The Social Topography of David Brooks' Work-Culture War: a Warning to Ross and Reihan

I’ve been mordantly ruminating over David Brooks’ July 1 column. Why?

Over the past several years, the highly educated coastal rich have been engaged in a little culture war with the inland corporate rich. This is a war over values, leadership styles and social networks.

The deeper you go into this observation the more dizzying it becomes. What follows is a long consideration of how it intersects with — or collides with! — Ross’ and Reihan’s main contention about the future of conservatism in America.

Consider this gloss on what we can think of as two central components of Brooks’ observation: first, the war over social networks is over types of social networks, which generate different values — and virtues, including leadership styles. Second, culture largely determines social network type. Assuming, as I always do, that ‘social’ never means anything except ‘relational’, cultures — with the authoritative dos and don’ts that differentiate mandatory, prohibited, and optional relationships — structure relational networks embedded deeply in what I’ll lamely call ‘value orientations.’ Let’s start with the new situation Brooks describes:

Once, the wealthy were solidly Republican. But the information age rewards education with money. There are many smart high achievers who grew up in liberal suburbs around San Francisco, L.A. and New York, went to left-leaning universities like Harvard and Berkeley and took their values with them when they became investment bankers, doctors and litigators.

Political analysts now notice a gap between professionals and managers. Professionals, like lawyers and media types, tend to vote and give Democratic. Corporate managers tend to vote and give Republican. The former get their values from competitive universities and the media world; the latter get theirs from churches, management seminars and the country club.

Something very strange is afoot here: the transformation of entrepreneurship. Once, economic entrepreneurs formed small businesses which, when they grew, networked in a hub-and-spokes pattern; when they remained small, they became nodes in local, ‘communitarian’, similarly wheel-shaped networks of neighborly citizens. Both these kinds of entrepreneurs leaned significantly Republican, but they were at odds with one another, because they both dealt in material goods. Mom and Pop stayed small; Wal-Mart got big; Mom and Pop went out of business, possibly becoming Democrats in the process. What could you sell if not material goods, or services that serviced those goods? The entrepreneurial class in the GOP became, by its own success, establishmentarian, bloated, status quo. In a tragic irony, each independent businessperson who launched a successful enterprise networked along hub-and-spoke lines created hundreds of workers inimical to the conservative entrepreneurial spirit: middle managers. The working class, in other words, has been steadily shifting its bulk away from both ends of a continuum, one that reaches from the entrepreneur gone big to the communitarian small business owner. The population is now fat around the middle — middle management, that is.

Meanwhile, smart young coastal liberals who grew up with the internet were networking in web patterns, not hub-and-spokes ones. Why? The culture that produced them has greatly, when not totally, decentralized its authority. The public opinion of peers, the collective honor of prestige, and the innovation-rewarding marketplace led young coastal elites to reproduce the web-networked relational structures that produced them. Gone were the strong parents, strong localism, and strong churches that created hub-and-spokes networked ‘social’ conservatives. Reading ‘social’ as ‘relational’ allows us to identify ‘social’ conservatism for what it really is — network relationships structured inwardly around durable, central authorities, authorities stable and trusted enough to ‘conserve’ tight relationship structures. ‘Social’ liberalism, then, refers to web-networked relationship structures with dissipated or abandoned vertical links to central and superior authorities. (Thus we can clearly see the promise of liberaltarianism.)

It’s important to note that ‘social’ liberalism, as I have just described it, is much different from ‘social democratic’ liberalism, which is actually socially conservative in its network structure and features the State at the top of the vertical of authority. Liberalism in the William Jennings Bryant or Franklin D. Roosevelt vein is, indeed, a liberalism of middle management — with a few public decisionmaking elites (Big Government) at one end of the continuum and a few private decisionmaking elites (Big Business) at the other. Middle management patterns onto the communitarian social structure of ‘social democracy’, where all citizens strongly identify themselves and one another with the union of State and Commonweal. A commonwealth of shared management maintains everyone in the middle — this is the stitching pattern of the social fabric as championed by certain neo-Aristotelian ‘conservative Democrats’ of Michael Walzer’s and Christopher Lasch’s ilk.

