Why Meritocracy Makes Vanity Fair’s New Establishment So Boring

The latest edition of Vanity Fair’s “New Establishment” list has everyone—including us—playing the annual game of who is in, who is out, who is up and who is down. Lloyd Blankfein is here but Stevie Cohen is gone. And so on.

We’d call it a parlour game but people–especially the new Establishment–don’t play parlour games anymore.

It’s hard to escape the feeling entire exercise is more than a bit sad and pathetic because, frankly, the notion of The Establishment has been ruined by meritocracy. The old establishment—primary Anglo-Saxon Protestants who could trace their roots back toward the founding of our country and whose residence here preferably predated the founding—was interesting because of the peculiar and myriad ways it exercised power across such a broad swath of American life.

The old Establishment used a complicated set of social rules to influence education, theology, politics and business in America. It was, importantly, exclusive and clubby—not in the metaphorical sense but in the real sense that a lot of its activities took place in clubs. It was also regional and decentralized. Each region of the country tended to have its own Establishment, although the Northeast Establishment was unarguably dominant through much of the country.

It had something to do with money, of course. But that was not the only qualification. You could lack money and still be part of the establishment. You could have money and still be outside. Families whose fortunes were lost in the Civil War could move up with relatives in Vermont or Brooklyn and still find themselves included in the old Establishment. The social mores of the old Establishment were important because its power was largely exercised socially.

The problem with the new Establishment is that it is too meritocratic, too disjointed, too national, too much about public opinion and too much about money. If you lose your fortune, you are out instantly. Celebrities are there because the vulgar masses flock to their movies. The mini-Establishments of Ohio or Minnesota are gone. It isn’t really concerned with the shaping of our educational institutions, leaving that to special interests like educators and the grievance industry.  For the most part, its power is exercised through money and corporately rather than socially.

But perhaps more importantly: entry into the new Establishment is too easy. Lloyd Blankfein tops it for nothing other than running Goldman Sachs. Don’t get us wrong. That’s a very hard job and Lloyd seems very good at it. He deserves to be rewarded with lavish wealth for what he does—and, come to think of it, he is so rewarded. But it is a sad day for the concept of Establishment when success in business is all that counts to get yourself to the top.

In fact, it’s not really clear that this counts as an Establishment at all. It’s just not exclusive enough. Literally—it doesn’t exclude by any proper criteria. And it’s not clubby enough—in the non-literal sense this time. The members of this Establishment don’t feel enough cohesion to constitute a true Establishment.

Perhaps we’re wrong to lament this. America’s old Establishment intentionally annihilated itself, in a kind of class suicide. The meritocrats conquered our colleges, churches, politics and arts. Whether the conquest has been for good or ill, we’ll leave to others to decide. But it might be unseemly to begrudge those who have inherited America the name of Establishment. Let them have it all.

It’s fine. Vanity Fair can call this an Establishment if they want. But we’ll know it just doesn’t mean what it used to.

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