Today, we are making history just as those in the past. I don’t think we realize this often enough. I was reminded of this while watching Hamilton among the masses when it was released online. While originally extremely limited due to its theatrical nature on Broadway, now that it is available to the common folk, it is no longer a status symbol of the upper class.
When I was a new student at Yale in 2015, everyone on campus was talking about the Broadway sensation “Hamilton.” “It’s amazing,” a classmate told me. I had never been to a musical. Neither, as far as I knew, had anyone from my hometown. I searched the internet for tickets: $400—way beyond my budget as a veteran enlisted man attending college on the GI Bill.
So I was pleased this month when “Hamilton” became available to watch on the streaming service Disney+. But now the show is being criticized for its portrayal of the American Founding by many of the same people who once gushed about it. Is it a coincidence that affluent people loved “Hamilton” when tickets were prohibitively expensive, but they disparage it now that ordinary people can see it?
In 2015, seeing “Hamilton” was a major status symbol. In 2020, it doesn’t mean much. The affluent are now distancing themselves from something that has become too popular. [. . .] Once something becomes fashionable among the upper class, aspiring elites know they must go along to have any hope of joining the higher ranks. But once it becomes fashionable among the hoi polloi, the elites update their tastes.
The upper classes are driven to distinguish themselves from the little people even beyond art. This explains the ever-evolving standards of wokeness. To become acculturated into the elite requires knowing the habits, customs and manners of the upper class. Ideological purity tests now exist to indicate social class and block upward social mobility. Your opinion about social issues is the new powdered wig. In universities and in professional jobs, political correctness is a weapon used by white-collar professionals to weed out those who didn’t marinate in elite mores.
[. . .]
To understand the neologisms and practices of social justice, you need a bachelor’s degree from an expensive college. A common refrain to those who are not fully up to date on the latest fashions is “Educate yourself.” This is a way of keeping down people who work multiple jobs, have children to care for, and don’t have the time or means to read the latest woke bestseller.Rob Henderson
The idea that college serves as the entry to the “middle class” is key, but depends on your definition of middle class and upper class. This issue is rife with nuance. Especially because these definitions change over time and vary from person to person and situation to situation.
There are a few definitions that I think are particularly useful. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett describes the modern elite as people who “signify our class position by reading the New Yorker, acquiring elite college degrees, buying organic food, breastfeeding our children, and, of course, listening to podcasts. . .” This group of people are not necessarily defined by wealth, but by “cultural affiliations.” Imagine, as Currid-Halkett points out, a professor of literature at an elite university. They would likely earn less than a plumber running their company, but few would argue that the professor is not an elite member of society, despite the lack of wealth. Rather, the professors wealth is in cultural capital.
This definition by cultural capital includes working professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, or anyone trained at an elite university. However, these people still trade their time for money. An alternative definition of upper class includes those whose money works for them, such as entrepreneurs and executives. This is not to say that they don’t put in hard work, but rather once the hard work is done, they can let their business or earnings continue to grow without further effort. These individuals would rarely be considered middle class by any definition.
Because it is independent of education, this definition lends itself more broadly to the idea that college has now become an entry to the “middle class.” Today, a college degree has become a prerequisite to even entry-level positions. There are fewer and fewer careers where a non-college graduate can rise up the ranks. As a result, college has become a large barrier for many to move up to the next social rung. Douthat argues that for all classes, the rungs of the social ladder have moved further apart.
As society continues to change, we can look back in history to better understand how we got here, and perhaps where we will go in the near future. In the past for example, the elite aristocracy was not defined necessarily by material wealth, but by land ownership, family heritage, and social status. Extremely wealth merchants, for example, would not be a part of the upper class even if they had more wealth than the aristocracy. Elites were defined by their leisure activities; they had the time to pursue artistic endeavors, completely unencumbered by a need to work.
Contrast this with the midcentury idea of elite, the wealthy businessmen of America, for example. These people had to work extensively and own large businesses and monopolies. They were not necessarily well-educated (though, many were), but education became a secondary factor.
Today, this idea of workaholism has gained prominence amongst the elite. They work more than any other generation of elites in the past. However, not every type of work qualifies. Rather, only highly educated work counts.
The middle class, however, is slightly different. College is now the entry to the middle class ideology. The experience shapes the individual towards having a middle class thought process, mannerisms, and social structure.
We can only guess what the next generation of elites look like.
“Letterheads: social media and the end of discourse,” by Sarah Jeong, July 10, 2020. https://www.theverge.com/21320338/letter-harpers-writers-free-speech-canceled-social-media-illiberalism
“‘Hamilton’ Loses it’s Snob Appeal,” by Rob Henderson, July 14, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/hamilton-loses-its-snob-appeal-11594746441
“How Whole Foods, yoga, and NPR became the hallmarks of the modern elite,” by Ezra Klein, November 14, 2019. https://www.vox.com/podcasts/2019/11/14/20964420/whole-foods-yoga-npr-elite-ezra-klein-elizabeth-currid-halkett-inequality
“Dear Liberal Arts Students: Seize this Moment,” by Jennifer Senior, July 12, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/12/opinion/liberal-arts-college-covid.html
“The Meritocracy Trap,” by Daniel Markovits, September 10, 2019.