This Is Not a Power List

Illustration by Peter Arkle

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.

Illustration by Peter Arkle

Consider Gary Barnett and David Tepper, the reigning real-estate tycoon and hedge-fund manager, respectively. Before the bubble popped, both were hugely successful but largely unknown, holding no particular sway over their industries. But unlike archetypal Establishmentarians, who dislike coloring outside the lines and prefer to move in packs, Barnett and Tepper stepped to the next level by pursuing contrarian strategies in the midst of the crash: the former by continuing to build (and build opulently) when his rivals were running for cover, the latter by betting on the nation’s megabanks when many investors feared them insolvent or ripe for nationalization.

Or consider Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party. Against the backdrop of the dramatic depletion of the city’s labor unions, the collapse of the old Democratic clubhouse structure, and the seventeen-year stretch since the last Democratic mayor, Cantor is angling aggressively to fill the resulting void in progressive politics—and in the process position the WFP as a potential kingmaker in the looming 2013 scramble to succeed Mayor Mike.

Or consider Nick Denton, the impresario behind that impudent, prurient, hypersuccessful clutch of websites known as Gawker Media. Ten years ago, Denton was living (miserably, mopingly) in San Francisco; he was a New York nobody. But then came the conjoined disruptions of technology and the secular decline in traditional media, and Denton was on his way to Manhattan and off to the races. Since then, he has exploited the chaos and opportunity as cannily and ruthlessly as any old-school mogul, but with a mixture of brashness and diffidence that sets him apart—the eminently clubbable Oxbridge import and Soho fixture with insidery, old-media pals, who nonetheless delights in the outsider’s sport of firing poison darts at the ancien régime.

And the list goes on and on. There’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the downtown fashionistas who have challenged the traditional channels of tastemaking, merging cultism and curation to turn Opening Ceremony into a budding retail empire. There’s Amar’e Stoudemire, the incoming Knicks super-duper free agent, who before even throwing down his first thunderous dunk is showing how sheer shiny star power can turn around the vibe (however temporarily) at a doomstruck institution. There’s the team of NYU coding tyros behind the fledgling open-source social-networking site ­Diaspora*, whose quixotic attempt to topple Facebook is a testament to the raw (sometimes lunatic) idealism unleashed when barriers start to tumble. And then there’s Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, the charter-school crusader, whom Bloomberg tells us in our power chain, here, is the most important person in the city—apart from MRB himself, that is.

The differences between this new cadre and the Establishments of the past are almost too numerous to count. One is that they live all over the place, not just in Manhattan: Barnett resides in Queens, Tepper in New Jersey, and so protean is Brooklyn that it has its own burgeoning Establishment (here). Another is that they are at least beginning to look like the metropolis they call home: women and non-Caucasians can actually be found in the pages that follow. And yet another is that they tend toward the iconoclastic and even anti-Establishmentarian; think of literary agent Andrew Wylie, on the face of it a consummate insider, boldly jabbing a sharp stick in the publishing world’s posterior with his paradigm-challenging e-book venture.

At this point, any expert in Establishment studies (an actual field—you can look it up) might argue that Establishments have always admitted outsiders that they deemed acceptable and sufficiently valuable. But that’s not what’s going on here. The vast swaths of people spread over these pages aren’t seeking admission to or storming the barricades of some higher or more prestigious orbit. Their ambitions are enormous, to be sure, but they are focused on the discrete arenas in which they operate—giving rise to literally dozens of micro-Establishments, each with its own distinct customs, values, and pecking order.

This atomization, or Balkanization, of power and influence is a key feature of what is occurring today. After the publication of Fairlie’s seminal Spectator piece, one approving reader wrote to the magazine that the members of the British Establishment “had no need to dine together in order to achieve their ends,” because “they were in telepathic as well as telephonic communication with one another.” Nothing could be further from the case in the city now. Most of the people featured in these pages wouldn’t know one another from Adam. If the Old Establishment was a club and the New Establishment a network, New York’s 21st-century power structure looks more like an archipelago.

None of which is to argue that every vestige of the prior order has crumbled and been swept away. Bloomberg remains by far the most potent force in New York life. The Times still matters. And a handful of giants from the old days still hover over our civic life (here). But what’s striking is just how few such examples pop readily to mind—and how inescapable the conclusion is that their influence is dramatically waning.

Were Fairlie still alive today, he would surely contend that these developments, whatever their virtues or demerits, have precious little to do with his original conception of what an Establishment was. Within a decade of his having injected the notion into common parlance, in fact, Fairlie had come to believe that it was past its sell-by date. In 1968, he wrote in The New Yorker that the promiscuous overuse of the term, and especially the propensity on the left to imbue it with conspiratorial overtones, made him “wish that the language could be rid of it.”

The wish was not the father to the act. As a piece of linguistic shorthand, the Establishment proved remarkably durable in the decades that followed, even as it was further robbed of any precise shape or meaning. But one imagines that Fairlie might actually be pleased by what’s taking place in New York right now: Even as his term maintains its vague currency, the city is in the process of killing off and burying the concept.

In our profile of him, Denton quips, with typical bumptiousness, “If I am a cornerstone of the New Establishment, then there is no New Establishment worth talking about.” Which is quite right—and, in a way, precisely the point.

This Is Not a Power List