America’s political pundits, particularly those on the center-left and center-right, have an enduring obsession with atoning for their class privilege. This obsession existed before Trump, but the rise of his far-right “populism” and his explicit appeals to a “working-class” sensibility brought it out in full force. They’re not wrong to intuit a growing resentment among America’s poor, and they’re also not wrong to feel the ground shake beneath their undeserved upper-class lifestyle. There is, after all, a massive divide between America’s rich and poor, with the wealthiest 10 percent of households comprising 76 percent of the nation’s wealth, and big-city newspaper columnists tend toward the rich side. But their class anxiety almost never takes the form of, say, using their platform to argue in favor of a stronger safety net and increased taxes on the rich. Though class divisions are a frequent topic for them, little attention is paid to seemingly important factors like income, access to basic services and the intersections between class and race. Instead, pundits choose to focus entirely on superficial cultural differences and consumer choices. The result is a constant stream of patronizing paeans to a mythical rural America and bizarre, half-baked theories that replace sociology with observations about which restaurants people go to.
Restaurant analogies in particular have been a favorite of bloviating commentators for a while now. Brian Fallon, a CNN contributor and former press secretary for Hillary Clinton, took a lot of flack during the recent special House election in Georgia for tweeting that “[Georgia congressional candidate Jon] Ossoff is showing us the path to retaking the House. It runs through the Panera Breads of America.” Obviously, he was using Panera Bread as shorthand for more affluent, educated voters, who are known for eating soup out of bread bowls, but a comparison between Panera locations and the special election results shows no such correlation. Why even bother using that angle? It gets worse. Last year Charles Murray, the libertarian political scientist who thinks white people have higher IQs than black people, constructed a quiz for PBS titled “Do you live in a bubble?” The quiz featured questions such as “How many times in the last year have you eaten at Applebee’s or Chili’s? and “During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?” Applebee’s seems to be a particular sticking point for our nation’s great thinkers. In 2008, the New York Times’ unofficial restaurant critic David Brooks said that “Obama‘s problem is he doesn‘t seem like a guy who can go into an Applebee‘s salad bar and people think he fits in naturally there.” (Applebee’s doesn’t have a salad bar.) From what I can tell, the first mainstream restaurant analogy appeared in Ron Fournier’s 2006 book Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community. The blurb on the cover, which called it a “must read,” came from none other than Brooks. These guys just really love Applebee’s.
Applebee’s seems to be a particular sticking point for our nation’s great thinkers.
Brooks bears much of the responsibility for this skewed archetype of the American working-class voter. This week, he published a column that revisited a theme that has dominated much of his writing the past year: the growing cultural divide between the Two Americas, and how brave newspaper columnists can mend it by taking the uneducated to lunch. At first, Brooks appeared concerned with the real problem of economic immobility in our new Gilded Age, but immediately negated any good intentions by writing that the “structural barriers” to mobility are “less important than the informal social barriers.” By this, he meant that the unwashed masses are kept from achieving material security not by the nature of deregulated capitalism, but by their conspicuous unfamiliarity with Pilates and David Foster Wallace (his examples). The passage that drew the most ire saw Brooks lead a possibly imaginary working-class friend into a Capitol Hill sandwich shop. The friend apparently panicked at the prospect of trying new foods: “I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette.” First of all, how does someone so stereotypically provincial manage to befriend a high-profile Times columnist? Second, couldn’t Brooks have just explained what was in the sandwiches?
Many of the world’s worst opinion writers jumped to Brooks’ defense as Twitter put him through the wringer. Rod Dreher, a militantly anti-gay columnist at The American Conservative, related his own story of treating a working-class friend to dinner at a restaurant that was a “cut above Chili’s.” She didn’t appreciate the favor: “At the table, I was distressed to see her obviously struggling to enjoy herself. She appeared anxious and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t figure out why.” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, who recently faced a backlash of her own for arguing against building safety regulations in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire last month, quoted Dreher’s column approvingly on Twitter. On her own experiences buying expensive food for ungrateful working-class relatives: “It surprised the hell out of me when it happened, because here I was thinking I was providing a nice treat they couldn't get at home, and there they were, gamely trying to be nice about something they were silently hating,” she tweeted. There is indeed a pattern here, but it isn’t that working-class Americans universally break out in hives when confronted with food other than hamburgers and mac ‘n’ cheese — it’s that no one wants to go out to lunch with any of these pompous hacks.
