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Yuppies, Up for Grabs
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Yuppies, Up for Grabs

Republicans have long alienated suburban professionals. Democrats are now doing the same.

(Photograph from Getty Images)

The Martin Center, a conservative nonprofit working to improve higher education, has produced an interesting piece of model legislation that would codify the prohibition of racial preferences in college admissions. 

The law would prohibit colleges and universities that receive government funding from discriminating based on “race, color, or national origin” in admissions and financial aid while preserving the ability of state schools to give preference to in-state applicants. Equally important, the law would require schools to compile and make available for third-party analysis “all data used in making admissions decisions,” and would require all first-year students to submit standardized test scores, which would provide a baseline for comparison. I have some fundamental disagreements with the Martin Center, which takes an excessively negative and at times boobish approach to higher education, but this is a good proposal, at least in outline. 

As I have written many, many, many times, the relatively small minority of Americans who care a great deal about how Harvard and the University of Texas make their admissions decisions has a very large footprint in our political discourse in spite of the small numbers involved. The policymaking world broadly defined (from activists to academics to journalists) is dominated by college-educated people, disproportionately the product of elite institutions, who cannot help but see the world through their own eyes. There is a reason the New York Times has so much more apparent interest in distant Ivy League institutions than in, say, community colleges (to say nothing of public high schools) located in the city whose times the newspaper purports to chronicle. That’s only human: If the newspapers were edited by bankers, there would be more stories about banking, and if they were edited by dairy farmers, there would be more stories about cows. 

As it stands, there are lots of stories about the people we used to call “yuppies,” relatively high-income, college-educated, urban-suburban professionals. The media is dominated by a relatively narrow class of haute-yuppie, and they care a great deal about who gets into Harvard and why. The yuppie class as a whole used to dominate our national politics, with presidential elections being decided in the suburbs. That is slightly less true now than it once was: Republicans used to do very well among suburban professionals, but as the suburbs have come to more closely resemble the cities both culturally and politically, the GOP has lost many of those suburban voters, for the same reason it lost so many of those high-income urban professionals who benefit most directly from traditional Republican tax-cutting. As one Wall Street professional memorably put it to me during the 2008 election, “Nobody is going to show up to parents’ day at Choate wearing a Sarah Palin T-shirt,” tax cuts or no. Change that to “Marjorie Taylor Greene” today and it still works. 

The thing is, that yuppie vote really should be up for grabs. 

Here is a story that has been much more intensely discussed among the haute-yuppies than it has been in the daily press: The Biden administration is proposing to make it much harder to hire an au pair. I’m not saying the nice people in Highland Park or Brentwood don’t care about the Middle East or abortion or climate change, but if you want to see rich-but-not-that-rich people get really upset, mess with their child care arrangements. The Biden plan would raise mandatory wages and double the educational stipend, impose onerous reporting requirements (such as documenting that the au pair is provided three meals a day), and, worst of all, impose a UAW-style work schedule on families, requiring that they pre-establish set working hours (to be cut down to a maximum of 40 from the current 45) rather than enjoy a degree of discretion and flexibility. As Kristina Rasmussen put it in the Wall Street Journal, it would double or triple the expense of employing an au pair, putting the service out of reach of many families who currently rely on such assistance. 

Follow me for what is going to seem like a sudden left turn: Do you know why the Republicans’ bad reputation on racial questions is a problem for the GOP politically? It isn’t because it costs them among black voters—it is because it costs them among white voters, of whom there are a whole lot more, many of whom do not wish to associate themselves with a party that is known (not without reason) for harboring politicians and activists with ugly and atavistic racial attitudes. These same voters—many of whom would be more or less on board with traditional Republican economic policies—are put off by other characteristics of the GOP coalition: its anti-intellectualism, its rural orientation, etc. That isn’t to say that everybody in the Republican Party is a rube on a turnip truck—but if you see a bunch of rubes piled into a turnip truck, you can bet that the turnip truck is going to have a “Jesus Is My Savior Trump Is My President!” bumper sticker on it. It isn’t going to say “Biden-Harris 2024.” 

The Democrats have wisely offered themselves up as the natural political home of those upwardly mobile urban-suburban professionals the Republican Party doesn’t want. The Martin Center’s main man George Leef can sneer at the elite universities three times a week in the pages of National Review, but there is a great many young Americans who very much would like to attend one of those universities, and a great many middle-aged Americans who would like their children to attend such a school and who care a great deal about who gets in and why. But, even among people for whom Harvard’s admissions standards are not an immediate and urgent issue, the question remains: Do you want to associate yourself with the Ivy League crowd and the upwardly mobile strivers, or with the sneerers and scoffers who (though college-educated themselves, of course!) want you to believe that there’s a bright future in bumpkinism? 

Lots of the people hoping to give their kids an edge in getting into a top college also are the kind of people who employ (or might want to employ) an au pair, people who are affluent enough to care a great deal about their taxes but not so rich that they don’t notice inflation. That class of people is an important political bloc in and of itself, but it also is important because it represents a social position to which many people aspire. 

Republicans have spent the past 15 years or so micturating from a great height upon the aspirations of people who might want (for themselves or for their children) an Ivy League education, a high-paying job in technology or finance, a nice home in Silicon Valley or New York City or another big metropolitan area—in cities and suburbs that may not comport exactly with their politics on the whole but which offer (to everyone who is not a political monomaniac) many other important benefits, from economic opportunity to cultural interests to superior health care facilities. “Real Americans,” Republicans insist, do not aspire to such things—all Real Americans want to be farmers in Muleshoe, Texas, and diesel mechanics in Toad Suck, Arkansas. Steve Bannon may enjoy posing as Lenin in a golf shirt, but, as John Steinbeck never actually said, scrappy American strivers “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And while that is hyperbole, Americans are right to think of themselves that way—Americans’ miserable attitude about the state of the world and the state of their lives simply is not supported by the data, by observable reality, by the evidence you can see with your own eyes traveling across this richly blessed country. 

There is a considerable cohort of affluent and up-and-coming people out there who neither want to play at right-wing revolutionary with the Proud Boys nor sign themselves up for Bernie Sanders’ socialist program, people who care about justice and progress but do not have any interest in supporting race riots or the kind of turgid nonsense produced by Ibram X. Kendi et al., who find good and worthy things at the commanding heights of American life along with things in need of constructive criticism and real reform. For now, those votes mostly go to the Democrats, largely because Republicans have abused those voters when they haven’t simply ignored them. But, at some point, Democratic radicalism (both economic and social) is going to alienate some of those voters—and, never mind the godforsaken Republican Party and its interests, it would be good for the country if these voters had a sensible, responsible political vehicle for their aspirations and their policy agenda. 

There are a lot of votes on the table—I wonder if anybody wants to pick them up, if anybody has the wit to do it. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.