Mo Bobos, Mo Problems: Looking Back at David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise 15 Years Later

bobos in paradise cover

Revisiting a work of pop sociology is almost always a jarring experience. Frederick Lewis Allen’s early postmortem of the 1920s, for instance, treated the Florida real estate boom as one of that decade’s most salient themes—not exactly what we think of when we think of the Roaring Twenties. Similarly, Alvin Toffler’s breathless language about hippies and happenings in Future Shock seems dated today, even as we continue to be as anxious about the quickening pace of technology and “information overload” as the gilded corporate-whisperer Toffler was back in 1970.

In a different way, David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise offers a remarkable pulse-reading of America’s elite in 2000. In fact, it’s a sumptuous portrait of how the fairly-to-very privileged saw themselves at the moment that America teetered on the edge of the great precipice known as the twenty-first century.

It’s hardly surprising that a New York Times bestseller in 2000 would trumpet the go-go euphoria of robust economic growth, or that it celebrated the superior wisdom of those who benefited most from the tech boom of the 1990s. What is striking to me, at least, is how Brooks’s work sits at an interesting inflection point in an emerging conversation about cities, class, culture, and the economy. Brooks actually bridges the divide between 1990s debates about the co-optation of counterculture and the embrace of bohemianism as a tool of economic development in the early 2000s.

If that sounds pretty diffuse, think of it this way: draw a line from Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” (1995) and The Conquest of Cool (1998) to Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), and his many subsequent works franchising the idea of “creativity.” Bobos in Paradise sits right in the middle, both temporally and temperamentally.

I admit to having known little about David Brooks for the first, sweet twenty-five years or so of my life. I was dimly aware that a guy had written a book about the pretentious, latte-sipping upper class, but I figured it didn’t go much further than the satire of the easy target. When I got to grad school I found that some of my liberal classmates were fond of Brooks, as a “reasonable” conservative among the loonies of the Right. Brooks has been keen to retain this position ever since, adjusting his wonderfully delicate barometer of conventional wisdom as the political atmosphere changed through the Bush and Obama years. He’s sort of like Cokie Roberts with less valium, or Bill Kristol with slightly less natural slime secretion.

Meet the Press
Bobo me, bro

However, my own interest in the idea of the “creative class” has brought me circling back to Bobos. Here, Brooks seems to have captured that class in a key moment of its efflorescence, like a well-preserved and particularly feathery archaeopteryx. He doesn’t call them “creative”—this was Florida’s great innovation—though the word does come up here and there. Brooks sees the hedge fund managers, foundation directors, and English literature professors of Westchester and Greenwich as defined in more conventional terms of class: economic means (income and wealth) and cultural capital (education and taste). So it is the big corporate lawyer’s large salary and his summer home in the Berkshires that define him, as well as his wife’s Ivy League degree and her taste for Anthropologie.

(As an aside, it is amusing to see brands like Anthropologie and Nantucket Nectars treated as new, exotic, and hip when they’ve become so familiar in the years since—though this is hardly Brooks’s fault.)

You couldn't afford me anthropologie
I cost more than your house

But it is the cultural and economic value of education that Brooks emphasizes the most, since, in his view, educational achievement was the pathway to all the other goodies that America’s most recent fin de siècle had to offer. Indeed, his thesis is admirably simple and easy to grasp. The United States once had a great and august elite made up of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of good breeding (WASPs), who attended elite prep schools, studied at Harvard and Yale, and engaged in public service (both military and political) out of a sense of duty and custom.

Brooks implies more than once that some pretty subpar people got elevated through this system by dint of good name and connections alone—which is fair enough. But then, incredibly, he includes George W. Bush among the “quintessential figures of the new establishment” (along with Henry Louis Gates and Jerry Seinfeld) who combine “1960s rebellion with 1980s achievement” (45-6). How Dubya is seen as distinct from a WASP aristocracy but associated with “achievement” is beyond me.

In any case, Brooks is simply saying that a new, more meritocratic elite came to power with the rise of the baby boomers. At times, he indulges his fondness for the rich and privileged by implying that this turn toward meritocracy was a selfless, unilateral act of surrender by the WASP establishment in the 1960s. He puts too little emphasis on the many social, economic, and policy factors that led to the democratization of American higher education after World War II, sweeping a vastly more diverse student body into universities and lifting many into the middle class. However, his point is well-enough taken: the ranks of America’s college students did become significantly more Jewish, black, Hispanic, female, and working-class than ever before, and that ended up elevating new and different leaders to prominence in the late twentieth century.

