- Interview by
- Luke Savage
What is evoked for you by the words “ruling class”? For most people, the phrase is likely to conjure images that are distinctly metropolitan — whether associated with the likes of Wall Street and high finance, Greco-Roman architecture in Washington, DC, or the Ivy League institutions attended by many of America’s traditional elite. Almost universally, images like these are the dominant symbols of power and cultural influence in the popular imagination.
But, argues historian Patrick Wyman, the reality of wealth and power in the United States is altogether more banal. In a recent essay for the Atlantic (based on a 2020 piece originally published on Substack), Wyman makes the case for the importance of an entirely different group whose identity and influence are anything but marginal.
In this interview with Jacobin’s Luke Savage, Wyman discusses the issues raised in “American Gentry” and their implications for how we think about wealth and power in American society as a whole.
Before we get into anything theoretical, I want to begin with two very general and open-ended questions. First, I wanted to ask about Yakima, Washington — the place where you grew up — since it’s an important character in our story here. How would you describe your hometown?
It’s hard to grasp if you’ve never spent time in a place like that. I think that’s the big thing. And there are huge swaths of the United States that are like this, which is why I think it’s an effective stand-in for a dynamic that’s pretty widespread. It’s its own world. It’s not small. It’s not a one-stoplight town. But it is very much its own thing. It has its own local industries, cultural institutions, social hierarchies, and power dynamics. There are families that have been there for decades, or even a century or more, who are locally powerful and who essentially run things to their liking — such that when politicians are elected in a place like that, they serve the interests of those people.
That is the basic dynamic of governance and life in a place like that, and it’s a stratified place to live. I think this is true of Yakima even more so than most places like this in the United States, because there’s a huge racial element to it. You have people who own fruit companies and hop companies and wine companies, and they are almost entirely white. They’re very well-off, have lots of money, have lots of property, and the people who work for them — their actual workforce — are almost entirely Latino, and many of them are undocumented immigrants. They’re not paid very well. In fact, they’re paid and treated horribly. A high school classmate of mine wrote a really heartbreaking memoir that came out a couple of years ago, called Spirit Run, which talked a lot about his upbringing as the child of undocumented migrants living and working in the fruit industry. You can’t live in Yakima without either deciding to notice that or working very hard not to. So, one of the reasons that I thought it was useful for this piece was because I think it makes those dynamics that are present everywhere really clear and really stark.
Your work as a historian has often dealt with different classes of gentry. This is obviously a rather expansive question, but how exactly do we define the category of “gentry”? Obviously, on a basic level, it refers to some kind of elite. But what is the common thread uniting, say, a provincial landowner in the south of France during the reign of Louis XIV and a member of America’s Southern planter class in the early nineteenth century, or a hinterland baron in Han China and a Prussian Junker?
I think there are two of them. The first is that their position is defined by their ownership of property. I mean, in the United States, in the twenty-first century, that can be quite varied in terms of the form it takes. In the past, it was almost always land that was number one. And number two is the fact that their influence is rooted in a locale. It’s rooted in a local place — at the very most, a region in which they are one of a group, so there are always others. They may sit at the top of a very local hierarchy, but there is a broader class that is like them to whom they compare themselves, and with whom they compete for power, for status, and for economic advantage.
So they’re defined by standing at the top of a hierarchy, but gentry are also, pretty much by definition, hyperaware of their peer group — of the people to whom they can compare themselves (and that counts for the people who are below them and also the people who are to the side of them). They’re very resistant to the idea of anybody explicitly being above them, which is why I think about this especially in relation to medieval Europe. There, gentry classes were so heavily armed that they were very often the fodder for a civil war or any kind of nobles uprising against the king. And that was because of the way that their power was rooted in a local place: it stood in kind of a contrary position to centralized power, and those occupying that position viewed any attempt to legislate from on high as interference with their own control of the places in which they lived.
Your piece begins by distinguishing between what are essentially two strands of the American gentry. The first is the kind most are already familiar with and the kind that largely dominates the cultural imagination: namely the jet-setting, big bourgeoisie — the people one associates with Ivy League educations, Martha’s Vineyard, and metropolitan high finance. But, you write, “The reality of American wealth and power is more banal.” With this in mind, how would you characterize the second strand? What is its composition as a class? What’s its geographic distribution? Is it more of a rural or an urban phenomenon?
I would say it’s both exurban and rural. The United States is full of these small metro areas that have a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand people, or maybe up to a half a million: places like Bakersfield, California, or Fresno, or Odessa, Texas, or Muncie, Indiana. The United States is full of places like this, that aren’t small. They may be quite proximate to a large metropolitan area, but they are their own little world. I think these are the places that breed this kind of local gentry. They’re places where direct social relationships play a much heavier role in mediating market relations, so you’re much more likely to give the contracts to build a big thing to somebody you know, as opposed to just being an international construction company that comes in and puts down a bid. It’s not that those relationships don’t exist in big urban areas, and they, too, obviously have their powerful families and their dynasties.
But in these places, I think they’re much more salient, because there is no global or national point of reference for them. So it’s an exurban and a rural phenomenon, which I think is pretty familiar to people who grow up in places like this. You know the people and may have different names for them. You may call them the local royalty, or there may be a particular number of families who are kind of the founding generation of a place.
There’s something you observe about this group’s class identity that seems really important. Their wealth is most likely to be rooted in ownership of physical assets, and you argue this is formative to their identity — and also a significant point of distinction from the visible kind of American gentry. Can you expand on that a bit for us?
