Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

The Endless Pursuit of Better

How the aspirational class lost its way.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Sisyphus; THP Creative/Alamy Stock Photo.

You shall know them by their aspirations. Or so one might think, judging by the manifold ways in which Americans brand themselves by the things they seek to acquire and the ideals they seek to live by. Americans of all classes and identities aspire to various things, of course. The pursuit of happiness remains a central element of their national creed. But the meritocratic class has become the aspirational class par excellence. Aspiration connotes movement upward, and the meritocrat lives proudly and ostentatiously (some might even say overbearingly) in tireless pursuit of better. Little wonder that meritocrats come to think that what they and their offspring aspire to is manifestly and even morally superior to what others strive after.

For all of the well-intentioned idealism of today’s aspirational elite—their politically sensitive wokeness, their belief in hard work and education over birthright, their environmental awareness, their earnest suspicion of the excesses and injustices of capitalism—there is a dark side of meritocracy that is never fully concealed in the strivers’ displays and proclamations of goodwill. The simple fact is that most people—if we consider 90 percent of the country’s population “most”—do not learn piano from the age of five, do not attend private school, do not have SAT tutors (even if standardized tests are falling by the wayside), do not attend a “top twenty-five” school, or earn PhDs or MFAs. Laudable as these activities and achievements may be, they are underpinned by both wealth and cultural capital. While about 35 percent of Americans go to college, less than 0.5 percent graduate from Yale, Princeton, and their ilk. Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found that students whose parents are among the top one percent economically are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League university than those with parents in the bottom quintile. In short, you have to have the money and, just as important, know what to spend it on.

In 1899, when Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, the rich were idle and made a point of showing it to signal their position on the social ladder. Silver spoons, tight corsets, and gold-tipped walking sticks were expensive objects of little or no utility, signaling one’s freedom from the demands and schedules of a workaday life. The idle rich still exist, of course, but most of today’s top ten percent work an awful lot.11xIt is hard to pin down the exact number; the top 10 percent is likely the most accurate cutoff for the purposes of this essay. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s latest data, the top 10 percent cutoff is $158,002. However, I also draw here from Richard Reeves’s discussion of the top 20 percent’s hoarding of resources and mobility. See Richard Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2017). Members of the aspirational class are not slackers. They work hard at everything—their careers, their well-being and the well-being of the planet, and promoting equality and social awareness. In other words, they “aspire” to be better humans, and like members of previous elites, they have their own ways of signaling their position in the social pecking order through behaviors and styles of consumption that signal effortful striving and virtue rather than indolence and superciliousness. The aspirational class has eschewed silver spoons for Whole Foods reusable grocery bags, yoga mats, NPR bumper stickers, and self-conscious engagement with social justice.

Yet it should seem obvious, even to the aspirationals themselves, that one has to be fairly secure in one’s own place in the world (as a result of those piano lessons, private schooling, elite diplomas, and the social networks and knowledge that comes with them) before one can be deeply sensitive about one’s own privilege and the political and cultural correctness that goes with it. It also helps to have the means to shell out $12 a pound for pasture-raised beef and $5 for a container of organic blueberries to fight against the industrialized food system. Even the very ritualized, relatively inexpensive signifiers of upper-middle-class pandemic life—Instacart, takeout, and the Calm meditation app—are markers of money, knowledge and time that the professional classes possess. Sure, we can talk about that one young girl born to drug-addicted parents who, while homeless, got a full ride to Harvard. Or we can admire the boy from Arkansas who never knew his father and grew up with an abusive alcoholic stepfather only to become a Rhodes Scholar and then president. But, in fact, these stories are rare. Which is why they are told and retold.

The truth is that, for the most part, meritocracy and privilege are deeply entrenched and reproduced across generations.22xDaniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2019). Yet because a great deal of effort and application are required to learn the violin, gain admission to Wellesley or MIT, make partner at a law firm, or receive tenure at a university, members of the aspirational class feel a kind of false consciousness. Despite their understanding of social structures and dynamics, they believe they are members of a meritocratic elite because they worked to get there and stay there. The fiction of meritocracy is that one earns membership by dint of one’s efforts alone.

