The Non-coastal Elites

Posted by on September 23, 2021 6:00 am
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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 honor, 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.

[Read: The world order that Donald Trump revealed ]

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, nonprofits, 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 transshipment 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.

[From the June 2018 issue: The 9.9 percent is the new American aristocracy]

Wherever these elites live, their wealth and connections make them influential forces within local society. In the aggregate, through their political donations and positions within their localities and regions, they wield a great deal of political influence. They’re the local gentry of the United States.

These folks’ wealth extends into the millions and tens of millions rather than the billions we typically associate with the world-shaping clout of international oligarchs. There are, however, a lot more of them than the global elites who get all of the attention. They’re not the faces of instantly recognizable brands or the subjects of award-winning New York Times profiles; they own warehouses and Applebee’s franchises, concrete companies and movie-theater chains, hops fields and apartment complexes.

Because their wealth is rooted in the ownership of physical assets, they tend to be more rooted in their place of origin than the cosmopolitan professionals and entrepreneurs of the major metro areas are. Mobility among major metros, the characteristic jumping from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York to Austin that’s possible for younger lawyers, creatives, and tech folks, is foreign to them. They might really like heading to a vacation home in Bermuda or Maui. They might plan a relatively early retirement to a wealthy enclave in Palm Springs; Scottsdale, Arizona; or Central Florida. Ultimately, however, their money and importance comes from the businesses they own, and those belong in their locality.

Gentry classes have been a common feature of a great many social-economic-political regimes throughout history. Pretty much anywhere you have a hierarchical form of social organization and property ownership, an entrenched gentry class of some kind emerges. In the course of working on my doctorate in history and years of research for my podcast, Tides of History, I’ve come across many different gentries, each with its own ideas about its legitimacy, role in society, and relationship to those above and below on the social scale: the local civic elites of the Roman Empire, the landlords of late Han China, the numerous lower nobility of late medieval France, the thegns of Anglo-Saxon England, the Prussian Junkers, and the planter class of the antebellum South. The gentry are distinct from the highest levels of a regime’s political and economic elite: They’re usually not resident in the political center; they don’t hold major positions in the central administration of the state (whatever that might consist of); and they aren’t counted among the wealthiest people in their polity. New national or imperial elites might develop over time from a gentry class, even rulers—the boundaries between these groups can be more or less porous—but that’s not typically the case.

Gentry are, by definition, local elites. The extent to which they wield power in their locality, and how they do so, is dependent on the structure of their regime. In the early Roman Empire, for example, local civic elites were essential to the functioning of the state. They collected taxes in their home city, administered justice, and competed with one another for local political offices and seats on the city council. Their competition was a driving force behind the provision of benefits to the common folk, in the form of festivals, games, public buildings, and more basic support, a practice called civic euergetism.

These local elites of the Roman world served as the linkage between the emperors, such as Augustus and Hadrian, and the archipelago of cities that made up the Roman Empire. The central state essentially outsourced the day-to-day running of the empire to the city councillors of Marseille, Tarragona, Antioch, Athens, Carthage, and the dozens of other cities scattered from Britain to Arabia. Roman elites were fundamentally urban; they owned rural estates (fancy villas with vineyards and fields and bathhouses and libraries) and spent a great deal of time there, but cities were the venues for their competition with one another. Contrast those Roman elites with the planter class of the antebellum American South. Superficially, they share a great deal in common, and not just because the planter class loved to read the classics and explicitly modeled itself after the aristocracies of Greco-Roman antiquity. Both were slaveholding elites; both valued a specific kind of elite education as a marker of social status; both owned extensive rural estates; and both exerted strong, effectively unchecked control over their localities. But the planter class was fundamentally rural. Its members went to a few cities to show off their wealth and sophistication—such as Charleston, South Carolina; Augusta, Georgia; and New Orleans—but by and large they spent their time and energy at their plantations. These were the places they effectively ruled, politicking with their fellow aristocrats. There were incredibly wealthy planters with huge estates, some of them owning hundreds of enslaved people and thousands of acres, but plenty of planters operated on a more modest scale. But even the more modest planters—those owning more than 10 enslaved people in some areas of the South, more than 20 in other parts—were still an elite group by any reasonable standard.

The medieval European gentry was likewise a fundamentally rural group: living in their manor houses, collecting rents and customary labor duties from their serfs (or, later in the Middle Ages, leaseholders), presiding over the local courts, and plotting and fighting with their gentry neighbors over inheritances, marriages, and access to the resources of whatever more centralized state existed. They were distinct from the higher nobility—dukes, counts, and whatnot—whose holdings included multiple estates and who were more directly connected to royal authority. Medieval Europe was notable for its general tolerance of private violence carried out not only by higher nobility but even by local gentry, with their bands of men-at-arms and hired soldiers. That right to violence was part of what distinguished them as a social group, and they didn’t hesitate to employ it in defense of their position in local society.