But Christopher Lasch reminds us forcefully of how social-democratic network structures have been so badly damaged in America: through the cult of ‘upward mobility’, and, specifically, through the transformation of higher education into a system of social accreditation. It is no longer even accurate to describe it as ‘elite’ social accreditation, for its purpose — a purpose which it cannot stop or pause, because the contemporary economy depends upon it for its survival — is to indefinitely and cumulatively expand the social ‘upper class’. Its objective is — to put it in Ross and Reihan’s terms — to massify the upper class by extending elite social networks ever-outward in an open web pattern with many nodes of moderate-at-best authority. (Thus Harvard’s trendsetting decision to put its coursework online, for instance.) The appeal of joining this ever-larger ‘upper’ class, of joining not the Country Club or Sam’s Club but the (pop) Culture Club, is what drives young liberals into entrepreneurial roles cast within network structures that penetrate, unravel, and destroy the hub-and-spokes structures of socially-democratic conservatives. This is the topography of Brooks’ “little culture war.”

A warning to Ross and Reihan, and to all those who wish to follow their generous and compelling recipes in Grand New Party, emerges clearly from that topography. The ‘middle management’ working class is, culturally speaking, structurally and dispositionally antagonistic to conservative politics — while the long tails on either side of middle management, composed of breadwinning small business entrepreneurs at one end and elite economic leaders on the other — are strongly oriented in its favor. Why? Because the individuals populating the long tails, many of whom have tight family structures inherited from cultural networks oriented vertically around authority, hold a strong, almost commanding conviction in the sacredness of property rights and material goods. They may not speak of it in this way, but it’s true: they view the world in material terms, view material goods as the durable building blocks of prosperity in a society anchored in the permanent things. And property rights — especially the right to keep what you earn and allocate it to your family, not to worse-off fellow citizens — are the legal structures that keep the authority of material goods in place.

Middle management people believe all this too — but instead of viewing property rights and material goods as things that vest in individuals with families, they view them as things that vest relationally in large collectives — in big Detroit-style firms that supply dependable pensions to middle managers, and in big New-Deal style government, which does the same. For middle managers, social democrats that they are, there’s little meaningful distinction between ‘national greatness’, usually considered a Republican trope, and ‘the great society’, usually associated with Democrats. This is why they yearn so constantly for bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake, and why in practice they veer irregularly between presidential candidates from each party. It’s also why they, as Ross and Reihan describe, are the people who can think of no one more American than Joe Lieberman and Colin Powell.

Now, it’s all well and good to seek to ‘win’ these middle managers for the Republican party. What’s disturbing — and what has provoked my lengthy rumination on the Brooks piece — is that middle managers are but one component of a culturally conservative class of voters, and the other two, vital components — entrepreneurial elites and the entrepreneurial common man — are becoming woefully endangered. The ‘little culture war’ between hub-and-spokes networks arranged vertically around authority and web networks arranged horizontally away from authority has translated in economic terms into a conflict between workers who supply material goods and workers who supply immaterial services. This isn’t the place to recite Tocqueville, Marx, and Nietzsche on why the move to immaterialist capitalism is part and parcel of ages of equality, but the cites are plenty. What matters is that Republicans will do well to win the working class only if entrepreneurs whose work involves material goods continue to exist in America in large numbers. It’s not entirely clear that this is likely.

A good fallback position, then — one which Republicans may indeed be forced into — requires a concerted effort to engage conservative cultural structures with socially liberal network structures — without destroying the former. In some ways, this is a daunting challenge. Communitarians and paleocons will recoil in horror at the prospect of enticing at least some conservatives to live more like the mass elites of the liberal coasts, with too-cool parents, loose, contingent mores, a work ethic motivated by the celebration of the shared consumption of services, and a near-total detachment from the authoritatively permanent things. But when I glance around at today’s thinking young conservatives, I often see them operating in what look suspiciously like socially liberal network structures. And yet, I recognize — or I think I do — a foundation beneath them, a ‘value orientation’ derived from still-living and still-commanding socially conservative network structures like churches and/or families with direction-giving authority. This, I wager, is the source of the attractive new ‘heterodoxy’ powering new thought on the right.

On second thought, perhaps the thrust of my argument then isn’t so much of a warning to Ross and Reihan and their fellow travelers as it is an intensification of their argument, an invitation for them to assertively be themselves, and a raising of the stakes in what by all accounts is a massive realignment of the way social relationships are structured in America.