Now, Hawley would probably respond that while he has political power — he does! a lot of it! — he does not have cultural power, that even with the power of a United States senator, he’s not changing the ways Americans talk or think, or the movies they watch, the music they listen to.
And that’s the power that many conservatives argue matters the most right now. The salience of cultural power is why white college graduates have been transmogrified by The New York Post into the “cultural elite,” with no mention of their actual income. And by this same definition, people like me are part of the elite: I’m a podcast host and writer for The New York Times. I am very much not rich, but I’ve got a lot of power to potentially change how people think, or what they think about.
Surely, there’s some truth to this — even Karl Marx pointed out that class wasn’t just about wealth but also about the relationship between groups and property and the means of production. But the image of the elite that some on the right have constructed is only part of the story.
When I think about “elites,” I don’t just think about billionaires or corporate powerhouses, or even popular musicians or cultural influencers. I grew up in Cincinnati, and the most powerful people I could think of were, well, rich.
They had money to buy boats and go on family vacations to faraway places like Destin, Fla., and paid full tuition for their kids at the high school I attended on scholarship. They owned car dealerships and advertised on local television. They probably went to Ohio State or the University of Cincinnati or the University of Dayton instead of the Ivy League, but where I grew up, they had the power to influence a school board vote or back a candidate in a suburban district that could help flip a swing state.
They were, as Patrick Wyman so brilliantly put it in The Atlantic, the American gentry: “the yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur.” Or the people who had boat parades for Donald Trump during the 2020 election. Or the person who could hand Indiana University $10 million so maybe its basketball program wouldn’t reside in the basement of the Big Ten for another year.