MBD in The Week:
For nearly 80 years, social critics of the Right and far Left have been trying to understand American liberalism by studying a specific social class. These critics share a belief that liberal ideas of a certain type dominate American life, and that they emerge from a social caste produced by American meritocracy. It’s a class that sets the moral tone and imperatives for our society, that shapes our tastes and conversation.
One of the first attempts to dissect this tribe came from former Marxist turned conservative James Burnham, who theorized about an emerging “managerial class” that existed between capital and labor, and was made up of professionals, corporate executives, and executive administration officials. Like a good historical materialist, Burnham believed that material ambitions generated ideology. Using this as his guiding light, he hoped to understand and reveal the character of America’s new elite, as well as determine what would happen to a country ruled by them.
In the 1960s and ’70s, neoconservative thinkers like Daniel Bell wrote about the “New Class,” which was slightly less expansive in scope and focused mostly on professors and social scientists. A little later, the populist and left-leaning social historian Christopher Lasch wrote The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, slashing at the educated classes for abandoning socialist economics in favor of the politics of cultural revolution.
These theorists were offering a critique of the educated and liberal classes, with neoconservatives and socialists both lamenting the betrayal of older liberal ideas about the economy or about America’s role in the world.
All three of these diverse theories have had a deep influence on modern conservative thinking in America. Many of my peers were influenced by Bell and Lasch, and I primarily by Burnham. But with the publication of Joseph Bottum’s new collection, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, I wonder if these earlier thinkers haven’t all been surpassed.