I think that is absolutely foundational to what this class is, in terms of how it plays into the power structure of the local areas it inhabits — and also in terms of how it sees and how it understands itself. This didn’t occur to me as I was writing the piece, and I wish I’d put it in there, but I think back to the 2012 presidential election (I know this is a long way back now), when Barack Obama was castigated by Republicans for saying “You didn’t build that,” talking about the role of government in creating economic prosperity. And the refrain at the Republican National Convention that year, led in chants, was “We built it! We built it!” That’s this group of people, because they see the physical output of their ownership constantly. If you own a construction company, you see the buildings you build. If you own orchards, you see the containers of fruit getting shipped off. There’s a straightforwardly physical and material world that they live in. They make things or they own the means of making things.
For them, that is a very distinct difference between the way that they define themselves and their understanding of the intellectual, paper-pushing work of a lawyer or even a doctor or, God forbid, a college professor or financier. And it’s not that they have no relationship to these things. They probably have a kid who may be a lawyer, or maybe they’ve got a cousin who works in finance in New York. It’s not like they’re not exposed to these things, but I think there is a fundamental difference of self-definition when it comes to their role in being the owners of things that are important and physically present in people’s lives.
We’ve sort of touched on this already, but how would you say this group relates to its own class position specifically? They’re a highly influential stratum of American society, possessed of a huge amount of intergenerational wealth, but your rendering of it strongly suggests that members of this stratum don’t think of themselves that way at all.
One of the really interesting things about this group of people is that they do not want to think of themselves as a group at all. They are so strongly defined by their individual sense of themselves as owners and as people who own property, who own businesses, who are employers, who employ people. So, on the one hand, there’s this resistance to seeing themselves as members of a group. But at the same time, they’re always competing with other people who belong to the same category. And I think you see this really clearly in relation to local philanthropic organizations, where there’s intense competition around who can throw the nicest fundraiser, who can get this or that local prize named after them, who’s going to get their name on this or that building.
You know, that kind of stuff matters in these contexts. They’re competing with what is very obviously their peer group, but they don’t want to think of themselves in those terms. And if they do think of themselves, it’s as benefactors of their local communities. Like, “If not for us, then who would be creating jobs? If not for us, who’s going to give a sixteen-year-old his first job? I’m going to give a sixteen-year-old his first job.” Or, “Who’s going to be sure that there’s some slop at the soup kitchen? Well, I make sure there’s slop at the soup kitchen.” You know, that kind of thing, where they want it to be understood that they’re at the top of the local hierarchy, but they also want a cookie for it, if that makes sense.
To what extent would it be fair to say that these categories map neatly onto the liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican binaries?
I think it’s pretty safe to say that this group leans very heavily, though not exclusively, Republican. There are probably, in the aggregate, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people within this group who vote for Democrats — either because they live in heavily Democratic areas and want to have some say in local politics and support their particular brand of Democratic politician or because they strongly believe in progressive principles. I think there are absolutely people who fit that description within this group. But I think their material interests mitigate very hard against any sort of identification with the federal government as a beneficent force for them.
In reality, of course, they’re always happy to get federal government contracts — the concrete company I once worked for absolutely loved getting federal contracts, and we loved doing those jobs because we got a prevailing wage; we got paid double what we normally got paid on an hourly rate to do those jobs. It’s not that they’re going to turn down a federal fire hose of money or anything like that. It’s that they want to think of themselves as standing on their own: “We don’t need that kind of interference here, we run things.” So I think that they are kind of naturally opposed to the idea of centralized power, even within a state. Sentiments like “We don’t like those bureaucrats in Sacramento telling us what to do” are a very strong current that runs throughout this class.
You argue that this group is less visible and less prominent than the metropolitan bourgeoisie, but no less important to understanding who wields and exercises power in American society. So, who does wield real power in the United States? Is their world more Succession or Tiger King?
That’s a really fantastic way of framing it and understanding it. One of the really common responses I got to this (and I’ll come back to the exact question that you asked in a moment) was that by focusing my ire on this particular gentry class, I was somehow giving a free pass to the billionaires, and, of course, they’re not good either! You don’t have to like the billionaire metropolitan oligarchs to say that there are also local gentry who wield power. The two can both be bad! You can walk and chew gum at the same time. But they’re bad in different ways. Each of them exercises influence in baleful ways on American politics, but they do so differently.
Local gentry, by virtue of the fact that they are rooted in their localities, do their damage there. They do their damage by making sweetheart deals with local government to favor their businesses over others, to snuff out competition, to ensure that their failson is going to get out of jail after driving drunk and hitting somebody. That’s the kind of power that local gentry wield, and the fact that they do so in the aggregate — that there are a lot of these people in a lot of different places — has a profound effect in shaping American life. It’s not that the Koch network is not important. It’s important to understanding the way that some legislation gets written. But the people who are populating Republican state legislatures, who are passing those bills at a state level, are drawn from this other class.
In some sense, the two groups can find ways of allying themselves when it comes to both national and regional or local politics. They’re not separate groups when it comes to that. They can find their interests in perfect alignment from time to time. Sociologically, if you want to understand the Republican political class in the United States, you need to understand this group, because this is where it’s drawn from: sunburned country club guys. That’s who we’re talking about here. I mean, what I would call capital-T capital-G “Type of Guy” analysis can help you understand the political economy at play here — you see a sunburned dude with a flat-brim hat, who’s in his thirties and has got stubble and is wearing a purple polo shirt while hanging off the back of an $80,000 truck. You instantly think, “This is a burgeoning member of the gentry and likely a future state legislator right here.”
I like to find the humor in these things, but I think that guy, even if he never runs for Congress, even if nobody outside a pocket of a thousand people ever learns who he is, that guy has a lot of employees and people who are forced to work with him. So he is structuring, sometimes in a profound way, the material life of the people who are working for him. He is influencing the local environment in which people are living, even if they don’t work for him. So the influence of this group in the aggregate is profound, because there are just tons and tons of tons of guys like that. That guy is everywhere.