The first secular invocation of the Establishment dates to 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson employed the term in a lecture at the Masonic Temple in Boston, but its entry into the modern vernacular came more than 100 years later—thanks, tellingly, to a journalist. The year was 1955 and the scribe was Henry Fairlie, the puckish, young conservative political columnist for the London Spectator. “By the ‘Establishment,’ I do not mean only the centers of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised,” he wrote. Fairlie’s coinage spread quickly to America, which, of course, had developed its own incarnation of the same phenomenon—with New York at its very center. During the Cold War, the city was home to many of the paragons of the Eastern Establishment: Averell Harriman, John McCloy, David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor. By the nineties, that old power elite was giving way to an ascendant order centered less on politics, law, and banking than on the converging spheres of communications, media, and technology. But while the New Establishment, as Vanity Fair christened it, embraced different mores and encompassed a wider ambit, New York remained its fulcrum, the stomping ground of many of the info barons who defined and shaped the era—Murdoch, Redstone, Diller—and the Wall Street magnates who cranked up the great money machine that propelled the long boom.
You might think that what you hold in your hand is our effort to anoint the next generation of moguls and machers, pooh-bahs and potentates: the New New Establishment, or, at least, its distinctive New York edition. And heaven knows, if that were possible, we’d be inclined to try. But at the end of the first decade of this fraught new century, the social, political, and cultural landscapes of the post-bubble city present us with a bracing reality not so easily reified: that anything resembling a unitary New York Establishment is dead and gone—or, rather, has splintered into a teeming pile of little pieces.
That splintering, that fragmentation, is what this issue of the magazine is all about. Taken together, the articles, charticles, and other items you’ll find here aim to capture the transition to a new kind of power structure—one less stable and hierarchical, homogenous, calm, and clubby, and more dynamic, diverse, democratic, riotous, and permeable. In the place of a single New York Establishment, there are now many overlapping matrices of mojo and puissance, each in a wild (and maybe permanent) state of flux, each porous, fluid, and provisional to a degree that would have flummoxed every previous generation of New York’s great and good.
The tidal forces that have driven this transformation are many and varied, from the triumph of the meritocracy and the electrifyingly unstatic demographics of the city to the ebbing of the Ivy League’s primacy and the creeping populist distrust, even among elites, of the machines that have long dominated Gotham’s politics (yo, Democratic Party!) and highbrow media (hello, New York Times!). But the one-two punch that delivered a TKO to the unitary Establishment was the near implosion of the financial system and the Great Recession spawned by it, and the virtual takeover of modern life by the Internet. In tandem, these blows not only reduced countless fortunes to rubble (while creating some new ones) but toppled every status pyramid and subverted every source of authority they touched.
Which has been quite a few. Indeed, in the past few years, all of the industries and realms that matter most in New York—Wall Street, real estate, media, fashion, advertising, politics, food—have taken a pummeling, their foundations rocked, their titans rendered less titanic. Now, ordinarily, the sight of a decrepit old order being torn down or the high and mighty falling (or, even more humiliating, being reduced to irrelevance) tends to produce feelings of Schadenfreude and panic in roughly equal measure. Yet this time the spectacle has also instilled the exhilaration that comes with a sense of possibility, as we’ve witnessed the emergence of an unfamiliar cast of clout-wielding characters, most of whom have attained and are exerting influence in thrillingly novel ways.
A great many of these individuals are present in these pages. But contrary to the blaring headline on our cover, they don’t really compose some new guard that now “runs” New York—for an essential theme of this exercise is that no gilded group any longer pulls all the levers in the city, if indeed one ever did. Nor are they featured because they constitute a class of aspiring Über-Establishmentarians, or even necessarily because they are currently successful or destined to succeed in the future. Their stories are here because they illustrate the newly unstable quantum mechanics of power in our city, the crazy up-for-grabs-ness of this moment.