That America is propelled by elites will surprise nobody who understands the power law. In every measure of social interaction – from income earned to early adoption of technology – a very few deliver the bulk of the output. This has always been the case, not just here but in all complex societies: that is to say, everywhere.
The inevitable rise of elites doesn’t necessarily lead to elitism. If the elites are competitive, a large degree of churn will raise up new faces from different places. Between Truman and Clinton, for example, the only US president who could be said to be from the established elites was John F. Kennedy. The rest were men from nowhere – some, like LBJ and Nixon, were loathed by the elites, and returned the favor.
Elites can be oriented toward excellence or entitlement. A respect for excellence produces an egalitarian attitude: what matters is the outcome, not the person, and on any given domain people may come out of nowhere to excel.
Belief in entitlement flows from pessimism about bridging the gulf between elites and plebeians. In this view, the world is ineradicably divided between a handful of rational problem-solvers and the throng of irrational problem-makers. The former require unlimited personal power and discretion to save the latter from themselves. Here the elites degenerate to elitism.
I come to the text of my sermon for the day, Victor Davis Hanson’s much-discussed “Pity the Postmodern Cultural Elite” on PajamasMedia. It begins with a powerful premise:
I think most of our problems transcend politics, which is increasingly a reflection of an elite, insider culture that is completely at odds with the majority of the country that it oversees.
Hanson concedes that “cultural elites” is a “sloppy term,” and proceeds to demonstrate this by including, besides the usual suspects in academia and the arts, pretty much everyone who makes a good living. He then attempts to characterize the group in ways that are eccentric and amusing.
I laughed at Hanson’s depiction of the New Male Voice: “Sort of whiney, sort of nasally, sort of fussy. Being overexact, sighing, artificially pausing, all that seems part of the new elite parlance.” (I remember, two decades ago, turning off NPR for the last time and wondering, “Where do they get men who sound like that?”)
The piece is worth reading, but doesn’t come close to the heart of the problem.
I agree that our present predicament transcends politics. I completely agree that its origin is to be found in the struggle – partly visible, partly veiled – between the elites and the plebeian majority. This still leaves most important questions hanging in mid-air.
Are today’s elites different from those of earlier times? Are non-elites different? What is the conflict about? How can we connect it to what Hanson calls “our problems” – and what are these, exactly?
Let me assume a blogger’s prerogative, and speculate with abandon.
I believe our current elites are a Baby Boomer/GenX deviation from the historical norm. In previous generations we had an establishment, whose hallmark was service. A good example is George Bush the First, who inherited money and made his own fortune, yet was shot down over the Pacific in World War II and bounced around a number of second-level elected and appointed government jobs before becoming vice president.
He was famously not a man of the people (“message: I care”). But, like many of his class, he felt privilege entailed a duty to serve his country. The same could be said of JFK, another millionaire’s son, and of the two Roosevelts – the model goes all the way back to the Virginia planter-politicians, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
If the establishment bent a knee to service, the new elites prefer a certain attitude. They love ideology more than achievement, striking poses more than ideology. Their nirvana is the moralistic beau geste: the theatrical embrace of the downtrodden, the apology for past sins, the chastizing of generic racists, sexists, Wall Street capitalists, homophobes, Islamophobes – endless punitive categories filled by those irrational plebeians.
When, as vice president, Al Gore landed in La Paz, Bolivia, for an official visit, he demanded to see a peasant. That’s the attitude.
The ideology of the new elites was described by Paul Berman in The Flight of the Intellectuals. They are a “penitential caste,” virtuous guardians standing between backward dark-skinned people and their brutish fair-skinned oppressors. They personify moral and intellectual superiority, and feel no need to demonstrate it in action. Their sense of entitlement – of living the life of the artist-tyrant, transcending laws and rules – is ingrained.
Given the elites’ perception of the howling mob, it shouldn’t surprise us that, to them, every political question is answered by greater government control. The recession, for example, demands expanded government expenditures and takeovers. Problems with health care require government mandates and regulations. Global warming demands more government. Terrorism, same. Racial disparities? Of course. Obesity? Just wait.
To the new elites, every aspect of life is political – and politics is defined as government in action. Bureaucratic power is the lever with which they seek to move the world.
The conflict between the elites and much of America is a dispute about the size, cost, and role of the federal government, ignited by the election of Barack Obama. His Baby Boomer predecessors, Clinton and Bush, shared an uneasy relationship with the elites, and sought, for political reasons, to maintain a discreet distance from them. President Obama is entirely a child of the elites, whom he considers his chief constituency, and he was elected with large Congressional majorities which have allowed him to expand the government in the teeth of public opinion. He aims to regulate in minute detail the behavior of the electorate, which he plainly believes is incapable of self-restraint.
By pursuing his program without regard for the political consequences, the President has stumbled into an earthquake of opposition: a peasant revolt. The plebeian majority will not be moved from ideas which differ radically from the new elites’ – not only about government but about religion, history, love of country, family, business, education, guns. In this fierce ideological struggle, the space for compromise is minimal.
Plebeians aren’t entirely stupid. They read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and consider themselves heirs to the traditions which made the US prosperous and strong. They equate “our problems” with President Obama’s solutions, and feel confident that, unfettered and unregulated, they can make better progress.
Above all, they don’t wish to see their children and grandchildren crushed under the burden of debt incurred by the President to feed his ever-hungry Leviathan. Baby Boomer affluence, they hold, should not rest on the misery of their descendants.
The stakes of the struggle are thus high: nothing less than the moral and material direction of American society for generations to come. The outcome is uncertain. The new elites have taken possession of the commanding heights in the bureaucracy, academia, and the arts. Plebeians, however, own an electoral majority, and are far more practical and achievement-oriented.
The first national judgment on President Obama and the new elites will come with the midterm elections in November. But the conflict, I imagine, will continue regardless. November’s electoral results will just determine its next phase.