With the Kavanaugh nomination still ongoing (yet another dreadful week to be had, as too many will ignore the obvious conclusion that he is lying), there has been a lot of talk about the privileges of the elite. Daniel Drezner has a good piece about why someone like Kavanaugh doesn’t view himself as part of the elite, though I think it misses something rather important (boldface mine):
American elites do not admit that they are elites. Let me use myself as an example here. I have degrees from Williams and Stanford. I’m a full professor at one of the top international affairs schools in the country. I’ve published six books and have a regular writing gig for this august newspaper. I live a comfortable life — not quite the “Crazy Rich Asians” definition of comfortable, but pretty comfortable. By most standards, I should stand up and declare myself to be a member of the American elite. But no one does this, because to declare oneself a member of the elite is to say, quite plainly, that one occupies a higher social station than others in America. And in a country that still clutches fiercely to an egalitarian ideal of society, this is neither an easy nor a comfortable declaration to make…
This leads to the second factor at play; even people who qualify as elites in every sense of the word can find a way to think of themselves as an outsider. This has been a theme of American elites for quite some time. George Kennan was the perfect embodiment of the foreign policy elite in this country, but one would not get that sense from his autobiography or biography. Kennan’s self-conception was that he was an awkward kid from Wisconsin who never fit in at Princeton or any of the later august societies he joined.
I don’t think these are wrong, but they miss something very important: within the elite, there are gradations, and that is the measure by which many in the elite measure themselves–and, yes, this often veers into ‘Pity the Poor Couple Who Make $450,000 Per Year‘ territory. But aristocracies have lesser and greater lords.
A while ago, I defined a gentry class (boldface added):
They’re not middle-class (whether it be the upper or lower reaches), since they can live very differently from (or, perhaps, better than) most of us. They can have most of the nice things. At the same time, they’re not wealthy or flat-out rich: if they don’t work, they can fall down the ladder, sometimes very quickly. Living comfortably or well with the interest on investments isn’t an option.
The reason I refer to this group as the gentry is, in part, it’s the group that’s responsible for gentrification in urban areas (no gentry, no gentrification), so it seems to fit. The other reason is to intentionally invoke the Victorian notion of the word. The gentry, whether it be a more religious, conservative style, or a more liberal, less traditional style…
While there can be cultural and regional disagreements, en masse, they are quite coherent.
Given Kavanaugh’s, erm, financial irregularities, he isn’t wealthy or flat-out rich, though he does belong to the gentry class, so if he plays his cards right (and has a little luck), he could very well become wealthy. His parents were a judge and a lobbyist in an era where the gentry had a much easier time gaining access over the course of a lifetime to being wealthy. Since his parents’ era however, it is much harder for the gentry to become wealthy (i.e., living off of investments in comfort, and not Crazy Rich Asians comfort).
In terms of status, both he and his parents are/were mandarins who serve the wealthy and the rich. And compared to those mandarins with comparable backgrounds who entered finance or high-end lobbying and influence peddling, he’s not well-off. Again, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the guy at all. But within the elite, there are gradations, and that enables men like Kavanaugh, who have had a ton of breaks and a good life, to convince themselves they aren’t the elite.