Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The New White Flight

By National Review

The white upper middle class is deranging American politics. We should have seen it coming.

In 2010, America’s last famous novelist, Jonathan Franzen, launched on the reading public Freedom, his tale of a striving family headed by Walter and Patty Berglund. They were gentrifiers in St. Paul, Minn. The paterfamilias was a lawyer at the conglomerate 3M but no corporate cutthroat. He biked to work and was in the outreach-and-philanthropy department. The Berglunds were “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.”

Freedom is a moving and sometimes scabrous portrait of the liberal white upper middle class in the George W. Bush years, when this genteelly progressive vision was failing them, not just politically but personally. It is a portrait of a class whose members prize their own savvy — their way of doing good for others while doing well for themselves. Their gift to the world is their cleverness and broadmindedness, and they seek greater freedom to exercise these gifts upon the world.

But Freedom portrays something darker. The Berglunds are increasingly conscious that they are completely losing their connection to others. Their son goes to live with downwardly mobile and — to the Berglunds’ eyes — louche Republicans. The Berglunds remain somewhat ignorant and dumbfounded in the face of political criticism from black Americans. Their class is Coming Apart from the rest of the country. And their aspirations have a dark side. Franzen writes as a judgment of one character a line that is prophetic of the Berglunds: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

And it all comes to pass. Walter Berglund turns apocalyptic about the environment. “We are a cancer on the planet!” he screams on social media. He goes to Washington and earns a massive salary at a nonprofit. His renewed and now superzealous commitment to the cause leads him to collude with a wealthy Texan to evict poor families from a Virginia mountaintop in order to preserve a habitat for birds that aren’t even endangered.


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