The tea party warns of a New Elite. They're right.
The tea party appears to be of one mind on at least one thing: America has been taken over by a New Elite.
"On one side, we have the elites," Fox News host Glenn Beck explained last month, "and the other side, we have the regular people." The elites are "no longer in touch with what the country is really thinking," Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle complained this summer. And when Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell recently began a campaign ad by saying, "I didn't go to Yale," she could be confident that her supporters would approve.
All this has made the New Elite distinctly touchy (see Maureen Dowd's "Making Ignorance Chic"), dismissive (see Jacob Weisberg's "Elitist Nonsense") and defensive (see Anne Applebaum's "The Rise of the 'Ordinary' Elite").
"Elite?" they seem to be saying. "Who? Us?"
Why are the members of the New Elite feeling so put upon? They didn't object back in 1991, when Robert Reich said we had a new class of symbolic analysts in his book "The Work of Nations." They didn't raise a fuss in 2000 when David Brooks took an anthropologist's eye to their exotic tribe and labeled them bourgeois bohemians in "Bobos in Paradise." And they were surely pleased when Richard Florida celebrated their wonderfulness in his 2002 work, "The Rise of the Creative Class."
That a New Elite has emerged over the past 30 years is not really controversial. That its members differ from former elites is not controversial. What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.
Let me propose that those allegations have merit.
One of the easiest ways to make the point is to start with the principal gateway to membership in the New Elite, the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. In the idealized view of the meritocrats, those schools were once the bastion of the Northeastern Establishment, favoring bluebloods and the wealthy, but now they are peopled by youth from all backgrounds who have gained admittance through talent, pluck and hard work.
That idealized view is only half-right. Over the past several decades, elite schools have indeed sought out academically talented students from all backgrounds. But the skyrocketing test scores of the freshman classes at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other elite schools in the 1950s and 1960s were not accompanied by socioeconomic democratization.
On the surface, it looks as if things have changed. Compared with 50 years ago, the proportion of students coming from old-money families and exclusive prep schools has dropped. The representation of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans has increased. Yet the student bodies of the elite colleges are still drawn overwhelmingly from the upper middle class. According to sociologist Joseph Soares's book "The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges," about four out of five students in the top tier of colleges have parents whose income, education and occupations put them in the top quarter of American families, according to Soares's measure of socioeconomic status. Only about one out of 20 such students come from the bottom half of families.
The discomfiting explanation is that despite need-blind admissions policies, the stellar applicants still hail overwhelmingly from the upper middle class and above. Students who have a parent with a college degree accounted for only 55 percent of SAT-takers this year but got 87 percent of all the verbal and math scores above 700, according to unpublished data provided to me by the College Board. This is not a function of SAT prep courses available to the affluent -- such coaching buys only a few dozen points -- but of the ability of these students to do well in a challenging academic setting.
Far from spending their college years in a meritocratic melting pot, the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them -- which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege. Few of them grew up in the small cities, towns or rural areas where more than a third of all Americans still live.