We could talk about many, many more types of gentry: some of, but not all, the holders of iqta (tax-revenue units) in the Delhi Sultanate of the 14th century; the English country gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries; on and on and on. The greater the level of social inequality, the more prominent the gentry class—the group that owns the resources—tends to become in economic and political life. In agrarian societies, where land and its produce form the primary source of wealth, rural elites dominate. In more urbanized societies, the local elites can be a bit more diverse.

[Eliot A. Cohen: Meet the Trumpverstehers]

This, not just pure nostalgia, is why I started with Yakima: because it’s easy to see the structural parallels with the past when we look at a heavily rural and agricultural region, even one that’s not exactly prominent in the American imagination. The gentry residing in my hometown largely own land, the products of which form their primary source of wealth, and they sit atop the local hierarchy. But much of the United States isn’t as rural or as obviously hierarchical, in either social or racial terms, as Yakima. It’s not hard to spot sprawling apple orchards or vineyards and figure out that the person who owns them is probably wealthy; it’s harder to intuitively grasp that a single family might own 17 McDonald’s franchises in East Tennessee, or understand just how much money that the ownership of the third-biggest construction company in Bakersfield, California, can generate.

When we talk about inequality, we skew our perspective by looking at the most visible manifestations of it: penthouses in New York, mansions in Beverly Hills, the lavish wastefulness of hedge-fund billionaires or a misbehaving celebrity. But that’s not who most of the United States’ wealthy elite really are. They own $2 million houses on golf courses outside Orlando, Florida, and a condo in the Bahamas, not an architecturally designed oceanfront villa in Miami. Those billionaires (and their excesses) exist, but they’re not nearly as common as a less exalted category of the rich that’s no less structurally formative to our economy and society.

An enormous number of organizations and institutions are dedicated to advancing the interests of this gentry class: chambers of commerce, exclusive country clubs and housing developments, the American Society of Concrete Contractors, and fruit growers’ associations, just to name a small cross section. Through these organizations and their intimate ties to local and state politics, the gentry class can and usually does wield significant power to shape society to its liking. It’s easy to focus on the massive political spending of a Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg; it’s harder, but no less important, to imagine what kind of deals about water rights or local zoning ordinances are being struck across the U.S. on the eighth green of the local country club.

Some people work their way into this property-holding gentry class by virtue of their blood, sweat, and sheer gumption. That’s one variant of the American dream: the belief that hard work and talent, and maybe a bit of luck, can take a person into the ranks of the elite. But far more members of the gentry class are born into it. They inherit assets, whether those are car dealerships, apple orchards, or construction companies, and manage to avoid screwing things up. Managers run their companies, lawyers look over their contracts, accountants oversee their finances, but they’re the owners, whether or not they’ve done a single thing of their own volition to accumulate those assets. This is broadly true of gentry classes: They’re hereditary. Large amounts of property of any kind form a durable base for generational wealth, whatever specific shape it might take. The American gentry class isn’t entirely closed to new blood, but it, too, is hereditary.

Equating wealth, especially generational wealth, with virtue and ability is a deeply American pathology. This country loves to believe that people get what they deserve, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Nowhere is this more obviously untrue than with our gentry class.

The American gentry stands at the apex of the social order throughout huge swaths of the country. It shapes our economic and political world thanks to its resources and comparatively large numbers, yet it’s practically invisible to the popular eye.

Forget the skyscrapers and opulent country mansions, the elite family dynamics of Succession and the antics of the Kardashians and Kardashian-adjacent; look instead to the far more numerous multimillion-dollar planned golf-course communities and their controlling homeowners’ associations. Think about the informal property-development deals struck between sweating local grandees at the country-club bar in Odessa, Texas, or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Power resides in gated communities and local philanthropic boards, in the ownership of staggering numbers of fast-food franchises, and in the smooth transmission of a large construction company’s assets to a new generation of small-yacht owners. Power can be found in group photos of half-soused, overweight men in ill-fitting polo shirts, and in the millionaires ready and willing to fly their private jets to Washington, D.C., in support of a certain would-be authoritarian. The yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur: These were the people who, remembering or inventing their tradition of dominance over their towns and cities, flocked to Make America Great Again. As much as the United States loves to think of itself as an egalitarian paradise open to talent of any stripe, hierarchy and local power are no less the American way.

This article was adapted from an essay published on Patrick Wyman’s Substack, Perspectives.

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