The New Class struggle

Culture | Adults, no less than teenagers, often form their beliefs by caving in to peer pressure

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

The Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, was not very Nathan-like-neither the biblical angel nor the liberal priest Nathan Baxter (see p. 18)-when she issued a "pastoral response" to President Clinton's moral peccadilloes. Although not even his pastor, Ms. Brown says we should all feel sorry for the president and remember how understanding God is. Then she puts her imprimatur on Mr. Clinton's key argument: "Our long experience in pastoral care has taught us the wisdom of protecting personal life from public display," she says. "I hope that, as a nation, we are now learning that truth. The private lives of our public leaders are best left private or we will have none allowed to lead."

This churchwoman seems to share a solidarity with the more secular liberals to see morality as primarily a matter of correct social policies (the NCC is quite willing to pontificate about foreign policy, environmentalism, and welfare-state economics), rather than personal behavior.

Why is this not surprising? Why are the political and moral leanings of certain groups-college professors, teachers, journalists, therapists, entertainers, and bureaucrats-so predictable? To be sure, there are many individuals in these professions who hold dissenting views, but they often must first overcome peer pressure to conform to the party line.

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Ms. Brown's knee-jerk support of the president recalls to mind something Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger wrote over a decade ago: "One of the easiest empirical procedures to determine very clearly what the agenda of the new class is at any given moment is to look up the latest pronouncements of the National Council of Churches."

The "New Class," as Mr. Berger and other sociologists have defined it, is a new social elite in American culture. As liberals try to bring back the old rhetoric of class warfare, of haves vs. have-nots, this New Class theory sheds a different light on the culture wars.

Mr. Berger outlined this view in a 1981 article in Christian Century. The culture war, he wrote, is largely "a struggle between two elites. On the one side is the old elite of business enterprise, on the other side a new elite composed of those whose livelihood derives from the manipulation of symbols-intellectuals, educators, media people, members of the 'helping professions,' and a miscellany of planners and bureaucrats."

Both business owners and blue-collar workers make their living from tangible products. Those who own the businesses and those who work in those businesses may have different economic and political interests. For years, business interests, large and small, primarily favored the Republican Party; union members, blue-collar workers, and farmers primarily favored Democrats.

But even as the business class and the working class may have had competing economic interests, they often shared the most fundamental cultural values. They went to the same churches. In the agricultural South, the "yellow-dog Democrats" (from the avowed commitment to vote for a yellow dog, as long as he wasn't a Republican) clamored for liberal economic policies, but no one was more conservative culturally than they.

But the information class has different values entirely. The old property and manufacturing classes valued stability and honored traditions; the New Class, trading in information, prospers from "new ideas" and rapid change.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the glory years of the welfare state, New Class social engineers and "helping professionals"-with vested interests in big-government activism-took over politically. The New Class bastions of academia and the public-education establishment grew in clout. With the boom in "information technology," the ascendancy of the news media, Hollywood, and the computer mavens put the New Class at the top of America's pecking order.

This New Class, like other social classes, has its own class markers, symbols that establish class solidarity. Among them, said Mr. Berger, is belief in abortion, feminism, and environmentalism. "A young instructor applying for a job in an elite university is well advised to hide 'unsound' views such as political allegiance to the right wing of the Republican party (perhaps even to the left wing), opposition to abortion or to other causes of the feminist movement, or a strong commitment to the virtues of the corporation." Today, I would suggest that a definitive class marker is the moral acceptance of homosexuality.

Mr. Berger concluded his 1981 piece by remarking that "the current class struggle is between the new knowledge class and the old business class." Almost two decades later, the information economy has flourished in wealth production to the point that the New Class has taken over large sections of the business world. The New Class has already taken over the Democratic party and is making major inroads among the Republicans.


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