David Brooks, liberals’ favorite conservative, came out with an(other) entirely Brooksian column today, this one riffing on Richard Reeves’s important, if flawed, book, Dream Hoarders. Reeves essentially argues that there are lots of structural barriers to the bottom 80% of the US income ladder moving into the top 20%, and that we should therefore pay less attention to the 99%/1% division than to the 80%/20% division. (A better version of a similar argument is in Chris Hayes’ fantastic book, The Twilight of the Elites.)
Brooks, though, knows better than all those zoning laws, rigged college admissions, and so on. Really:
I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
Okay, well, not to get too academic about it, but what’s your evidence for rejecting the main thesis of the book in favor of, well, every Brooks column of the past umpteen years?
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
Most of my Twitter sphere has pilloried this (correctly, I think) as mistaking the cause for the expression (or, at most, mechanism) of class-based exclusion. But then there’s a backlash (e.g., here), claiming insensitivity; that cultural capital is “real,” and that those making fun of Brooks are just showing that he’s right.
But here’s the thing. Brooks’ claim isn’t just that cultural capital exists, or that it is one of the ways inequality is expressed. He specifically claims that cultural capital causes the persistent inequality between the 20% and the 80%. That’s utterly implausible, if for no other reason than that learning the names of sandwiches is free (unlike expensive housing and college prep tutors). I believe that people with working-class backgrounds feel uncomfortable in the face of massified sophistication. That doesn’t mean the discomfort causes the inequality.
Other points on the column:
- It’s not plausible that the sandwich names are “completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.” Most people, regardless of class background, are able to learn new terms for things (tweet, iPhone, MAGA, e.g.).
- Because of that, cultural capital is particularly susceptible to “inflation” — today’s highbrow signifier is tomorrow’s Beanie Baby.
- To wit, those fancy Italian names are kind of passe at this point–at least in my area, it’s stylized working-class food that signifies upper-class hip. Places like Merritt’s Grill and the Saxapahaw General Store.
- Food is a signifier, yes. It’s also an art form. Like other art forms, its function as signifier can’t be separated from its function as art. That’s the genius of Bourdieu (can’t believe I used those two words in the same sentence). But the way food-as-art is discussed leaves it more open to crudely anti-intellectual/anti-intraceptive positions than other forms of art would be. Could we imagine Brooks claiming that the chief message of Monet is “You are not welcome here?” Of Beethoven, or Hamilton? I’m not saying that whatever second-rate overpriced sandwich shop he went to is the Emperor’s Concerto, but there’s no particular virtue in bad tex-mex any more than in Muzak due to their similar accessibility.
Bottom line: culture matters, and cultural exclusion is real. But structure matters more in reinforcing inequality. If you want a much more serious take on how culture and comparison play in inequality, I’d recommend my colleague Keith Payne’s new book, The Broken Ladder.