Such obliviousness grates on those who understand but lack the increasingly hereditary advantages that ease ascent into the meritocratic ranks. That obliviousness is all the more problematic when the progressive outlook that so many meritocrats embrace is about confronting and (to some degree) undoing systems of privilege, though not necessarily those that may challenge their own privileged position. Beyond that contradiction, the larger problem with the aspirationals is their moralizing insistence that all Americans be equally committed to the causes they hold dear. That many Americans are not—or at least that they may also prioritize other concerns (including a regular paycheck, childcare, skyrocketing healthcare expenses, certain “inviolable” rights, or traditional religious values)—partly explains how differences in culture become culture wars.

Bourdieu’s Cultural Capital

According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, cultural capital is the strongest indicator of social position. Our knowledge, our college degrees, our ways of talking, our networks of friends and familiars—all reveal more about our social position than any car or high-end watch. Although money matters, one can be very wealthy but culturally déclassé. One can buy a Rolex yet be unable to hold one’s own at a dinner party discussing The New Yorker. Bourdieu argues that such socially ascribed values, tastes, and behaviors form our “habitus”—our ways of perceiving and reacting to our social world and our feel for how it works.

The problem with America’s aspirational class is that its members mistakenly assume that their privileged habitus, and the social and cultural capital that inform and express it, are shared by all Americans—or at least should be. But American culture and society are more complicated than Bourdieu’s still fairly stratified and culturally centralized France. The fact is that not all Americans today share the same vision of social mobility and the good life. Something closer to such a common ideal might have obtained in the mid-twentieth century, when owning a home and a station wagon and attending church and raising kids who would go on to do better than their parents were part and parcel of the American Dream.

But in today’s America, social positioning involves a system of tacit cultural signifiers at least as exclusionary and distinguishing as those of, say, of upper-class Britain. American elites now eschew many of the vulgarly ostentatious trappings of the well-off, or at least justify their high-end purchases with virtue-signaling explanations—the $100,000 Tesla is purchased rather than a Range Rover because it is an environmentally friendly car; the $3,000 Goyard handbag shows no labels, unlike the flashy Louis Vuitton bags of the 1980s; the beach house in Cape Cod is run down; parents choose a family trip to the Galápagos over a vacation to Disneyland; sending one’s kid to private school is valued more than a country club membership. Breastfeeding fulfills an almost Barthesian mythology of motherhood, the cultural gold standard to which all mothers should aspire.33xRoland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2012). First published 1957. More to the point, signals are embedded in cultural capital, and almost all of them are suggestive more about knowing what to buy than about how much it costs. Accompanying these choices is a barely concealed air of moral superiority: that these choices are necessarily more ethical than other choices.

America’s supposed cultural divide is said to run clearly and decisively between the coastal cities and rural America. Yet if we compare rural America with the aspirationals’ metropolitan haunts, we find that the story is more complicated. As Andrew Eisenlohr and I recently argued in The Financial Times, education and income levels shake out almost evenly for rural and urban America.44xElizabeth Currid-Halkett and Andrew Eisenlohr, “Playing Up the Urban-Rural Divide Misses the Real Problem,” The Financial Times, November 26, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/f89f1980-202c-4dee-a348-c27f44a68a20. For example, the proportions of rural and urban Americans who hold doctorates and professional degrees are 2.8 and 4.4 percent, respectively. The shares of rural and urban households making between $50,000 and $150,000 are similar, too: 44 and 45 percent, respectively. Income and educational attainment show equally similar patterns at lower levels: The shares of rural and urban adults who have not finished high school are almost identical, around 12 percent among each group. While there is a greater percentage of rural households making less than $25,000 than metropolitan households (22 percent versus 18 percent, respectively), one should keep in mind that the cost of living is much lower in the middle of Missouri than in the heart of San Francisco. Eisenlohr and I even found that being in urban America versus rural America had very little influence on the purchase of consumer goods that might reveal cultural capital—organic eggs and milk, fresh vegetables, and craft beer.


