Local Power and the Social Order
This is an eloquent description of an influential but undercovered class in American society. My wife and I lived in Nashville for 6 years, and recently a number of America's worst humans (Art Laffer, Ben Shapiro, Tomi Lahren) have moved there. Though the superficial appeal is obvious, as it's in the South and leans into country aesthetic, like many large metros is full of progressives, more so than other red state metros of comparable size, such as Jacksonville or OKC. It's not clear why, if one's stated reason to leave California for a conservative area, one would choose to live in Nashville.
A component of the appeal may be that "gentry" are relatively dominant in Nashville local politics. Lee Beaman, a four-times divorced car dealership owner essentially killed two pieces of transit legislation in the six years I lived there through personal lobbying (albeit with an assist from Koch brothers money). Steve Smith, who owns the most honky tonks downtown routinely flaunts local regulations, including by keeping his bars open and packed during the pandemic. He got away with it for months, and the mayor of Nashville ended up doing his PR dirty work by covering up evidence that Smith's honky tonks contributed to COVID-19 spread.
The significant power that gentry amass can challenge or even exceed that held by local democratic institutions, particularly when said institutions are hollowed out by decades of low tax revenue and public delegitimization. This is a fundamental component of what conservatives envision when they advocate for enabling local institutions to manage their own affairs. They're not transitioning power from the federal government to city halls, but from the federal government to local jetski magnates.
Hello, I thought this was a nice bit of writing. Just wanted to chime in here because I don't think it was mentioned in your post, but an astoundingly high percentage of these "local gentry" types are owners of car dealerships. These businesses - geographically protected by laws that prohibit selling cars on the internet, etc. - form a sort of American archipelago of private wealth, the "big men" of their particular communities. I've long thought that so many of our difficulties in building green infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel dependence, properly funding and building transit, and mitigating climate change are from precisely this organized cabal of auto dealership owners. That is, the immovability of American car culture may be less about GM/Ford than the local Chevy dealer. Worth exploring. Cheers.
I have people in Yakima, too. Like their place in this piece, they are mostly invisible, never seen or barely regarded by the "high achievers" that have left Yakima or large swaths of the local gentry because, well, they are Mexican. They are in fact the majority in Yakima county and their labor enriches the local gentry just as low-wage or no-wage laborers enriched the gentries of the past. Paying attention to the fact that the Yakima area has one of the largest Latinx and Mexican immigrant populations in the Northwest would have helped the analysis here I think.
This dynamic is obscured - especially for regions of the country that NYT and CNN reporters rarely call home, like Iowa. Every 4 years reporters come to my home town or the town of my alma matter in Iowa, and they assume that just because someone is in a button-up t-shirt or overalls that they are "white working-class" or whatever other category de jure. In reality that farmer is a multi-millionaire with investments in many local businesses. It makes political and class conscious organizing anywhere other than Des Moines almost impossible.
Patrick, have you ever looked at what happens when the gentry clash with one another? I grew up in a rural mostly white Southern county that happened to be an hour north of a large urban area. By the late 1980s, the more affluent surburbs south and east of the urban area filled up. White flight began to settle in my county. At first, it was mostly low income whites moving away from urban neighborhoods. But then the American gentry relocated.
The old gentry already dominating the small towns and occupying the country club did not like this. The old gentry had monopolies on various services. The new arrivals did not like paying rent to them and pushed for de-regulations. The old gentry preferred a dry county. The new gentry did not like driving out of county to buy wine and spirits, so they pushed for referendums (and when those failed, they used their influence to change state law so that increasingly small communities could have their own referendums). And so on. Clash after clash. Too many old gentry at the country club and golf course? Fine! The new gentry built their own nicer and more modern golf course with an even more exclusive clubhouse and encircled it without their new houses.
The biggest change was in the local elections. The old gentry had built a solid local-level Democratic Party base. It was Dixiecrat in all but name. As voters increasingly shifted to the GOP, the old gentry remained a bastion of Democrats. People voted for Reagan, Bush, Dole and Bush at the presidential level, but they still went down and voted all Dems for Sheriff, Probate Judge, Mayor, City Council, School Board and so on. This was the old gentry's stranglehold. That was their downfall. The New Gentry began to field Republican candidates and linked the old gentry to coastal elites and so on. First, the school boards went red, then the county commission and soon everything. The year I started kindergarten, there was not a single Republican holding a local office. The year I graduated high school, there was not a single Democrat holding a local office. Increasingly, the old gentry's children moved off to big cities like Atlanta or Nashville.
The dealerships have new names. Most of the old grocery stores and businesses are closed. Last names that once carried power mean nothing now. The old country club is ringed by empty houses that have been for sale for years. The old gentry's children will inherit a lot of money but none of the businesses their families owned for generations.
Insightful article that got me thinking about the different world views between the educated urban professional class and the bourgeoisie class. Professional class relies on a high level of knowledge and skill to do things and solve problems for their employers. Their orientation is to better understand phenomenon. The bourgeoise class relies on owning things and controlling people, such as employees and customers. Thus their orientation is towards domination and control.
Thanks, Patrick. I'm from the Midland / Bay City / Saginaw area (MBS if you like) and, take away the wine industry and add Dow Chemical and GM it sounds a lot like Yakima. If you go there nowadays it feels like the Pied Piper came through town round about when I was graduating high school (mid-gen Xer) ... like you, my friends were talented and ambitious and mostly live on the coasts (I'm in Seattle). While the appeal of the city was obvious when I was a kid, it had never occurred to me until reading your piece how much of that may have also been driven by the relatively fixed nature of the local elites. Like kids throughout history, what do you do when the path forward is blocked by those with inherited positions? You move! That that also coincides with so many other predictors of political behavior (growth versus fixed mindset, etc.) should probably not be surprising.
