Conservatives Should Pursue Class Peace, Not War with the Coastal Meritocracy

The Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco, Calif. (hanusst/Getty Images)
The case against culture wars, the imperial presidency, and Leviathan

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n 1821, the 19th-century French intellectual Amable Guillaume Prosper Brugière, baron de Barante, wrote On the Communes and the Aristocracy. It does not recommend itself to an American readership at first glance. The social and political dynamics once at play between the kings, lords, and peasants of the Old World would seem to be of little relevance in the United States, where these hereditary castes were returned to sender by General Washington and his compatriots some time ago. Americans are now deprived of a sight familiar to those of us in the United Kingdom: that of some latter-day viscount or baron scrambling to justify the last vestigial remnants of an inherited dignity stripped of all rationale by the silent artilleries of time, usually by talking to a friendly journalist about polar bears or the gender pay gap. Nevertheless, conservatives should familiarize themselves with Barante’s work on class conflict in feudal Europe, because the United States is entering an era of class-driven politics for which the intellectual and rhetorical deposit of Buckley, Reagan, and Thatcher has not prepared us. Acknowledging this is a concession not to Marxist dialectics but to basic facts of geography.

The British political scientist David Goodhart has correctly identified the origin of this new geographically determined class politics in the huge pan-Atlantic post-war expansion of higher education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “in 1940, 5 percent of the population aged 25 and older held at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. By 2009, this percentage had increased more than five-fold to 30 percent.” Furthermore, by global standards, American higher education is marked by a comparatively large number of residential universities that encourage students to move away from home and on to campus to get the full “university experience.” The students who move away from home at the age of 18 into a (sometimes literally) cloistered environment with their cognitively adept peers do so by meritocratic mechanisms of advancement that disregard such factors as place of birth, family connections, or religious belief. These things are removed from the meritocratic equation by design so that nothing can taint the integrity of standards such as “top of the class” or “best for the job.”

There are tremendous upsides to this way of doing things; the same metric that ignores faith, family, and country in the admissions process or in the job market also ignores race, gender, and sexual orientation, at least in theory (looking at you, Harvard), which works to vitiate some of the least desirable attitudes in society. It makes perfect sense, even in terms of sheer, unalloyed self-interest, that university graduates would want to do battle against all of the social, moral, political, and economic qualifications that might circumscribe the efficacy of their intellect and ability to reap the fruit of their ambitions. However, this model of academic and career advancement creates a new set of challenges when the percentage of Americans passing through it rises from 5 percent to 30 percent and when the division of labor becomes global in scale.

In 1940, primary, secondary, and tertiary industries, along with the people who worked in them, were physically much closer together than they are today. Bonds of affection between members of economic classes were established and strengthened simply by the frequent encounters that people had with one another in the warp and woof of everyday life. When only a small minority of Americans attended college, it was furthermore the case that most of the country’s cognitive elite remained in the communities in which they had been raised.

All is now changed. Now that the number of Americans attending university has grown to be nearly a third of the population, the social ecosystem of the university, operating as it does according to the meritocratic values mentioned above, has reached a size at which the attitudes it fosters have an enormous effect on broader American life. The division of labor in the U.S. between these graduates and those without advanced degrees is now geographically segregated in an unprecedented way.

In his book The New Class War, American political scientist Michael Lind writes about the monopoly of high-end business and professional services in America’s major cities, while goods production and cheaper services remain in what he refers to as the “heartland.” This means that the frequent contact that economic classes had with one another (children attending the same schools, playing on the same sports teams, etc.), establishing a pattern of mutual affection and recognition, has disappeared. The meritocrats have monopolized certain areas of the country in which their values and needs are prioritized, while the given identities that they threw off as either irrelevant or threatening to career advancement — religion, rootedness, the claims of extended family on one’s time and resources, national and regional loyalty — live on in the parts of the country that the meritocrats have left behind. This geographic segregation marks the end of the class peace that was forged by the local division of labor in the United States.

It is also why the work of certain French aristocrats of the 19th century should command the attention of American conservatives in 2020. In On the Communes and the Aristocracy, Barante contrasted the development of class relations in France and England during the Middle Ages. In France, where the Crown was initially weak, enmity and bitterness prevailed between the communes and the feudal lords to whom they were subject. Seeking enfranchisement from the tyranny of the landholding lords, the communes turned to the Crown, and an alliance between the two developed with a view to diluting the power of the feudal aristocracy. The unfortunate result of this was that by the 17th century the Crown was able to claim plenary sovereign authority and run France through a centralized bureaucracy that eviscerated local autonomy. The destruction of aristocracy was closely correlated with the rise of Leviathan and with a Parisian governing elite astride the narrow world of France like a colossus.

In England the story was quite different. There an initially powerful Norman Crown inspired an alliance between the aristocracy and the commons to resist royal encroachments and eventually to share sovereign power with Parliament. This cooperation between the lords and the commons united in defending local liberty against a despotic monarch created an open or “natural” aristocracy, based on wealth and education as well as on birth, that was eventually manifested in the two houses of Parliament. In this medieval English model of interclass cooperation, we find the genesis of the constitutional liberty that found its supreme expression at the old courthouse in Philadelphia.

The lasting relevance of the French Option and the English Option to modern politics are obvious. In the United States, we have witnessed peace between the professional and the working classes erode as their geographic segregation, as an economic globalism destroys the local division of labor, while a deracinating model of higher education funnels its graduates into meritocrat “hubs,” as Lind calls them. Within this comparative framework, the office of the presidency occupies a role similar to that of the kings of France and England. Where there is a sustained habit of local association between the classes that fosters a sense of mutual equality and reciprocity, centralized power is resisted as an alien interloper in the affairs of the community. The affection born of the continuous permeation of lives lived face to face reduces both the appeal and the necessity of organized central coercion as a means of resolving class disputes.

When this local association ceases, however, and the interests of the classes are not bound up together in the flourishing of their local community, conflict is almost inevitable. For at least a generation, the professional and the working classes have been able to live and move and have their being in their own spaces where they do not need to encounter one another. In this environment, it is their mutually incompatible class interests that prevail in the minds of citizens. The presidency becomes what the monarchy was for the French communes of the Middle Ages: an instrument of class warfare. Both liberals and conservatives have willfully expanded the powers of the executive (and persistently perverted the constitutional order in doing so) so as to better raid and pillage the cultural and economic interests of their class enemies. The only winner in all of this is Leviathan.

This is why support for Donald Trump among conservatives is so puzzling. The forging of a class peace by way of a monomaniacal policy focus on restoring power to the regions and dispersing it to the most local level possible is the most important goal for conservatives to pursue in the United States. We will have to artificially re-create the geographic integration of the economic classes if we want to arrest the growth of the federal bureaucracy, disembowel the imperial presidency, and fend off the darker forms of class politics offered by Sanders & co. But the president is a culture warrior through and through, elected to publicly incarnate the grievances of the heartland in the nation’s highest office. A conservatism that sees coastal, meritocratic elites as enemies to be defeated rather than as members of an as-yet unrealized more perfect union will never form a governing majority in this country. Many conservatives have decided to excuse the president from virtually all of the Beatitudes, but if there is one that he ought to be held to, even for the sake of a conservative governing majority, surely it is “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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