The Permanent Ascendance of ‘Bobos’

From Alnold Kling Bobos’ Paradise Lost?

What Brooks might have foreseen, but did not, was how this Bobo project would play out as it gathered momentum. In the last two decades, we have witnessed the acceleration of the long-term trend toward expansion of the more abstract-oriented industries, such as finance and entertainment, and a decline of the more concrete-oriented industries, such as manufacturing and mining. As a result, the cultural influence of Bobos has soared. The Bobos became insistently cosmopolitan on issues of immigration and foreign relations, increasingly aggressive in their assault on traditional ideas about gender, and increasingly eager to stifle the speech on campus of those with whom they disagree.
The mid-century elites were formed in industries that produced automobiles, steel, oil, and other tangible outputs. The Bobos instead tend to be found in modern industries that involve intangible abstractions, including entertainment, finance, and computer software.

The rise of intellectual property (but also the service sector) parallels the decline of manufacturing and ‘tangibles’, also related to IQ, class stratification, wealth inequality, and other related topics discussed on this blog.

Hollywood, although it pales in importance to Silicon Valley, saved itself through foreign movie sales, superhero movies, and YA book adaptations.

In capitalism 2.0, in our everything-goes-up-economy, people are getting rich via asset appreciation and speculation: Bitcoin, Web 2.0, stocks, and expensive real estate, rather than ‘making and building things’.

Whereas blue-collar fortunes are fleeting, when high IQ tech people get rich, they tend to stay rich. As a consequence of the energy and commodity crash of 2014-2015, the 20 richest Russians lost a combined $62 billion. Two years later, that wealth has yet to return and likely never will. Meanwhile, the fortunes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook execs keep growing to no end.

High tech, especially programming, has been on the up-and-up since the 80’s, albeit with a dip in 2000-2003 during the dotcom crash and again a small dip in 2008-2009. But energy, commodity, and mining sectors, which tend to employ average-IQ people and have average-IQ management, suffered multiple severe blows in that same period: in the 90’s, 2008, and again in 2014. The same for housing and construction, which employs a lot of average-IQ people, which saw two severe contractions: in the early 90’s and in 2006-2009. Manufacturing relative to GDP and total employment has been in decline since the early 60’s; these are jobs that pay decent wages to average-IQ people, replaced by low-paying service sector jobs.

But there are a few exceptions of blue-collar industries doing well: the used car and automotive parts industries has boomed since 2008. This makes sense: due to the weak economy, people delayed buying new cars, but also cash for clunkers reduced the supply of used cars

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election revolved around the social class that David Brooks nearly twenty years ago dubbed Bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians. Donald Trump’s victory struck me as the triumph of an individual as well as an entire class scorned by the Bobos. This motivates one to revisit Brooks’s classic in order to see what Brooks understood then and what he might have missed about the contemporary elite.

I have seen this narrative repeated so many times since the election, but I am not convinced.

The election was very close, and Hillary won the popular vote. If Trump was supposed to be such a big repudiation, wouldn’t this have been reflected in the polls and results? Trump would have won as strongly as Obama did in 2008 if this were so. However, this sentiment could explain how Trump won the primaries though.

Brooks himself fits the description of the moderate intellectual. But it seems to me that since the book appeared, his type has been in decline. As the Internet has taken over our culture, the competition for the attention of the audience has become more intense. This apparently gives the advantage to commentators who display the radical temperament, who in Brooks’s words “must say or do things his opponents hate.” (page 159)

But the huge, recent blog successes of Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander, Bryan Caplan, and the author himself, Arnold Kling, who temperamentally are the opposite of ideologues like Ann Coulter, is evidence that there is a large and growing market for discourse that eschews combativeness. There are two phases of online journalism: the pre-2013 one and the post-2013 one, the former which favored the ideologue (as Arnold Kling describes) and the latter which favors the nuanced rationalist. Ideologues still have large audiences, but the huge growth of rationalist, long-form discourse (and sites such as Vox, Quartz, Bloomberg View, Motherboard Vice, Wait But Why, and Medium, that pioneered this new format), is somewhat of a surprise and unexpected. And despite Trump’s win and Britbart and other polarized media, this nuanced, high-IQ format continues to grow.