Anyway, great read, as always.
I'm from Iowa and like most people that graduate college that grew up there moved out. But you didn't describe merely pockets of the state. You described virtually the entire state. Repeat for Kansas and Nebraska.
You don’t go there but I’m guessing this caste forms the core of the GOP funding base, just as the Dems depend heavily on urban and suburban highly paid professionals. As someone said, not the .1 percent or the 99, but the “9.9%.”
Growing up in NYC, these were the people owned 40 Key Foods, 100 Laundromats and tried to get public housing expelled from neighborhoods.
Their failsons locked hard working family’s out of Brooklyn real estate by creating the yuppie scene in Williamsburg.
Being from NYC, few people went away for college, but the gentry still controlled our lives in a negative way. I don’t know many PMC people who fully grok this, but the gentry manage the city council.
That’s why there’s so many “Jr.” and “III” types in the politics of Brooklyn and the Bronx.
This was fantastic, thank you for articulating this. As a person who grew up in a town of 20,000 in Wisconsin, centered on agriculture (gentry) while also being a regional medical hub (professional class), this perfectly encapsulated my understanding of my hometown. It's something that it's hard for people who grow up in metro areas to fully grasp.
Also, thank you for including the historical context of the gentry, globally--as a History Ph.D. student I always appreciate that extra bit of context, that this current system did not emerge out of nowhere.
Again, this was exceptionally well thought out & written. Thank you.
Good way to introduce the petite bourgeoisie, generally the adopt reactionary stances in defense of perceived or real threats to their wealth. Mark and Patricia McCloskey waving guns at BLM protestors from the lawn of their mansion is a good example.
Thanks for a really interesting article!
I often wonder if this group “feels” rich? Or if the rural aspect you describe leads to an outsider mentality, with all the insecurities that come with that, whilst simultaneously possessing the means needed to entrench your position...
This is a very good analysis. This kind of thing is invisible to most people in the US who don't think in terms of class as opposed to wealth. It's a common theme in fiction of course. The local gentry make for good drama.
One interesting loss has been the local banker, replaced by national banks now that banks can have as many branches they want in as many states as they care to. It's a mixed blessing. On one hand, such changes reduce the power of the local gentry, but the also take wealth away from the area. Appalachia, where outsiders owned the mineral rights never had a chance since the coal money was exported. The mines were run by professional managers, but the money went elsewhere.
This is a very astute and engaging profile of the real rank and file of the American ruling class. As Patrick points out, this class definitely deserves to be written about more, given the outsize influence they hold over the lives of so many people.
I grew up in El Paso, Texas. While El Paso probably teeters on the upper limit of this category of mid-sized metropolitan areas in terms of raw population numbers, in terms of political economy and culture, it definitely fits the bill for the type of place described in this article. when I attended El Paso High School many of my friend and classmates were the sons and daughters of this local gentry -- car dealership owners, the owners of successful local restaurant chains, and at least one very flamboyant salsa magnate. All the best parties were hosted at the stately cliffside home of one of my golf team friends, a scion of the family who founded West Star Bank. (On the topic of loutish failsons, y'all might be interested to take a look at the current heir apparent of this esteemed local banking dynasty: https://kfoxtv.com/news/local/young-local-entrepreneur-works-to-redevelop-parts-of-el-paso )
I think El Paso provides a particularly interesting case study of the workings of this American gentry because there the local political institution dedicated to advancing the interests of this class -- The Paso Del Norte Group (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paso_Del_Norte_Group) -- has, over the course of the past two decades, starting operating relatively out in the open as they work to push forward a massive, unpopular downtown redevelopment scheme. I think it's especially interesting that the Paso Del Group starting flexing its muscle more openly only after it came under the leadership of our only local billionaire, real estate developer (and Beto O'Rourke's father-in-law!) Bill Sanders, who moved back home to El Paso after making his fortune in Chicago. I feel like that story has something to say about the political interplay between the local-based gentry class and the billionaire elite of the more cosmopolitan cities.
I grew up in Yakima, graduating from East Valley in 1971 and like those described in the article, I left for university (Western) and never came back except to visit. It is an uncannily accurate portrayal of the social structure of the city I remember. But, if anything, it underplays the entrenched nature of the gentry class. Here are a few random thoughts and memories to throw in the pot:
1) I can still recite the ranking of Yakima county in the production of various agricultural produce (more apples, cherries, hops, and mint than any other county! Thanks Washington state history class!),
2) Noted Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas grew up in Yakima in the early 1900s and describes the same gentry class in his autobiography. (It's titled Go East Young Man, so you can guess how he felt about them.) In short, the local 'brain drain' is not a new thing.
3) I just googled Noel Bottling -- they still exist as a family owned business. I don't know if they still have both the Coke and the Pepsi franchise, but they did in the 60s. No cola wars in Yakima!
4) My dad was riding in the Rolls Royce of one of the fruit barons in the 60s. When they parked, my dad went to put a nickle in the parking meter. The baron stopped him, telling him there was no need to pay because he knew the "meter maids" were on lunch and wouldn't be by.
FYI, I don't routinely think about Yakima but stumbled on this through a reference in David Brooks's Atlantic article -- How the Bobos Broke America -- which does an excellent job of putting this piece in an even larger context. If you haven't read it, you should.