For Brooks, it’s roses as far as the eyes can see—apart from a few trifling matters, like the new elite’s political correctness and its anxiety about competition. The fusty old order is out, and a meritocratic class of achievers has floated to the top. This brings us to the second prong of his argument: that this new class has merged the historically antagonistic positions of the bourgeois and the bohemian, producing the “Bobo.” One can embrace bourgeois values of hard work, responsibility, and worldly achievement, while simultaneously coating oneself in a superficial sheen of spontaneity, nonconformity, and antimaterialism—the perennial hallmarks of the bohemian. Hence you get corporate advertising that celebrates “revolution” and the CEO or tech entrepreneur cast as the fuck-the-rules renegade.

Bobos in Paradise was undoubtedly popular because it flattered the self-image of its privileged readers, while providing the comforting feeling of being knowing enough to chide oneself. (Brooks consistently includes himself in the “we” of wonderful achievers who still have some amusing hang-ups, allowing the reader in on the joke.)

But it also came at a time when the corporate co-optation of cultures that had once seemed subversive or resistant was nearly complete. Only a year earlier had GAP tried audaciously to take advantage of protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the image of the anarchist “black bloc” to try to sell jeans. The rise of alternative rock in the early 1990s raised difficult questions about how indie music cultures, such as punk and grunge, might be compromised by a corporate music industry that many such musicians had grown up seeing as their eternal foe.  Consumerism itself was being rehabilitated with the emergence of socially conscious consumption, such as fair trade and environmentally friendly products. (Brooks: “We take the quintessential bourgeois activity, shopping, and turn it into quintessential Bohemian activities: art, philosophy, social action.”) And Thomas Frank at The Baffler had written extensively about the ability of corporate America to absorb and capitalize on any styles or movements that appeared to promise opposition to the status quo—thanks in large part to the mellow boomers and hip Gen-Xers who had moved into the c-suite, only too happy to reject the cultural boundaries of the WASP establishment, whose demise Brooks charts in Bobos.

conquest of cool frank book cover

Indeed, Brooks affords too little credit to Frank (he merits only one mention, on p. 117), given that the Bobo synthesis strongly resembles the latter’s cultural criticism. The inattention is predictable, though, as the author no doubt disdains Frank’s leftist politics and Manichean worldview. For Brooks, boboism is a two-way street, and the street runs through affluent, trendy suburbs like Wayne, PA, outside Philadelphia, where the new elite indulges in its espresso and black bean dip.

Notably, much of Brooks’s analysis is fixated on foodstuffs and material culture. (He borrows heavily from Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America.) For the author, you really are what you eat, or at least what you buy, and the outward signifiers of class, from the crab panini to Crate & Barrel, ultimately stem from cultural capital—in short, the education that allows you to make money and the savoir-faire to know what to spend it on.

This is why his focus on “the educated class” actually rings truer than Richard Florida’s focus on “the creative.” While there are many, many educated people in this country who do not enjoy an upper-middle-class lifestyle—sometimes Brooks seems to think everyone who’s educated is the CFO of Pepsi or a Yale history professor, and his aside about a handful of “gypsy scholars” seeking tenure-track jobs looks laughable in light of the slow-motion collapse of academia—his metric remains the better one. The class in question is well-off, and it is prosperous in large part because of its educational advantages. Full stop. The author, in fact, goes to great lengths to explain in the beginning of the book that this Bobo class encompasses the corporate and the nonprofit, the big law firm and the university or foundation—its members only have to possess a good income and cultural capital to be members. (He implies that a few boors get symbolically excluded, such as Rush Limbaugh and, bizarrely, Wayne Newton, because of their poor taste and/or unacceptable views, but this is a minor caveat.)

Florida, in contrast, defines his new hegemonic class in terms of creativity—a nebulous term that leads him to parse out a series of increasingly arbitrary subcategories such as the “supercreative core.” The creative class potentially includes the educated and uneducated, the employed and unemployed, the CEO and the starving artist. While, for Florida, the core of this group consists of people whose jobs involve creativity in a fairly straightforward way (artists, graphic designers, computer scientists), his theory has a way of prodigiously sweeping in anyone and everyone who might potentially gentrify a neighborhood at some point. For some reason, a corporate manager is creative; an accountant might be too; a barista who designs apps on the side or a program manager at the Ford Foundation gets in there as well.

