Consequently, this week’s surge of interest in American plutarchy caught me by surprise. The catalyst for this surge was Angelo Codevilla’s essay for the American Spectator, “America’s Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution.” The essay has been excerpted and discussed on dozens of blogs, forums, and radio shows across the country. America’s oligarchy has finally pierced the public consciousness.
For those who have not yet read it, here is a small taste of what Codevila has to say:
As over-leveraged investment houses began to fail in September 2008, the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, of major corporations, and opinion leaders stretching from the National Review magazine (and the Wall Street Journal) on the right to the Nation magazine on the left, agreed that spending some $700 billion to buy the investors’ “toxic assets” was the only alternative to the U.S. economy’s “systemic collapse.” In this, President George W. Bush and his would-be Republican successor John McCain agreed with the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Many, if not most, people around them also agreed upon the eventual commitment of some 10 trillion nonexistent dollars in ways unprecedented in America. They explained neither the difference between the assets’ nominal and real values, nor precisely why letting the market find the latter would collapse America. The public objected immediately, by margins of three or four to one.
When this majority discovered that virtually no one in a position of power in either party or with a national voice would take their objections seriously, that decisions about their money were being made in bipartisan backroom deals with interested parties, and that the laws on these matters were being voted by people who had not read them, the term “political class” came into use. Then, after those in power changed their plans from buying toxic assets to buying up equity in banks and major industries but refused to explain why, when they reasserted their right to decide ad hoc on these and so many other matters, supposing them to be beyond the general public’s understanding, the American people started referring to those in and around government as the “ruling class.” And in fact Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class.
Although after the election of 2008 most Republican office holders argued against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, against the subsequent bailouts of the auto industry, against the several “stimulus” bills and further summary expansions of government power to benefit clients of government at the expense of ordinary citizens, the American people had every reason to believe that many Republican politicians were doing so simply by the logic of partisan opposition. After all, Republicans had been happy enough to approve of similar things under Republican administrations. Differences between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas are of degree, not kind… The Republican Party did not disparage the ruling class, because most of its officials are or would like to be part of it.
Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America’s upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and “bureaucrat” was a dirty word for all. So was “social engineering.” Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.
Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.
Who are these rulers, and by what right do they rule? How did America change from a place where people could expect to live without bowing to privileged classes to one in which, at best, they might have the chance to climb into them? What sets our ruling class apart from the rest of us?
Wealth? The heads of the class do live in our big cities’ priciest enclaves and suburbs, from Montgomery County, Maryland, to Palo Alto, California, to Boston’s Beacon Hill as well as in opulent university towns from Princeton to Boulder. But they are no wealthier than many Texas oilmen or California farmers, or than neighbors with whom they do not associate — just as the social science and humanities class that rules universities seldom associates with physicians and physicists. Rather, regardless of where they live, their social-intellectual circle includes people in the lucrative “nonprofit” and “philanthropic” sectors and public policy. What really distinguishes these privileged people demographically is that, whether in government power directly or as officers in companies, their careers and fortunes depend on government. They vote Democrat more consistently than those who live on any of America’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Streets. These socioeconomic opposites draw their money and orientation from the same sources as the millions of teachers, consultants, and government employees in the middle ranks who aspire to be the former and identify morally with what they suppose to be the latter’s grievances.
Mr. Codevilla’s elite is not the Oligarchy of Good Intentions that dominates American society today. His is but the traditional conservative caste of villains: the snobbish English professor indoctrinating the youth, the worthless philanthropist surviving off charity of others, the faceless technocrat “managing” the citizenry, and of course, those devils that admire President Woodrow Wilson. These are Codevilla’s ruling class. Those not famous for repeating leftist shibboleths need not apply.
The original metric gives us a better view of the hands grasping for the levers of power. The California farmer? What is he but the beneficiary of one of the largest – and long standing – subsidies found within the United States? The Texas oil man is hardly better; the oil industry is awarded some of the largest royalty reliefs offered by the federal government. And those evil humanities professors? There are not ten universities in the nation whose humanities and social science departments have not been downsized in favor business, science, and tech over the last decade. And their funding? It too comes from the taxpayer’s pocketbook.
Oligarchy is not restricted to the political left. For every leftist among our ruling class you will find a man of the right to match him. Events have shown the distinction to be quite arbitrary. What remains is high profile theater performed for the entertainment and favor of the masses.
Mr. Codevilla’s rhetorical excesses and logical gaps have been defended in the name of action. As one who has despaired bitterly in past days over over the willful ignorance and apathy of my people, I am wary to fault any man who can bring this issue to light. But how great is the cost of awareness! Codevilla shoe-horns the dangers facing the Republic into the narrow prism of the social conservative canon. I suspect that it is upon such contortions the success of his essay is built.
But why is this so? Are not liberty and self-government worth defending in and of themselves? It seems that my fellow Americans can fight for nothing unless they are engaged in a culture war.