The Quieter Middle

So what might this mean? There is no doubt that my bohemian bourgeois neighborhood in Los Angeles is a cultural universe away from where I grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, population just over 4,500, or where I was born in West Virginia. But perhaps not as far as we might think.

As a part of the research for my next book, I have been talking to dozens of people across America. What I have found in those conversations is not that we are so different from one another but, rather, that the language we use to convey our ideas and the cultural capital we choose to display is different. Rich people and poor, educated and uneducated, can be found everywhere, within cities, and across regions. In my study of consumer habits, wealth and education explain most of our choices. That’s why people in small-town Iowa may be as inclined to eat organic food as the people who live down the street from me in Los Angeles. What may be different are people’s motivations and the language they use to describe their choices—choices that reveal their own forms of cultural capital, which are different from, but in no way inferior to, those of aspirational urban elites.

At the heart of American democracy is a simple binary system with profound implications: Every two to four years on the local, state, and federal levels, we are forced to pick a political side. Occasionally, a Green or Libertarian candidate with charisma may emerge and garner some attention, but he or she rarely goes far. In the end, we vote Democratic or Republican. We often think Democrats and Republicans have wildly different views—and indeed, some of them do—but Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were two presidents whose policies blended the values and preferences of both parties. It was Clinton, after all, who dismantled large parts of the then-existing system of welfare. More recently, while not a single congressional Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan Act, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus legislation, more than 50 percent of Republican voters who responded to a February 2021 survey said they supported it.55xEvangel Penumaka, “The American Rescue Plan Is Popular and Holds Bipartisan Support,” Data for Progress, March 9, 2021, https://www.dataforprogress.org/blog/2021/3/9/voters-support-american-rescue-plan-25pjp. More than 65 percent of surveyed voters (including more than 50 percent of Republican voters) supported increasing the child tax credit.66xJulia Cusick, “New Polling Shows Strong Bipartisan Support for Federal Aid for People in Need,” Center for American Progress, March 10, 2021, https://www.americanprogress.org/press/statement/2021/03/10/496969/release-new-polling-shows-strong-bipartisan-support-federal-aid-people-need/. Under his proposed Family Security Act, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah, actually proposed giving families even more.77xRebecca Rainey, “Romney Proposes Child Care Benefit for Families, Fueling Democrats’ Push,” Politico, February 4, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/02/04/romney-child-care-benefit-democrats-465940.

The media spends a lot of time focusing on the politicians and people who are the loudest and most extreme, whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump. Yet most people are more comfortable with the quieter middle.88xSabrina Tavernise and Nate Cohn, “The America That Isn’t Polarized,” New York Times, September 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/24/upshot/many-americans-not-polarized.html. As recent research shows, the majority of Americans don’t feel strongly about politics at all.99xYanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, “The Real Divide in America Is between Political Junkies and Everyone Else,” New York Times, October 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/opinion/polarization-politics-americans.html. The conservative-leaning family patriarch doesn’t want to get into a debate with his liberal son-in-law at Thanksgiving dinner. So while one goes to the polls and ultimately picks a Democrat or a Republican, one does not necessarily feel passionate about a candidate; rather, the predominantly binary character of the system obliges one to pick between the two candidates on offer. As in Harold Hotelling’s famous economic model of lemonade stands on the beach, according to which consumers buy their lemonade at the stand that’s just that bit closer, it may be said that many Americans lean toward the politician who is just that bit closer to their worldview. Which is not the same thing as a universe apart. This is not to say the divides in America are mythical. There are certainly parts of rural America where the people are very angry, and they feel, as Robert Wuthnow writes, “left behind.”1010xRobert Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018). But this stereotype obfuscates the nuances and origins of their discontent and utterly dismisses some of the common values and beliefs Americans share. If, as research has revealed, we find common ground in policies, legislation, and values, then the preference for one party or one candidate over another is not the same thing as Americans being wholly divided from one another as a people.1111xShaun Adamec and Nat Kendall-Taylor, “American Is Not as Divided as You Think. Yes, Really,” Cognoscenti, WBUR.com, January 20, 2021, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2021/01/20/biden-inauguration-polarization-unity-shaun-adamec-nat-kendall-taylor.