The biggest problem with the reductive politics of cultural signifiers is that the signifiers are always in flux. For instance, in his quiz, Charles Murray asked, “Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck?” Fifty years ago, ownership of a pickup truck may have indicated a hardscrabble lifestyle far removed from the metropolitan “bubble” — farmers, ranchers, loggers, and so on. This is no longer true. Despite an enormous decline in agricultural jobs (there was a 14 percent decrease in farm jobs alone from 2001 to 2013), the Ford F-150 (the base model of which starts at $27,000) has become the most popular vehicle in America, especially among those with an annual income of more than $200,000. Anyone with roots in the suburbs can testify that many a cul-de-sac is now lined with beefed-up Rams and Silverados used solely to commute to air-conditioned office jobs. What out-of-touch columnists consider bona-fide symbols of working-class authenticity are often just the hallmarks of well-off white suburbanites with bad taste.
The working class that actually exists bears little resemblance to the fantasies of affluent, highly educated hacks.
This kind of misguided prejudice is also apparent in liberal circles. A few months ago, Keith Olbermann, the unofficial head of the #Resistance, criticized Trump for hosting Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock at the White House, whom he called “trailer park trash.” Classism aside, Olbermann fell into the same trap as Brooks, Murray ,and others — he saw white people with bad fashion sense and assumed they must dwell at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Obviously, all three of Trump’s guests are now multimillionaires, but even pre-fame they were far removed from poverty. Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska is a suburb of Anchorage; her father was a science teacher and she enrolled in a four-year college immediately after high school. Ted Nugent was raised in the Chicago suburbs; Kid Rock the Detroit suburbs, where he grew up in a home that was recently put on the market for $1.3 million. Palin, Nugent, and Rock are exactly who the statistics show propelled Trump to victory — the comfortable white middle class.
The working class that actually exists bears little resemblance to the fantasies of the affluent, highly educated hacks who are paid to vomit their thoughts into newspaper columns. The new American working class is far more likely to be bussing tables at Applebee’s than wolfing down reheated appetizers until their Dockers rip. But many columnists put outsize focus on the most traditionally masculine blue-collar professions, many of which make up a negligible percentage of the total workforce. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans work in manufacturing, and the coal mines of Kevin D. Williamson’s imagination employ just 0.019 percent of all workers. Service workers make up the largest portion of American non-farm laborers, at 71 percent, and the fastest-growing job markets are in nursing and caretaking, both of which overwhelmingly employ non-white women. When Brooks writes that to be accepted into the upper class, one must “possess the right attitudes about gender norms and intersectionality,” we know what he means. The implication is that the working-class subject is old, white, and male by default, and that the inherently elite concepts of racism and sexism are thrust upon him by the well-off and well-educated. This is a strawman, created so that Brooks can avoid the fracas he would provoke if he openly argued against whatever he means by “gender norms.” Either way, if having a progressive take on gender were really a requirement for entering the elite, the decidedly retrograde Brooks would be on the other side of that gourmet sandwich counter.
And honestly, for the well-fed suburban reactionaries whose plight troubles so many pundits, most of America is a paradise. The idea that lifted-truck-drivin’, Trump-lovin’ Real Americans are constantly wandering around a world made foreign to them by high culture is pure fantasy. In a small town, there is no cognoscenti turning up its nose at the masses — unlike the New York Times, the hypothetical Shit Creek Tribune has no top-down class warfare in its weddings section. Cable TV is a monument to this faux blue-collar lifestyle, with 500 shows about mechanics and celebrity pawn shops (Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, Combat Pawn, Win Lose or Pawn, to name a few) and dopey, beer-swilling sitcom dads in huge houses for each elitist prestige drama. Chain restaurants, by nature, are several orders of magnitude more numerous than gourmet sandwich shops and bean-to-bar chocolatiers. Applebee’s America, or whatever we’re calling it now, is entirely content to remain unfamiliar with artisanal bistros and David Foster Wallace. If the dumbest political commentators working today really want to attune themselves to a working-class sensibility, they would be well-advised to refrain from their usual routine of faux-concern and paternalism. Their best bet would be to resign their positions and get genuine, authentic working-class jobs. It might help them escape the bubble, it might not — but at least we wouldn’t have to read their columns anymore.