Understanding the white overclass requires revising the most common misconceptions about class. The discussion of social class has been confused for generations by Marxist thinkers, who made the mistake of completely identifying class with economic function. Like the Marxists, old-fashioned American liberal pluralists tend to misunderstand class. What they refer to as class is typically not a social class at all, but a mere occupational or income category, such as service-sector workers or millionaires. Meanwhile, the New Left which came to prominence in the sixties has tended to drop the idea of class altogether, in favor of race and gender. . . . In recent years, conservative ideologues have added further confusion by defining political factions and lifestyle subcultures as classes. . . .
In order to think about class in twenty-first century America, we must first clear our minds of these Marxist, liberal, New Left, and conservative definitions of class, and return to the older notion of class found in classical and European political thought from Aristotle to Montesquieu.
A class is a group of families, united by intermarriage and a common subculture, whose members tend to predominate in certain professions and political offices, generation after generation. Note that the class – the group of similar families – has an existence independent of the offices which its members tend to hold. Indeed, we cannot talk intelligently about class unless we make a distinction between a social class and a mere institutional elite. Those who talk about “the political class” or, with C. Wright Mills, about “the power elite,” are confusing two very different things. Every modern society, even the most perfectly egalitarian, will have an institutional elite – top civilian politicians, military officers, judges, diplomats, financial and industrial executives, publishers, editors and leading intellectuals, clerical leaders, and so on. The subject of class is raised only when you examine the social origins of the particular individuals who hold office in the institutional elite or elites. Learning the organization of judicial offices in a country tells you nothing about class. However, if you find out that most of the judges tend to come from old-money families in a particular region of that country, and that most attended one of half a dozen schools, then you have learned something important about that country’s class system.
The United States at the end of the twentieth century has both an institutional elite and a dominant social class. The institutional elite is composed of upper-level officials in the federal and state governments, plus executives and professionals in the concentrated private sector and foundation and university executives (low-level government officials and small business owners are not part of the institutional elite). Almost all of the members of the American institutional elite also happen to be members of a single social class: the white overclass. To put it another way, the labor pool from which most elite positions are filled is the white overclass. The overlap is not complete. Though most members of the institutional elite belong to the white overclass, most members of the white overclass are not part of the institutional elite (since the overclass greatly outnumbers the elite); and – though this is uncommon – a person can become a high-ranking politician, military officer, judge, CEO, foundation president, or university president in the United States without having been born into the white overclass. It is possible to imagine a United States in which most members of the institutional elite did not have similar class origins. But that is not the country in which we live.
. . . The white overclass is the child of the former Northeastern Protestant establishment, produced by marriage (not only figurative but literal) with the upwardly mobile descendants of turn-of-the-century European immigrants and white Southerners and Westerners. Unlike the Northeastern establishment . . . this relatively new and still evolving political and social oligarchy is not identified with any particular region of the country (though it is concentrated in East and West Coast metropolitan regions). Nor does the white overclass dominate other sections through local, surrogate establishments, as the Northeastern establishment once did. Rather, overclass Americans are found in the higher suburbs of every major metropolitan area, North and South, coastal and inland. Unlike the sectional elites of the past, members of the white overclass are not even identified with the regions in which they happen (temporarily) to live. The white overclass, homogeneous and nomadic, is the first truly national upper class in American history.
The white overclass is the product, not merely of the amalgamation of Anglo- and Euro-Americans, but of the fusion of the rentier and managerial-professional classes. This blurring of the upper and upper-middle strata is a relatively new development in the United States. In earlier generations, there were distinct landowning and rentier classes, with their own lifestyles and institutions – cotillions, seasons spent in the country, and the like. The elaborate rituals that governed upper-class life, such as dressing for dinner, were designed to conspicuously display wealth, including a wealth of leisure time. That was a long time ago. There is a class, or rather a category, of the celebrity rich, and there are still pockets of old-fashioned rentiers in the U.S. – in Virginia, there are still planters who do not work and who hunt foxes with hounds – but these subcultures are detached from the summits of power. Members of the upper class who want to make a mark in the world tend to adopt the style of life and dress and speech of the managerial-professional elite. Even though they do not have to, most members of the small hereditary upper class go to college and get executive or professional jobs, and work, or at least pretend to. Instead of serving as a model for well-to-do executives and lawyers and investment bankers, the hereditary segment of the American overclass conforms to the segment immediately below it, the credentialed upper middle class.
. . . The composition of student bodies at Ivy League schools is a good surrogate for the composition of the white overclass. If you factor out black and Hispanic students admitted under affirmative action programs, you are left with a student body that is disproportionately of British or German-Scandinavian Protestant and European Jewish descent. There are relatively few evangelical Protestants and Catholics in the overclass, despite their significant numbers in the general population. If you are Episcopalian or Jewish, have a graduate or professional degree from an expensive university, work in a large downtown office building in an East or West Coast metropolis, watch MacNeil/Lehrer on PBS, and are saving for a vacation in London or Paris, you are a card-carrying member of the white overclass, even if your salary is not very impressive. If you are Methodist, Baptist or Catholic, have a B.A. from a state university, work in or for a small business or for a career government service, watch the Nashville Network on cable, and are saving for a vacation in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Branson, Missouri, or Orlando, Florida (Disneyworld), you are probably not a member of the white overclass – no matter how much money you make.
Although there are residual religious and ethnic differences among members of the white overclass, these are minor compared to what they have in common. There is, for example, a common white overclass accent, which is more or less identical in corporate boardrooms from one end of the continent to another – the “NBC standard,” which is the equivalent of BBC English or Britain’s Received Pronunciation (RP). As formerly distinct local elites have fused into a single national ruling class equally at home in New York and Texas and California, this accent has become the badge of elite status. In order to advance in overclass circles in America, a white American has to suppress any regional or ethnic dialect, whether it be a Southern drawl or a Boston honk or Brooklynese, and learn to speak this flat, clipped, rather nasal version of English. . . .
. . . The overclass eats pate and imported cheeses; the middle class eats peanut butter and Velveeta. The overclass sips wine; the middle class drinks beer. The overclass plays squash and tennis; the middle class plays pool and bowls (both golf, but the middle class does so at second-tier country clubs and public courses). The overclass jogs; the middle class does not. . . . These are cliches, but they are a better guide to the real class structure in the United States than income categories in the census or pseudoscientific sociological measures like the SES (socioeconomic survey).