Left Behind and Sitting Still

When liberal media talk about a divided America, it is usually described in terms of a war between coastal elites and the uneducated, anti-intellectual “deplorables.” There is a barely suppressed glee among the former in holding the moral high ground, in being educated, being woke, and believing in climate change and vaccines. Democrats are aligned with the meritocratic myth and its trappings. For conservative media and politicians, the lens is refocused if not reversed, though it produces caricatures at least as extreme and morally smug as those produced by the liberal lens. Above all, the conservative chorus declares that elites (meaning only liberal elites) are out of touch with the real America. The word elite is, indeed, the rhetorical weapon of choice, deployed almost ritually by the Republican political and media elites in their attacks on the aspirational class and their academic credentialism, their zealous environmentalism, their political correctness, and their “cancellation” of everything “real” Americans hold dear. For their part, the extreme right attempts to stoke populist outrage with distortions and outright lies about everything from vaccines to election results to the threat of encroaching “socialism.”

And yet, if you were a coal worker in West Virginia, or a part-time hourly worker in northern Indiana’s portion of the Rust Belt, why would you support the party and the values that make you feel bad about who you are? Anti-intellectual, anti-elite, and even anti-science attitudes are an understandable defense mechanism against an economic and cultural system that excludes or looks down on working Americans, rural and urban, in both prosaic and profound ways. The mid-twentieth-century collapse of the manufacturing economy and the disappearance of the good jobs that went with it took away a clear path to the middle-class life for many Americans who do not possess a college degree. Service jobs, often part-time, pay only a fraction of what regular factory work offered. Economic restructuring exacerbated inequities in the system, further uplifting professional classes and stymieing opportunities for the unskilled.

For unskilled workers and their families, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible to easily join or move up in the meritocratic hierarchy. They are unlikely to have any of the life chances that would enable them to enter the rarified worlds of the aspirational meritocrats, or to attain the cultural capital that might enable their socioeconomic mobility. They do not live in wealthy suburbs with local schools rich in Advanced Placement classes and after-school enrichment activities. They feel excluded from the global economic system that seems to benefit only those who are well educated and highly mobile. Some members of the working class (but, to be clear, not all) worry that an uncontrolled flood of immigrants will take the few remaining jobs and put further downward pressure on wages.1212xWilliam A. Galston, “On Immigration, the White Working Class Is Fearful,” Brookings Institute, FixGov blog, June 24, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2016/06/24/on-immigration-the-white-working-class-is-fearful/. On top of economic anxieties, the white working class feel that elites look down on “their guns or religion” and lack of college education. As the late political philosopher Judith Shklar remarks in her book Ordinary Vices, snobbery abounds in a democratic society, and it has “the habit of making inequality hurt.”1313xJudith N. Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1984), 87.

But it is not only, or even primarily, the precarious white working class that has spurned the cultural capital of the globalized professional elites. Many middle-class and well-off Americans eschew aspirational class values to inhabit another world in which they find greater contentment and ease. My interviews with these Americans, in places like Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Kentucky, reveal less anger or resentment than satisfaction with and appreciation of their place in a world that is decidedly removed from the meritocratic rat race. Such Americans show little interest in the canonical elements of the aspirationals’ cultural capital, even if they are broadly supportive of the same basic American ideals around equality and democracy. Exit polls suggest as much: Many of the “left behind” may have chosen to simply sit still. The 2020 exit polls show that white, middle-class, college-educated people voted in equal proportions for Trump and Biden. Those making more than $100,000 were more likely to vote for Trump, and those making $50,000 to $99,000 were more likely to vote for Biden. As for the working class, while those making less than $50,000 annually were more likely to vote for Biden, those without a college degree were more likely to vote for Trump. It is telling that only about half of Republicans and Democrats saw their vote as a vote for their candidate. Yet perhaps even more telling is that only 24 percent of all voters saw their vote as being against the other candidate.1414x“National Exit Polls: How Different Groups Voted,” New York Times, November 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/exit-polls-president.html. In short, this country is complicated.

