The Other Elites

I’ve been thinking a lot about wealth and elitism, or more accurately, the concept of who is an “elite” and who isn’t. And I have come to the conclusion that the way we discuss being an “elite” is inaccurate at best, and downright wrong at worst.

But in order to explain how I think about “elites,” I need to tell you a story about one of my least favorite college basketball teams.

Back in March, Indiana University fired its men’s basketball coach, Archie Miller. Miller had gotten the job, one of the most prestigious in college basketball, in 2017, and he was expected to bring Hoosiers basketball back to national prominence. But it didn’t work out (well, it worked out great for me, a Michigan fan). After four seasons in which Indiana never finished higher than sixth in the Big Ten Conference, the university wanted him gone.

The problem was, Indiana University couldn’t afford to pay Miller’s buyout — the money they’d owe him if they fired him without cause (as in, because they weren’t happy with his coaching, not because he broke any rules) before the end of his contract. In March 2021, that amount (which included his salary as well as promotional income and deferred compensation) was more than $10 million.

In the world of high-level college basketball, $10 million is not uncommon for a buyout. If the University of Kentucky fired its head coach, John Calipari, without cause before his contract is up, it would have to pay him $54 million. But $10 million is still a significant amount of money, and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Indiana University did not have a spare $10 million to make Archie Miller go away. But it really, really wanted him gone.

So the university obtained private philanthropic funding through two boosters. One paid the $10 million for Miller’s buyout, and the other covered the costs to search for a new head basketball coach.

Now, I don’t know who these boosters are. Indiana University didn’t release their names. But if a person has the ability to hand over millions to get rid of a college basketball coach he or she doesn’t like, would you say that person is an elite?

There has been a great deal said about the so-called coastal elites. The Republican Party has attempted to position itself as the working-class party, while arguing that the Democratic Party is for “the rich” and “coastal elites,” who have an outsize influence on American politics and culture.

But in the process of constructing this narrative, the very concept of “elites” seems to have lost any actual meaning and become instead a straw man wielded by people who could also be easily described as elites themselves.

Senator Josh Hawley, for example, railed against “cosmopolitan elites” at the National Conservatism Conference in 2019. Yet Hawley is the son of a prominent banker and attended a private boy’s school in Missouri before going to Stanford and Yale Law (with a brief stint teaching history at a boys’ school in London). He had a net worth of roughly $1.1 million in 2018, according to the research group OpenSecrets.

Now, Hawley would probably respond that while he has political power — he does! a lot of it! — he does not have cultural power, that even with the power of a United States senator, he’s not changing the ways Americans talk or think, or the movies they watch, the music they listen to.

And that’s the power that many conservatives argue matters the most right now. The salience of cultural power is why white college graduates have been transmogrified by The New York Post into the “cultural elite,” with no mention of their actual income. And by this same definition, people like me are part of the elite: I’m a podcast host and writer for The New York Times. I am very much not rich, but I’ve got a lot of power to potentially change how people think, or what they think about.

Surely, there’s some truth to this — even Karl Marx pointed out that class wasn’t just about wealth but also about the relationship between groups and property and the means of production. But the image of the elite that some on the right have constructed is only part of the story.

When I think about “elites,” I don’t just think about billionaires or corporate powerhouses, or even popular musicians or cultural influencers. I grew up in Cincinnati, and the most powerful people I could think of were, well, rich.

They had money to buy boats and go on family vacations to faraway places like Destin, Fla., and paid full tuition for their kids at the high school I attended on scholarship. They owned car dealerships and advertised on local television. They probably went to Ohio State or the University of Cincinnati or the University of Dayton instead of the Ivy League, but where I grew up, they had the power to influence a school board vote or back a candidate in a suburban district that could help flip a swing state.

They were, as Patrick Wyman so brilliantly put it in The Atlantic, the American gentry: “the yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur.” Or the people who had boat parades for Donald Trump during the 2020 election. Or the person who could hand Indiana University $10 million so maybe its basketball program wouldn’t reside in the basement of the Big Ten for another year.

The American gentry is often hidden by traditional class narratives: They can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as the owner of a bunch of Toyota dealerships, but they don’t have the same class status as, say, the chief executive of Toyota North America.

And, as David French noted in his newsletter on Tuesday, the American gentry’s invisibility is part of the problem — and precisely what the Republican Party is trying to court with its rhetoric about coastal elitism: “A tremendous amount of Trump’s appeal rests with an extremely prosperous G.O.P. base that’s respected and admired in their home communities but feels scorned by [American cultural elites] and fears that its place in the national conversation hangs by a Big Tech thread.”

This group of people, French observes, has “prosperity and local power, but they lack cultural influence outside of their churches and civic associations. They increasingly perceive their path to national influence as lying increasingly (maybe even exclusively) through political power.”

But the obsession of some Republicans with fighting coastal elitism seems to distract from a simple truth: Local power, and local money, are still power and money. Sure, as a member of the media, I can get members of Congress to respond to my emails (sometimes), but I can’t get rid of a prominent and highly paid college basketball coach like Archie Miller in one fell swoop. School boards in my home state probably don’t care much about what I have to say, but if I owned six car dealerships in suburban Cincinnati, they just might.

So what if I and the person who bankrolled Archie Miller’s buyout are both elites? What would that mean for our politics if we acknowledged that I have power, but so does the guy who owns a fast-food chain in suburban Tennessee? And what if that power means we both have tremendous responsibilities, which can’t be foisted off because I’m not rich and he doesn’t live in a “cosmopolitan city” or work for a “media elite”?

I wonder. It could mean a reshaping of how we think about the relationships between wealth and power, recognizing that local power still matters and acknowledging that power should be accepted, not be foisted off onto one’s ideological opposition. Using disempowerment as a rallying cry — reveling in one’s “victim status,” as some might call it — wouldn’t work anymore. And the wielding of power and wealth would come with an understanding and acceptance of personal accountability.

Almost like a certain Big Ten basketball coach who couldn’t get his team into the NCAA tournament.

If you have thoughts please send a note to [email protected].

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