News & Politics

America's Disappearing 'Upper Class'

Apparently, in the United States, we don't have an upper class; we have elites -- a complimentary term that obscures true differences in opportunity.
John Edwards, it is hoped, will bring the "working-class" vote to Barack Obama. In alternative descriptions, he will help with the "middle-class" vote, or what a very tired Hillary Clinton might call the "white-middle white-class, white-working, white vote." This (disappearing) working-class population fills the pages of analysis and news. In the New York Times, for example, there have been 324 references to "middle class" and 220 references to "working class" in the past three months.

At the same time, "upper class" is vanishing from our language. In the 18 references in the New York Times in the last three months, none are in the context of elections. "Upper class" appears most often in quotes, literature review and history, or as a referent to people on the other side of the puddle, as they say: the "upper-class British" way of life appears, as does the "upper-class European," and the upper-class voice of a deceased BBC announcer.

In America, we don't have the upper class, apparently. We have, according to many news reports, "elites." There are thousands of references to elites: In the context of politics, a search for "Clinton" and "elite" in the last three months finds 40 results, while the blogs are full of concern about various candidates' tendencies to attract elite voters. It sounds like an epithet, when thrown at campaign managers ("you are just getting the elite vote"), but it's a compliment to the people described therein.

"Elites only, folks, elites only for early boarding," cries the Continental Airlines steward, and the rich people line up, complimented and convenienced at the same time. The best football players are elite, and the best colleges are elite -- the word comes not with the stink of privilege but with the flattering sound of being something deserved, worked for even. Elites may be "out of touch," but they are "out of touch" with a French-derived word meaning to choose -- the same root as the word "election," as it turns out. The elite are the chosen, the secular "good men and women," ones we ought to make way for as they pass.

You might think I'm being unfair here -- sometimes elite means a particular group of people, not all rich -- but what I think is disturbing (and imprecise) is how we use words from different categories blended together, as if we had three classes, "the elite," "the working class" and "people living under the poverty level," instead of the categories as they were initially introduced, "the upper class, the middle class and the poor," or "the elite, the mediocre and the incompetent," or "the ruling class, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat."

I like the first characterization best, because I think it's the most descriptive and least judgmental. I recoil against the tendency for the rich to have their cake and eat it too, as it were -- the tendency to describe themselves as elegant and chosen, to describe the middle class if they were organized and very effectively demanding their rights, and to describe the poor as if they were living under something and ought be pitied.

But importantly, I recoil against the imprecision of the word "elite." It communicates less than it seems and leaves the meaning up to the demographic imagination of the reader. It might mean the rich; it might mean a group of 20 people who have drinks at the Brick Skeller in D.C. The "richest 50,000" is precise. People "living below the poverty line" is precise. Anything written by Pew is precise. Elite is vague, and in a way that compliments people who think themselves elite while obscuring the real differences in opportunity and living that people experience.

So while we're making it difficult to make a middling income -- and simultaneously making this near-extinct species the fetish of our politics -- let me suggest that we at least do ourselves the dignity of naming the "elites" what they are: in some cases, the gang of five hundred, in most cases, the upper class. A group of people with a blend of luck, parentage and talent that has a whole lot more money than most people. The rich.
Zephyr Teachout was the director of internet organizing for Howard Dean's campaign, the executive director of the Baobabs College Labs Project, and a consultant to America Coming Together. She was previously the executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative.
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