Economics Is Only Part of the Explanation

Contrary to reoccurring media tropes, these data suggest that the biggest group of Trump supporters is securely middle class.1515xNate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support,” FiveThirtyEight, May 3, 2016, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-mythology-of-trumps-working-class-support/. Nor are regional economic disparities between rural and urban areas, which supposedly determine voting preferences, as clear or distinct as some have claimed. My own economic analysis of America shows that in a survey of forty-five states, more than 60 percent of cities have greater shares of severe poverty (income levels of less than $10,000) than do the small towns in those states. For example, people in rural West Virginia are better off than those in urban Pittsburgh.1616xElizabeth Currid-Halkett, “The False Stereotype of Two Americas,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-false-stereotype-of-two-americas-11545869142. Economics only partially explains the divide between our educated urban aspirational elites and the seemingly “anti-intellectual” small-town traditionals. Poor people are everywhere, and they do not simply vote along class lines. (The same can be said for the rich.)

What is clear is that the great divisions in our country rest on our different systems of cultural capital, including the language with which we communicate those systems. That our aspirational class embeds morality in its choices—culturally specific choices dependent on certain entrenched privileges and the habitus that comes with and reinforces such privileges—means that most Americans who opt out of the aspirationals’ game may actively seek alternatives to being patronized.

I remember listening to an episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. In this particular episode, “The Battle for Pennsylvania’s White Working Class,” a journalist interviewed a poll volunteer from Hazle Township, a small community in Luzerne County located between Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre, about how often Democrats votes for a Republican. The man remarked, “When the [2016] election came around when Trump was running, I was working the polls that day as a Democrat…. Usually in Hazle Township, because the population is so small, election day, it’s eight o’clock in the morning you’re going to get dribs and drabs, two hours later nothing…four o’clock you’re going to get the rush.… That day, people were lined up to the highway. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Like, what are these people doing here?’ People just came out to vote for Donald Trump that day.”1717xShane Goldmacher (host), “The Field: The Battle for Pennsylvania’s White Working Class,” The Daily (podcast), October 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/09/podcasts/the-daily/biden-trump-pennsylvania-swing-voters.

The cultural smoke and mirrors are everywhere. Urbanites pride themselves on organic, local food, when such things are simply part of the way of life for a rural or small-town Wisconsinite with her own vegetable garden and compost pile. Educated liberals are aghast at Americans getting together during the pandemic as if COVID-19 were not real. Yet these very people who tsk-tsk hold their own gatherings that are “so safe,” as if holding a gathering and recognizing the risk constitute a stronger moral position (and pose less danger) than obliviously eating dinner with friends. “Middle Americans” are thought to be myopic when they watch Fox News; yet coastal elites don’t question themselves when all they read is the New York Times.

When we talk about a divide in this country and the rise of an anti-intellectual movement that questions science, rationality, and meritocracy, we need to acknowledge the role of the aspirational class and its culturally embedded, implicit sanctimony. Anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism can also be weapons against condescension, double standards, and lack of choices. Moral superiority and cancel culture only further alienate the people already excluded from meritocracy and elite cultural capital.

Nor is it even certain that postmillennial children of the aspirational class are themselves that secure in or happy with the meritocratic game. More and more of those who have dutifully punched all the tickets, passed all the tests, and received all the degrees find themselves part of a surplus knowledge class, working in marginal or gig jobs and earning barely enough to afford those urban rents or pay off those student loans for tuitions that even their affluent parents couldn’t entirely foot. And it is not just a matter of economics. The aspirationals’ endless pursuit of better can produce psychic restlessness and doubts beneath the façade of confidence and accomplishment.

When Tocqueville traveled across this country almost two centuries ago, he found a social cohesiveness beneath the hurly-burly of American society. Even today, if we truly attend to the beliefs and values of small-town America, we will find that they are not so meaningfully different from those of educated coastal elites. If we cleared out the smoke and mirrors, we might find that the ground beneath and between us is quite solid. The problem is not that we are different but, rather, that we fail to recognize how similar we still are.