Lack of WASP candidate for election due to the Internet?

Several commentators have picked up on this feature of the 2012 presidential election: neither candidate is a WASP.

Right now, we’re looking at an absence that would have been a startling presence 50 years ago. With all the focus on economic issues in the U.S. presidential race, there’s hardly any talk about the fact that, for the first time, none of the leading presidential and vice-presidential candidates is a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has no WASPs. These are new phenomena in the United States.

The totally non-WASP tickets signify major political and social shifts in the networked age. As Robert Putnam showed a decade ago in Bowling Alone, organized groups such as churches, political clubs, fraternal clubs and Scouts have declined in importance. People have moved sharply away from traditional, tightly knit groups into more loosely knit networks that have fewer clan boundaries and more tolerance. The rise of the Internet and mobile connectivity has pushed the trend along by allowing people to expand the number and variety of their social ties…

In 1955, sociologist Will Herberg showed how white America was rigidly divided in Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Indeed, one of the authors of this article was barred from college fraternities because he was Jewish.

Now, when Chelsea Clinton marries, no one remarks on the kippa on her husband’s head. This year, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 81 per cent of those who know Republican Mitt Romney is a Mormon are either comfortable with his affiliation or say it doesn’t matter to them.

I’m not sure I buy the Internet argument; WASPs lost their elite control because of the Internet? I think the process had started way before this. I wonder if the most basic explanation is that there are simply less WASPs overall in the population. Since the 1950s, there has been a sharp uptick in immigration and more people have had access to education and college and graduate degrees.

“The New Elitists” are cultural omnivores

A sociologist writes an op-ed in the New York Times discussing one of the more interesting findings in cultural sociology from the last two decades: upper-class people tend to be cultural omnivores.

You can tell a lot about people by looking at their music collections. Some have narrow tastes, mostly owning single genres like rap or heavy metal. Others are far more eclectic, their collections filled with hip-hop and jazz, country and classical, blues and rock. We often think of such differences as a matter of individual choice and expression. But to a great degree, they are explained by social background. Poorer people are likely to have singular or “limited” tastes. The rich have the most expansive.

We see a similar pattern in other kinds of consumption. Think of the restaurants cherished by very wealthy New Yorkers. Masa, where a meal for two can cost $1,500, is on the list, but so is a cheap Sichuan spot in Queens, a Papaya Dog and a favorite place for a slice. Sociologists have a name for this. Today’s elites are not “highbrow snobs.” They are “cultural omnivores.”

Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it…

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.

In an information age and knowledge economy, cultural capital matters. As Khan points out, cultural capital isn’t randomly distributed in society. Whether the upper classes acquire this capital through early advantages (as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers) or parenting styles (as discussed by Annette Lareau in Unequal Childhoods) or educational systems (as discussed by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction), this is not simply a matter of taste as it can be parlayed into other forms of capital.

Was there really cultural consensus in America in 1963?

Virginia Postrel takes issue with one recent claim from Charles Murray that 1963 America was some sort of golden era of cultural consensus. Postrel raises two counterpoints:

There are two big problems with this fable [of cultural consensus]. The first is that the old consensus was an illusion. Editing out anomalies was essential to the whole concept of a single culture as defined not merely by basic values but by taste and experience. Some of those anomalies were huge.

Take religion, a topic that looms large in Murray’s analysis. In 1976, Gallup for the first time asked people whether they had had a “born again” experience in which they committed themselves to Jesus Christ. It was a concept largely unknown to the popular media before the emergence of Jimmy Carter…

That’s the second problem with Murray’s fable: The cultural consensus was not just an illusion. It was an unhealthy one. Instead of promoting understanding, it fed contempt.

One piece of evidence is right on page 2 of the book: “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the highest-rated TV show the week Kennedy was killed. As Murray points out, nearly a third of American households watched it on CBS every week — astounding numbers by today’s standards. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was not just popular. It was, by most measures, the biggest hit in sitcom history. By its fourth week on the air, it had knocked Lucille Ball out of her top spot, and it only fell from the top 10 in its ninth and final season. It even saved “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a flop in its original slot, by providing a big lead-in audience in an era when it was hard to change the channel. In a true consensus culture, everyone would have loved it…

Critics damned “The Beverly Hillbillies” as utter trash. The New York Times called it “steeped in enough twanging-guitar, polkadot gingham, deliberative drawl, prolific cousins and rural no-think to make each half hour seem as if it contained 60 minutes.” Variety declared it “painful to sit through.” Newsweek said it was “the most shamelessly corny show in years.”

So while Murray wants to tell a story of a dividing America, Postrel is suggesting there has always been an America divided between the elites and the masses. It seems to me that there would be ways to collect data to answer this question about whether the divide today is more pronounced than in the past and whether it is more problematic today than in the past.

This reminds me of all the suburban critiques that quickly emerged after World War II. While there are indeed viable issues to raise about suburban life (whether it is a good use of land and resources, whether it could be planned better, whether concessions could be made so that it is accessible by more than just cars, whether it could offer opportunities for the elderly and teenagers, that it should be welcoming to all people, etc.), there is also some scorn in this analysis. There was a lot of concern about “mass culture,” how the average American was being tempted by low-brow culture. Marxist commentators labeled this as the trade-off of “lawns for pawns.” These viewpoints tended to come from upper-class, urban commentators who couldn’t understand why so many Americans wanted the suburban lifestyle that these commentators argued was simply a glittering facade with no depth. One sociologist who jumped into this fray was Herbert Gans. Writing about the suburban experience (after living in Levittown, unlike many of the negative commentators) or popular culture, Gans debunked some of the myths. Using sociological data and theory, Gans poked holes in some of this commentary, suggesting that perhaps society wasn’t rapidly unraveling and that we were all doomed to live in the land of Idiocracy.

This is a reminder of a few things:

1. Analyzing American culture all at once is a tough task that requires good data and nuance.

2. Closing this gap between high and low culture may be a worthy task but it is not an easy one.

3. America will have to move forward while balancing these multiple perspectives of high and low culture. Either side demonstrating contempt for the other (think about attacks on “academic elites” or “mass culture”) isn’t helpful.

An academic conference to study elites

“Elites” have been in the news lately and recently, Columbia University hosted a conference about elites. This is not as normal as one might think:

In the academic world, this was remarkable. As several of the scholars acknowledged, there has traditionally been some unease in talking about the elite, let alone researching them.

“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”

But Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, said the increasing concentration of wealth, moving from the top 10 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent, has made this the right time to look more closely at the group. “We have to understand what’s going on at the top,” Mr. Warren said.

This is an interesting topic: so why don’t academics study elites more? A few reasons (from what I know about sociology):

1. As noted above, elites can be hard to access.

2. Sociologists have often focused on deviants and the poor are often considered more outside society’s norms.

3. Could it be that many sociologists, with higher levels of education and decent incomes, might themselves be part of or are closer to the elite? If so, then there might be less interest in studying themselves or drawing attention to the class they participate in.