Published October 12, 2021
The left has found a new class of enemies, whom Patrick Wyman identifies in an Atlantic piece as the “local gentry of the United States.” These regional leaders are the well-to-do who “own warehouses and Applebee’s franchises, concrete companies and movie-theater chains, hops fields and apartment complexes.” In short, they are the businesses owners who are often regarded as pillars of the community and whose offices and lobbies usually feature rows of pictures of the youth sports teams they sponsor each year.
But to Wyman’s mind, members of this class are especially undeserving of their prosperity — after all, longstanding family businesses are inherited by those who, in a famous phrase, didn’t build that. He also accuses them of likely being dangerous supporters of “a certain would-be authoritarian.” The summation of this class, and why they are hated by the left, is that they are the Trump boat parade people. Wyman disdains them as “half-soused, overweight men in ill-fitting polo shirts.”
Yet members of this class are not uniformly conservative, or even Republican. Although they are flawed as individuals and a class, they are being targeted not so much for those flaws as for being among the few remaining bastions of power not controlled by the left.
Leftists, or at least those professing leftist social justice pieties, of course now control the legacy media, Big Tech, Big Business, the entertainment industry, Wall Street, academia, and even the military. For all of their supposed diversity, they all sound the same to those on the outside.
In contrast, although the local gentry is well-off, even wealthy, they are not part of, or easily assimilated into, the national and global elites and their adjutant classes. The source of the local gentry’s money and prestige is tangible local assets, not financial speculation, global branding, or educational credentialism. This separation is what Jane Coaston of The New York Times misses in her consternation at local gentry having the temerity to complain about the elites.
It is not just, as she acknowledges, that there are different ways of having power and being elite. Rather, it is that the gentry are being squeezed out. Although there are perks to being part of the gentry, they are not part of the cultural and ideological unification of the national and global elite.
The convergence of the national and international Bigs has the local and regional Smalls and Mediums feeling squeezed. The disputes and rivalries within the ascendent national and global elites exclude America’s local gentry and those they represent, against whom the Bigs almost universally unite.
Among the consequences of this divide is that cultural affinities, which are often tied to education, increasingly matter more than economic ones. The guy who owns a successful plumbing business has more in common with his employees than any of them do with an ambitious Brooklyn journalist who would slit her grandmother’s throat for a New Yorker byline.
The divisions between labor and capital increasingly matter less than the cultural divide between elite wokeness and everyone else. For example, working-class Latinos have little in common with those trying to replace Latino or Latina with the gender-neutral Anglo neologism “Latinx.” Yet cultural and political elites from the Democratic Party to “Sesame Street” are trying to force an unpronounceable bit of wokeness into the Spanish language.
This linguistic colonialism illustrates how elites drive the culture war against a public they see as retrograde and in need of reform. Perhaps more importantly, it indicates how wokeness advances the material and cultural interests of the national elite.
In less than a decade, wokeness has gone from being an oddity of academia to the dominant, all-but-official ideology of our nation’s leading institutions. There are psychological and even spiritual aspects to this shift, but we should not ignore the mundane ways in which wokeness benefits the powerful.
First, wokeness erects barriers to entry into the national elite by establishing a complex set of social symbols and manners that members of the class are expected to adhere to. The rapidly shifting standards of wokeness only increase the difficulty for those who have not marinated in the nuances of these norms.
Second, wokeness legitimizes the rule of the elites. Adherence to the pieties of wokeness confirms elite worthiness to rule, and provides a ready excuse for their indifference and even cruelty to the non-woke.
Wyman’s scorn is palpable in a follow-up interview with the hard-left magazine Jacobin, in which he describes “a sunburned dude with a flat-brim hat, who’s in his thirties and has got stubble and is wearing a purple polo shirt while hanging off the back of an $80,000 truck. You instantly think, ‘This is a burgeoning member of the gentry and likely a future state legislator right here.’” Wyman and his interlocutors at Jacobin profess to dislike billionaires, but it is the Deplorables, rich or poor, that they really hate.
Third, wokeness provides a framework that smooths divisions between different factions of the national elite and pacifies their adjutant classes. Aggrieved parties frequently accept sinecures and symbolic gestures of woke piety in lieu of real reform. Instead of the hard tasks of fixing the problems that plague Baltimore or the South Side of Chicago, the woke want to rename some sports teams and schools, get a few more BIPOC and LGBT people (in their oh-so-human nomenclature) in high positions, and staff up an expansive diversity, equity, and inclusion industry.
Wokeness may not be a sustainable governing ideology in the long run, but for now it is a potent tool by which the national elite legitimizes its power and secures its rule. Predictably, the consolidation of the national elite into a cohesive class with a unifying ideology has provoked seething populist backlash, often led by class traitors such as Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, and the local gentry have every reason to join in.
Good. The local gentry has its flaws, but the rest of us have many reasons to prefer it to the ruling national elite. A local gentry means a broad distribution of power, rather than national consolidation. And because their interests and lives are local, they tend to care about the communities around them, which is why they understand the second part of noblesse oblige. The national elite don’t care about small-town tee-ball.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.