Bobos and the Epistemic Regime

by James A. Bacon

David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, serves up a brilliant update to his 2000 classic, “Bobos in Paradise,” in which he explores the nature of America’s new ruling class. Borrowing terminology from Jonathan Rauch, he introduces the concept of the epistemic regime — “the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true.”

The epistemic regime, he writes:

possesses the power of consecration; it determines what gets recognized and esteemed, and what gets disdained and dismissed. The web, of course, has democratized tastemaking, giving more people access to megaphones. But the setters of elite taste still tend to be graduates of selective universities living in creative-class enclaves. If you feel seen in society, that’s because the creative class sees you; if you feel unseen, that’s because this class does not.

Thank you, David Brooks, for articulating ideas I have been groping to define in Bacon’s Rebellion.

The members of the epistemic regime control the dominant cultural institutions of our society — the universities, the media, Hollywood, the publishing houses, the foundations and activist groups, the museums, the social media titans, and, recently, the public schools. They literally decide “what is true” — at least they purport to. They drive the dominant narratives of our era, climate change and systemic racism foremost among them, but always in such a way as to reinforce their own status and economic standing.

Like every other ruling class in history, America’s new ruling class not only asserts its cultural dominance, it protects its economic privilege. As Brooks writes in revising his previous judgments about the “bobos” (bohemian bourgeoisie) who populate the epistemic regime:

I underestimated the way the creative class would successfully raise barriers around itself to protect its economic privilege—not just through schooling, but through zoning regulations that keep home values high, professional-certification structures that keep doctors’ and lawyers’ incomes high while blocking competition from nurses and paralegals, and more. And I underestimated our intolerance of ideological diversity. Over the past five decades, the number of working-class and conservative voices in universities, the mainstream media, and other institutions of elite culture has shrunk to a sprinkling.

Inevitably, the rise of the new ruling class has consequences.

“When you tell a large chunk of the country that their voices are not worth hearing,” Brooks says, “they are going to react badly — and they have. … The working class today vehemently rejects not just the creative class but the epistemic regime that it controls.”

In rejecting that control, populists across the Western world, including Trump voters, often invent their own realities  which can veer into the realm of the absurd, such as the birtherism, QAnon and the-election-was-stolen conspiracies. In another strain of cultural rebellion, a group that Brooks describes as “boubours” — the boorish bourgeoisie — flout the new rules of taste and political correctness.

(I would describe Bacon’s Rebellion and its contributors as reality-based rebels against the new cultural hegemony and the epistemic regime.)

Brooks is one of the most acute observers of sociology and culture in America, and he has it mostly right. This post offers no more than a taste of his essay. If you’re looking for a meta-narrative to understand the shifting constellation of political and cultural forces at work today,  “How the Bobos Broke America” is a good place to start.

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14 responses to “Bobos and the Epistemic Regime”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    The internet has become the great equalizer of not only individual freedom but collective freedom of those who think alike and now can find each other AND effectively organize and influence all of our institutions, public and private. Yes, we still have institutions but their influence has been substantially weakened by those who openly question their legitimacy.

    Government, higher Ed, public health like the CDC, science, across the spectrum.

    Is it driven by an end to ignorance and enlightenment?

    Ah, there’s the rub. I’ve got my own ignorance, I know it. In fact my view
    is that most all of us ARE ignorant – just on different subjects, and no where is that more apparent sometimes than on BR. And BR is a true reflection of how society is going these days IMHO.

    But it is funny how Bacon seems to think Q-anon and similar are not in the Conservatives tent… same Church different pews… they all are gonna vote the same ticket.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      The internet has been the equalizer of freedom but not of talent.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Everyone has internet?

  2. Publius Avatar

    I’m not a fan of Brooks…too much of an elitist wannabe and reminds me somewhat of Peggy Noonan. I think there are easier ways to say what he says, but he needs to signal he is part of the elite and belongs there, so he has to slightly denigrate the deplorables…

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    As brought to you by Tucker Goebbels Carlson, “Let’s all go to Hungary.”

    Personally, I think Albert, or even Mel, would be better examples to turn to…

    1. Donald Smith Avatar
      Donald Smith

      “Tucker Goebbels Carlson”

      And, Nancy Naive hereby establishes herself as a “figure of fun.”

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        I’m a fun guy.

  4. vicnicholls Avatar

    “In rejecting that control, populists across the Western world, including
    Trump voters, often invent their own realities which can veer into the
    realm of the absurd, such as the birtherism, QAnon and
    the-election-was-stolen conspiracies.”

    I’ve only had experience with the stolen election issue with one person.

  5. The most striking aspect of Brooks’ piece is how late in the game he is to our new class dynamic. Christopher Lasch wrote in ’95:

    The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or “alternative” institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all.

    I’m heartened, however, by the fact that Brooks quotes Patrick Wyman. His essay on class dynamics in Yakima maps 1:1 onto my experience in Boise, and it coheres pretty well to what I’ve seen in Virginia.

    The “beautiful boaters” are our provincial gentry, and the “Resistance” our urban clerisy. Note that the foundational divide here is one of structural power, not ideology.

  6. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    He misses only one point – the socialist Bobos have figured out how to monetize their philosophies.

    Witness the huge and growing, six figure salaried, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies with unlimited license to offer opinions and no measurable job performance criteria.

    Nirvana is at hand.

    One word defines the philosophy, the journey and the destination – monetize.

    P. T. Barnum would approve.

    1. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      Your first and last sentences cut it to the quick. In a nutshell. Bingo!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        To keep in mind, this “diversity” tying is happening in more than just schools. It’s happening in corporations, NGOs and the even the Military.

        So, ya’ll are calling the entire effort across the spectrum as P.T. Barnum.

        Which is not that unusual for Conservatives who are resistant to change normally.

        In other words, this is not an untypical Conservative viewpoint… same old same old.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          You confirm my observation:

          “Witness the huge and growing, six figure salaried, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies with unlimited license to offer opinions and no measurable job performance criteria.”

          Thank you.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Your claim that there is no measurement is really not a proven claim at all. You simply don’t know or won’t investigate to find out if they actually have metrics, and I bet some places do although you guys will call them hiring or advancement “quotas”.

            I’d refer you once again to the military of which you were a part of.

            Didn’t ya’ll have programs to increase recruitment of minorities and women over the years?

            Haven’t they done current studies like the Air Force to identify racial disparities and from that to devise revised policies to address those disparities?

            Have you actually read this report:

            Report of Inquiry (S8918P)Independent Racial Disparity ReviewDecember 2020The Inspector GeneralDepartment of the Air Force


            If you have, I’d be curious your opinion of it since you are a military guy.

            Got an opinion of it?

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