The New Old Nobility

Aristocrats in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held tradesmen in contempt.  Although aristocrats recognized that businessmen (and they were almost entirely men) provided a few useful services, they also saw merchants as money grubbers who lacked both an appreciation for the higher things in life and insight into the rural lower class that lived near aristocratic estates. As a result there was general agreement among the high born that the business class should not enjoy an equal share in setting the political and social norms of the nation.

Aristocrats tried to enforce the distinction between themselves and those in trade in various ways. The Court around the monarch was their preserve.  The families of peers married largely among themselves. They jealously guarded the prerogatives of the House of Lords. And they believed all such exclusions were in the interest of the nobility of the nation, not just the nobles themselves.

When academics and the press write in favor of regulating campaign contributions and outside expenditures, they remind me of nothing so much that attitude of the nobility of Old England. They are horrified that the Koch Brothers intervene at election time to press their views on the public. But they think nothing of the fact the Arthur Sulzberger, a media aristocrat from birth, can propagate ideas on his own editorial page without restriction, even though there is ample evidence that an endorsement from The New York Times can make the difference for a candidate for city or state office.  Nor do academics have any trouble enthusiastically supporting “reforms” to  prevent their fellow citizens from influencing the next election, although many of them hope their ideas transmitted through their students and acolytes will permanently transform society.

One easy explanation is ideological. The news media and academics overwhelmingly favor the Democratic party.  While the partisan views of the wealthy are much more mixed, permitting them to fund election  messages would result in more politically balanced messaging and slow the current in public discourse that would otherwise flow sharply to the left. On this view, the media and academics simply want campaign reform to silence the other side.

But I think the motivations of what we may call the symbolic class are much more like the old nobility. They see themselves as group apart with higher motives and purer intentions because they float above the compromises and crassness of commerce. They think they come to know the interests of the less well off as they report or study their travails.  Fortunately, as with the old nobility, time is not on their side. The digital age disintermediates the media and has already diminished the power of the mainstream press.  Many colleges also face a great disruption over the horizon, as online courses substitute for professors.   Like the nobility of old, the symbolic class’s enthusiasm for excluding competition provides an intimation of their fading power.