What unifies all these figures is hard to determine—most if, not all, will be college educated, though Florida does not necessarily make a BA a requirement for entry into the creative class. (That would exclude a lot of plainly creative people.) It’s not income or wealth, two of the traditional markers of class, since the members of this group range from the very top to the very bottom of the income scale. The one thing you can say that defines them is their creativity, though Florida’s theory seems to elide or erase the many functionaries of a corporate hierarchy whose work hardly seems to resemble that of an artist or writer. And where do workers in healthcare—one of the fastest-growing industries, constituting a huge chunk of the economy—fit in? Doctors, the aristocracy of labor in medicine, are undoubtedly part of the creative class, but what about nurses? RNs have bachelor’s degrees. Are they creative, or just grunts?

“Creative,” then, seems to be not much more than a byword for privilege. The white collar professional has it, and the boho barista either has had it or will have it or both.

Indeed, all that unites these folks is that they are distinctly not working-class by any conventional definition—not factory workers, not manual laborers, and not members of the lowest and most hopeless rungs of the service industry. (Certain food and retail workers might count if their job is a way station to creative pursuits; the overwhelming majority of the working poor, not so much.) Florida’s logic begins to look tautological: this class is the creative class because it’s creative. The empirical basis for the theory lies in the fact that Florida can point to statistics that show that wherever the creative class (so defined) goes, economic development and growth follows. These are your Portlands, your Austins, your New Yorks. Define them as “creative,” point out where they are, and voila: you have both a new social theory and a policy prescription for localities hungry for development. Florida framed the choice in no uncertain terms in the first chapter of his influential 2002 book, saying that cities “have no choice: Either they will create these kinds of environments or they will wither and die.” (13)

cartoon creative class

Curiously, Florida insists that his theory is distinct from that of Bobos in Paradise (which he called “clever”), and perhaps it is. But the outlook that Florida attributes to the creative class, emphasizing the importance of the arts, tolerance, and diversity, does not differ that much from the Bobos of Brooks, who cites their fetish for culture and freedom of expression while also lampooning their political correctness.

Indeed, I placed Brooks part of the way between Frank and Florida for a reason. Florida may seem to be closer to Frank in ideological affiliation; no doubt both see themselves as being on the Left, and Florida can frame his work in terms of Marx and Luxemburg and Lenin with considerable fluency. But he is actually less critical of this new class than Brooks, who, for all his self-congratulation as a member of the group and his lauding of the true and perfect judgment of meritocracy, still feels like enough of an outsider to poke fun at the privileged and highlight the limitations of their worldview. (Indeed, Brooks avers that “the Bobo meritocracy will not be easily toppled,” [53] but one wonders what he really thinks. As a brown-nosing striver who ingratiated himself into the ranks of the heavily Catholic and right-wing National Review at a young age, despite his Jewish background, Brooks seems torn between infatuation with the elite and a lingering sense that his eagerly-sought status is hurting for a robust apologia).

In other words, Florida papers over the differences within his new class to sing its praises—who could be against creativity? But Brooks lays out a handier and less complicated schema, emphasizing education, income, and taste as the distinguishing traits of the upper-middle-class-to-rich people who coalesced as a group in the 1990s, marrying an inclination for all things foodie, arty, and whatever with high economic status. A more apt title for the book might have even been From Bourgeois to Bougie—since the older term still vaguely evokes musty manners and uptight mores, while the latter screams Whole Foods gluten-free strawberry salad dressing. A garnish of bohemianism got involved along the way.

In the end, yes, a new class has brought its distinctive cultural palate to environs from the tony suburbs of Philly or DC to the gentrifying districts of LA and Atlanta. Florida’s work has given local politicians and planners a script for goosing their communities’ “creativity” in order to appeal to this crowd, but emphasizing the creative seems to be mistaking an effect for a cause—or perhaps a side dish for the main course. Brooks offers a simpler deal: the areas that have benefited from the influx of well-heeled professionals in the last decade or two have prospered, because artsy-fartsy stuff is fun and people with cultural capital have brought their consumer spending and tax dollars along with them—an educated class, but not necessarily a creative one. In other words, follow the money.