Schansberg: A Return to ‘Bobos in Paradise’

February 21, 2018

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

In his book “Bobos in Paradise” from 2000, David Brooks describes key members of American culture in the 1990s. He combines two “bo’s” to get “Bobo” — “the bourgeois world of capitalism” and “the bohemian subculture.” Since Bobos are still quite influential, it’s worth a look back at Brooks’ study to help us understand American culture and politics.

Brooks explains that “Bobos” are a mix of “rebel” and “social-climbing” attitudes, combining “the countercultural 1960s and the achieving 1980s.” They are “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success.”

Brooks noted that the 1950s seem like “the high point of the bourgeois era,” but it’s also the moment when those values are being famously undermined in the 1960s. He describes the 1970s and 1980s as a time when bourgeois values “began fighting back,” leading to the ambivalent combo Brooks saw in the 1990s.

Brooks argues that “Bobos” try to strike a balance — and thus, feel considerable tension —  between two sets of values: affluence versus self-respect (how to sell but not “sell out”), elitism versus egalitarianism (“an elite that has been raised to oppose elites”), success versus spirituality and how to be countercultural while being part of the establishment. While they are comfortable in material terms, it’s not clear that such tensions result in a real paradise, at least in the things that matter most.

Brooks lays out “rules of consumption” for “Bobos” that we still see today: Avoid lavish spending except on necessities (bottled water) and things that used to be inexpensive (white t-shirts and free-range chickens); emphasize quality (sherpa jackets); perfect the tiniest things (the proper pasta strainer).

Brooks focuses on pleasure in chapter 5. Its disappointment: “This wasn’t how the sexual revolution was supposed to end up.” So, try not to worry about sex, except when it creates babies or spreads disease. Its strange hedonism and semi-flaunting — with sports bras and spandex. A focus on self-discipline: Don’t smile when you’re exercising; this is work. Smokers are lepers; coffee is fine (since it helps you be productive); use sunscreen; eat healthy. “Health clubs and museums have become the chapels and cathedrals of our age, the former serving to improve the body, the latter the mind.”

Chapter 6 covers religion and a renewed understanding of the importance of community. But the spiritual and communal dilemmas for “Bobos” are intriguing: “Can you still worship God even if you take it upon yourself to decide that many of the Bible’s teachings are wrong? Can you still feel at home in your community even if you know that you’ll probably move if a better job opportunity comes along? Can you establish ritual and order in your life if you are driven by an inner imperative to experiment constantly with new things?”

Chapter 7 closes with politics. Brooks says moderation was in. But this didn’t sit well with everybody. Those “who long for radical and heroic politics are driven absolutely batty by tepid Bobo politics. They see large problems in society and they cry out for radical change.”

In terms of policy and ideology, mushy moderation is still the best way to imagine the policy positions of the general public. Brooks’ words about “radicals” still hold today for the relatively few people who could reasonably be considered “liberal” (fully) “conservative” or libertarian. Consider the few such liberals who voice concerns about our interventionist foreign policy, the erosion of civil liberties or the wide variety of policies that harm the working poor and middle class. Consider the few conservatives who call out the Republican penchant for federal spending and debt.

Few people care much about policy; most of the emphasis is on politics and the pursuit of power. As such, moderation does not describe our political rhetoric today. Moreover, the visceral reactions against Donald Trump seem to have “Bobo” roots — with their emphasis on style, an attraction to moderation and an aversion to boorishness.

Bobos also tend to be more impressed by words than actions and outcomes. We’ve seen this especially from Democrats — making fun of Bush II’s inarticulate stumbles; fondness for Obama’s words (overlooking unimpressive policy positions and outcomes) and being especially bothered by Trump’s rhetoric.

It is amazing to read Brooks from his time frame, writing that he was “living in an era of relative social peace.” In a time of rabid partisanship, perhaps we should long for a return to the stylistic moderation of the “Bobos” and a greater emphasis on public policy — rather than on politics, personality and the pursuit of power.

D. Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast (New Albany) and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review.


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