s hard to believe that these people are unaware of their own privilege, but you’d be surprised by how well the elite has managed to isolate its children – now young adults – from reality. I grew up with some of these people, and they really were unaware of the larger world around them — as children and youths, at least. It seemed that instead of teaching them about the world, their parents did all they could to wall them off from it. Sure, the brighter ones knew something was off, but they were very good at ignoring their position at the top, and reacted with naked hostility when it was mentioned. The people they hate and fear the most – and trust me on this one, I know it first-hand – are the white working and middle class. But it isn’t really racial hatred. A lot of people mistake it for that because they see a lot of Jews among these new aristocrats, but these are Jews by ancestry only, and they are essentially indistinguishable from their gentile colleagues. In fact, they typically intermarry. No, the real reason for the hatred is fear. We are the workers, soldiers, farmers, tradesmen and businessmen whose loyalty is questionable, and who could turn on them at any time and ruin their beautiful, charmed lives.
It was back to D.C. Wagner met with Democratic mastermind John Podesta—“an old Washington neighbor” whose relationship with her father was longstanding. Podesta gave her a job at his new think tank, the Center for American Progress. Which led to a job in New York City at Fader magazine. Which led to the job with George Clooney. Which led to a gig covering the Obama White House for the now defunct Politics Daily. Which led to MSNBC. Her agent is Ari Emanuel, brother to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and to Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a frequent guest on her show. “Wagner talks about the series of events that brought her from that Los Angeles pay phone to MSNBC’s soundstage as if it were the most natural progression in the world,” Elle magazine noted a couple years back. Of course she does. It was natural for her.
What the Chinese call guanxi, networks of influence, benefited Kass and Wagner. It brought them together. The incestuous nature of the relationship between the media and the Obama White House is well established. Here is another example. Kass’s friend, Richard Wolffe, is known as Obama’s most loyal scribe—a title for which there is plenty of competition. He was the ideal fixer-upper of Kass and Wagner. And it was another node in Kass’s network, Edward Cohen, a member of the Lerner family that owns the Washington Nationals, who arranged to have the park opened for that very special game of catch. I’m sure Cohen will do the same for you if you give him a call.
It’s undeniable that personal connections – often due to family – count for a great deal in urban America today. Whenever you read about a young so-and-so opening a hot new restaurant in a trendy city, or some eclectic little business start-up, you can bet with reasonable confidence that his or her parents are well-connected. This is far more the case today than it was a mere generation ago.
“The game is rigged,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) famously told the 2012 Democratic National Convention. What an odd situation in which we find ourselves, where the most influential figures in politics, media, culture, and the academy, the leaders of institutions from the presidency to the Senate to multinational corporations to globally recognized universities, spend most of their time discussing inequalities of income and opportunity, identifying, blaming, and attacking the mysterious and nefarious figures behind whatever the social problem of the day might be. This is the way the clique that runs America justifies the inequalities endemic to “meritocracy,” the way it masks the flaws of a power structure that generates Brown-educated cable hosts and personal chefs who open ballparks with a phone call. This is how a new American aristocracy comes into being, one as entitled and clueless as its predecessors, but without the awareness of itself as a class.
Indeed. But there is also a great deal of lack of awareness on the other side as well. Middle and working class Americans – what I like to call the American yeomanry – are not fully apprised of their own status, and imagine it to be higher than it truly is. They think the door is open to them through hard work and talent, and have little idea of the hostility the new aristocracy holds for them. They think there is common ground, but this is no longer so.
It’s time for us to admit that we have no place in their world, and set about removing them from ours.