According to Brooks, this accounts for a variety of phenomena, from helicopter parenting to colleges imposing new rules about sexual conduct, to restrictions on development in urban areas, to support for economic regulation.


The Bobos became insistently cosmopolitan on issues of immigration and foreign relations, increasingly aggressive in their assault on traditional ideas about gender, and increasingly eager to stifle the speech on campus of those with whom they disagree.

But how much of this is also due to millennials and gen x?

The following G. K. Chesterton quote also comes to mind:

“Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

The archetypal cosmopolitan thinks he is above and or can replace tradition and history (gay marriage vs. the millennia-long tradition of heterosexual marriage; open borders vs. closed borders, etc.)

*What few people noticed until last year’s election was that resentment was building against the Bobos’ cultural hegemony. Brooks certainly did not see it coming when he wrote:


{{And in truth it is hard to see how the rule of the meritocrats could ever come to an end. The WASP establishment fell pretty easily in the 1960s. It surrendered almost without a shot. But the meritocratic Bobo class is rich with the spirit of self-criticism. It is flexible and amorphous enough to co-opt that which it does not already command. The Bobo meritocracy will not easily be toppled, even if some group of people were to rise up and conclude that it should be. (page 53)}}

Yet the Bobos were rudely ousted by Mr. Trump.

Except that they weren’t. The evidence, however, as measured by wealth and stock prices, suggests the elites are in a stronger position than ever despite Trump’s win. There’s this narrative that elites are losing sleep due to Trump’s win, but I think they are more or less indifferent. They wish Trump weren’t in power, but they are so wealthy and powerful that the setback is more of a speed bump than an existential crisis. The elite are more blase than worried, given that populism tends to be more bark than bite anyway. As mentioned before, look at the Carrier deal, which at the time was heralded by Trump supporters to be the beginning of an era of returning jobs to America: 10 months later, there has been no follow-through…the whole thing has pretty much been abandoned. Instead of summarily ending DACA, Trump gave supporters a way out, giving Congress 6 months to propose an alternative. Even if DACA is ended and a law is passed to ensure it cannot be easily resurrected, it’s still only a 5-year setback for the pro-immigration elite, given that Obama signed it in 2012. It won’t change the fact that America’s demographics are permanently altered and will remain so. The stock prices of major tech companies–Tesla, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Microsoft, etc.–keep making new highs despite Trump being in office and supposed anti-immigrant rhetoric, as further evidence of how the elite don’t have much to fear from Trump.

Looking ahead, one can only speculate on how this will play out. Perhaps last year’s election will prove to be a fluke, the Bobos’ cultural steamroller will get moving again, and the Trump movement will be crushed. Or perhaps the Bobos will prove to be “flexible and amorphous enough to co-opt” Trump supporters in a way that makes the latter feel better while allowing the Bobos to direct economic activity, gender relations, climate policy, and so forth.

It will play out the way it has always played out. More of politics as usual, status quo, etc.

But the good news is, culturally, the far-left are already losing, similar to how the SJWs began to lose traction online in 2013, by overplaying their hand. For example, Nancy Pelosi denouncing antifa. And from Vox: The case against antifa. This was the left’s own doing. After Charlottesville, they had a good thing going, and then went too far that even other leftists had to repudiate it. Trump does not have to lend a hand in the far-left’s own undoing; they will dig their own graves given enough time.

But one reason Trump could draw up this false equivalence in the first place is because antifa protesters have been carrying out violence against right-wing groups for months now. As Peter Beinart reported in the Atlantic, antifa activists have violently protested right-wing speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative political scientist Charles Murray. In the Yiannopoulos protests in particular, antifa activists even threw explosive Molotov cocktails and other objects at police.

Perhaps beating up your opponents is not the best way to express disagreement with them. But as a caveat, the low-IQ, low-information left (BLM, SJWS, antifa) are not the cosmopolitanism elitist left (tech execs, financiers, NGO leaders, academics, etc.). The latter can still keep pursuing policy even if the former lose respectability.