One of my favorite news sites is Cracked.com, a comedy site. I don’t know if it’s the old thing about the jester being able to speak truth to power or the lack of a particular axe to grind that makes me find it more informative than a lot of straight news and commentary places. A podcast they aired in March 2016 was a discussion about how bad America is at talking about class (and how that contributed to the rise of Trump). We like to pretend that we’re essentially a classless society, a meritocracy where people rise and fall according to their own abilities. We pretend that social class and wealth are pretty much the same thing. The podcast also talked about how we get a lot more riled up by people in the social class adjacent to us than we do by social classes who are a couple of steps removed. (So, the gentry (upper middle class) tend to get more pissed about acts from the upper class than the lower middle class might.) Social classes who are a few steps removed are more cartoonish abstractions than real threats to your way of life. The podcast website linked to an interesting essay entitled, “I can tolerate anything except the out-group.” The out group is going to be one that’s close to home. The author references what Freud described as the narcissism of small differences:“it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.”
Another great thing about Cool Chuck’s is that it is almost totally free of upper-middle-class white liberals, the most dangerous and annoying class of persons in America. They would have no reason to go. By the time ordinary people’s children are ready to enjoy the lights and ball pit, theirs are already studying for the LSAT and brushing up on calculus at bespoke magnet preschools. Besides, it is a place that serves real pizza, with pepperoni and mozzarella cheese, not the flatbread creations topped with avocadoes or peaches or goat cheese or broccoli or all four, which they pretend to like for the same reasons they feign enjoyment of prestige cable dramas instead of just watching Sanford and Son reruns. Also: Dylan and Heather already have iPads stuffed with classical music apps, so the games aren’t a draw either. More for the rest of us.
The other parents at Chuck E. Cheese’s are normal, emotionally well-adjusted, spiritually and morally upright working people happy to have found this little low-cost slice of Eden. We have great conversations about things like God, sports, and the difficulties of raising a family in the country’s most expensive metropolitan area.
He also proclaims that “macro brews” are “real beer,” and sneers at craft beer. This focus on seeming trivialities like what kind of pizza or TV shows people watch while the world burns, foreign relations deteriorate, health care is on its way to becoming a distant dream, and the White House is occupied by a person who lacks the emotional discipline to run the country seems like madness. But, it’s not about the pizza. It’s not even about God. It’s about social class and antipathy toward the adjacent social class.
So, when we start calling each other hypocrites it’s often because we weren’t really talking about those things we said out loud. A lot of the folks talking about the need for a leader to share their Christian values were able to vote for Trump because they weren’t really talking about the need for moral probity in a leader. They were talking about wanting the kind of guy who reflected their social class — or at least pissed off the social classes that they hated. That’s what the talk about Obama eating arugula and Trump eating burnt steaks with ketchup is all about.
When the talk radio guys talk about “elitism,” they’re not talking about money and they’re not talking about the super-wealthy. They’re talking about the professional classes that are adjacent to and piss off the social class immediately below them — what I’ve been calling the gentry. When the gentry hear “elite,” they think about the billionaires and such things as the Wall Street casino. But that’s not primarily what the talk radio guys are getting at. They’re pushing the emotional buttons of the working class white listeners hard enough to get them to listen through the next Gold Bond commercial. And it’s the narcissism of small differences that triggers that emotion. So, when I — as a member of the gentry — turn up my nose at Bud Light and reach for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it’s probably a worse affront than legislator who votes for a tax cut that benefits the billionaire at the expense of the extreme lower class.
I don’t want this to be read as saying “Both Sides ™ are equally to blame” or as a plea to ignore horrible policy ideas in favor of becoming unified and singing kumbaya with the people who advocate those horrible policy ideas. But understating the emotional landscape in which we’re operating is important.