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Mon Sep 27, 2021, 08:09 AM

American Gentry

The jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of America’s local hierarchies.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/trump-american-gentry-wyman-elites/620151/



American wealth and power usually have a certain look: glass-walled penthouse apartments in glittering urban skyscrapers, sprawling country mansions, ivy-covered prep schools, vacation homes in the Hamptons. These are the outward symbols of an entrenched oligarchy, the political-economic ruling class portrayed by the media that entertains us and the conspiracy theories that animate the darker corners of the American imagination. The reality of American wealth and power is more banal. The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct. When he crowed about his “beautiful boaters,” lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honour, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.

This class of people exists all over the United States, usually in midsize metropolitan areas such as Yakima, Washington, the agricultural city where I grew up, 140 miles southeast of Seattle, the Pacific Northwest’s largest metro. According to the prominent sign on the freeway outside town, Yakima is the “Palm Springs of Washington.” The sign is one of the few things outsiders tend to remember about Yakima, along with the excellent cheeseburgers from Miner’s and one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. I loved Parks and Recreation because it accurately portrayed life in a place like Yakima: a city that isn’t small and serves as the hub for a dispersed chunk of rural territory, but that isn’t tightly connected to a major metropolitan area. But Parks and Rec is an exception. Places like Yakima and Parks and Rec’s fictional Pawnee don’t figure prominently in the country’s popular imagination or its political narratives: San Luis Obispo, California; Odessa, Texas; Bloomington, Illinois; Medford, Oregon; Hilo, Hawaii; Dothan, Alabama; Green Bay, Wisconsin. Yakima isn’t a tiny hamlet; it has a population of about 90,000 and sits at the heart of an extended metropolitan area that’s home to nearly a quarter of a million people. Millions of Americans live in small metropolitan areas much like it: exurban, surrounded by rural territory and wilderness, but not exactly isolated in the middle of nowhere. Seattle is only a two-hour drive away through the towering Cascade mountains, but it’s an entirely different world culturally, politically, and economically.

Yakima is a place I love dearly and have returned to often since I left, but I’ve never lived there again on a permanent basis. The same is true for many of my close high-school classmates: If they left for college, most have never returned for longer than a few months at a time. Practically all of them now live in major metro areas scattered across the country, not our hometown. The kinds of jobs they are now qualified for—in corporate or management consulting, non-profits, media, and finance—don’t really exist in Yakima. Yakima’s economy revolved then, and revolves to an ever greater extent now, around commercial agriculture. As a result, the whole region is dominated by its wealthy, largely agricultural property-owning class. They mostly owned, and still own, fruit companies: apples, cherries, peaches, and now hops and wine grapes. The other large-scale industries in the region, particularly commercial construction, are essentially economically downstream from agriculture: These companies pave the roads on which fruits and vegetables are transported to transhipment points, build the warehouses where the produce is stored, and so on. Commercial agriculture is a lucrative industry, at least for those who own the orchards, the cold-storage units, the processing facilities, and the large businesses that cater to them.

The owners have a trusted and reasonably well-paid cadre of managers and specialists in law, finance, and the like—members of the educated professional-managerial class that my close classmates and I have joined—but the large majority of their employees are lower-wage laborers. The owners are mostly white; the laborers are mostly Latino, a significant portion of them undocumented immigrants who often work under brutally difficult circumstances. Ownership of the real, core assets is where the region’s wealth comes from, and it doesn’t extend down the social hierarchy. Yet this bounty is enough to produce hilltop mansions, a few high-end restaurants, and a staggering array of expensive vacation homes in Hawaii, Palm Springs, and the San Juan Islands. These elites’ wealth derives not from their salary—this is what separates them from even extremely prosperous members of the professional-managerial class, such as doctors and lawyers—but from their ownership of assets. Those assets vary depending on where in the country we’re talking about; they could be a bunch of McDonald’s franchises in Jackson, Mississippi; a beef-processing plant in Lubbock, Texas; a construction company in Billings, Montana; commercial properties in Portland, Maine; or a car dealership in western North Carolina. Even the less prosperous parts of the United States generate enough surplus to produce a class of wealthy people. Depending on the political culture and institutions of a locality or region, this elite class might wield more or less political power. In some places, it has an effective stranglehold over what gets done; in others, it’s important but not all-powerful.

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