I’ve written often
about the new cultural divide in Western politics. One of best chroniclers of this phenomenon is Chris Arnade
, a successful Wall Street trader turned photographer. He has a (beautiful) book out, Dignity
, which documents people left behind in modern America - a group Arnade calls the “back row kids” (a framing that reminds me of Bagehot’s “exam passers vs exam failers
” dichotomy). First Things has a great excerpt
that captures his social critique, as well as his empathy for his subjects.
Arnade emphasises two themes. First, the role of religion as a source of stability and community in his subject’s lives. And, second, the role that elite education plays as gatekeeper to the (extreme) fruits of American capitalism. Arnade sees religious belief as one of the divisions between “back row” and “front row” kids, though there is evidence
(but also counterevidence
) that in fact upper class liberals in America live highly disciplined (even conservative, ironically) lives: more marriage, more fidelity, more churchgoing.
Arnade’s argument about education seems particularly important. Spend on education among America’s richest is skyrocketing. This superb Aeon piece on “inconspicuous consumption
” makes a similar point: the new elite is less interested in flashy consumer goods and more interested in expensively signalling (and arguably reproducing) privilege through subtler spend on schooling, healthcare and culture
. This trend has a troubling feedback loop - and Arnade is likely to become one of its most important commentators.