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The Anti-Yuppies

Downwardly mobile chic is hot! Naked ambition is ugly! Success is passé! All true enough—but can the moralistic New Left win votes with this message?


One effect of the long, painful, millennial downturn—from which we may now be emerging—has been the rise of the virtuous Democrat at the expense of the overachieving one.

Jack Shafer, in Slate (Shafer is a lefty holier-than-thou type), characterized the recent debut of a column by Tina Brown (an icon of overachievement) in the Washington Post as a lament for the spent forces of the nineties. Shafer was trying to make a Zeitgeist point: Tina = Bill Clinton = excess + superficiality. But it was as much an economic one.

In an age of diminished expectations—scant jobs, deficits, Kozlowski, Martha, AOL Time Warner—success, and its pretenders, are not cool. Money, notoriety, and brand are suspect, the lack of these things righteous.

That same week, Philadelphia magazine, in a mocking profile of the journalist Jake Tapper (Tapper, who was recently made a correspondent for ABC News, came to prominence because he once dated Monica Lewinsky and publicized the fact), declared, “Ambition in the service of something noble is a beautiful thing. Ambition in the service of oneself is an ugly sight.”

And this from a book reviewer in the New York Observer: “By relentlessly equating adulthood with professional success,” the author of a new book about the media “degrades the concept of human maturity.” (I am the author of that book.)

It’s an ancillary action in the culture wars: not right versus left, but boomers versus busters.

It’s an intra-liberal split. On one side, there’s Clintonian money—financial, technology, media money—with its global, free-market, entrepreneurial, smarty-pants ethos. On the other side, there are the new Dean Democrats, with an ethic of exurban virtue, antiwar righteousness, blogger wherewithal, and downwardly mobile chic (the Confederate-flag boys). The busters are in the driver’s seat. Indeed, the three-year recession has left the liberals who benefited from the Clinton boom in something approaching dubious moral circumstances.

Howard Dean, who grew up in Manhattan on the Upper East Side and went to Yale, is running an anti-yuppie campaign as much as an antiwar campaign. It’s not all that dissimilar, as it happens, to the anti-yuppie campaign Yale and Harvard-M.B.A. alum George Bush ran the last time around.

Bush’s yuppie target was Al Gore (Bush himself almost became John McCain’s yuppie target). Of course, his real yuppie target was Bill Clinton, the greatest yuppie (I want what I want) of them all.

Dean’s prime yuppie targets have been John Kerry (he is from a more Waspy and patrician mold, but is upwardly mobile all the same) and John Edwards, the millionaire tort lawyer (who desperately tries to assert his populist background but who cannot repudiate his obvious yuppie self), but Clinton is necessarily a target, too. It’s a style issue. Glitz, glam, sexiness are out.

Among Dean’s bona fides are that he’s a doctor, which once was the ultimate upwardly mobile profession but which has become an embittered and regulated one, and that he’s not from Washington but from a small (read nonelitist, nonoverachiever) state. Like Bush, who assembled a nonurban, nonsmarty coalition, Dean has put together a large following of supporters remote from traditional power centers (he’s out of place in Washington, on Wall Street, and in Hollywood). Bush took his strength from the religious right; Dean takes his from the antiwar left.

Dean’s recent evocation of the Confederate-flag-waver as somehow potentially in his camp was probably not so much to get that vote but a rhetorical flourish with which to further distance himself from the people—the snobbish urban Establishment—who would most look down upon this low-class specimen.

Likewise, Bush’s unkosher appearance at the retrograde Bob Jones University was among the jujitsu tactics that resulted in making John McCain seem like the yuppie guy—the candidate of the shocked, shocked and hoity-toity.

Of course, all of this does seem to be something of a mirror trick. Dean and Bush are classic examples of people whose privileged education and background have given them perfectly customized, yuppified lifestyles (the Vermont thing, the ranch thing). And yet somehow they do seem set apart from their achieving (read superficial and narcissistic) counterparts.

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