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America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution

by Rich Carey on August 17, 2010

The Political Divide

Important as they are, our political divisions are the iceberg’s tip. When pollsters ask the American people whether they are likely to vote Republican or Democrat in the next presidential election, Republicans win growing pluralities. But whenever pollsters add the preferences “undecided,” “none of the above,” or “tea party,” these win handily, the Democrats come in second, and the Republicans trail far behind. That is because while most of the voters who call themselves Democrats say that Democratic officials represent them well, only a fourth of the voters who identify themselves as Republicans tell pollsters that Republican officeholders represent them well. Hence officeholders, Democrats and Republicans, gladden the hearts of some one-third of the electorate — most Democratic voters, plus a few Republicans. This means that Democratic politicians are the ruling class’s prime legitimate representatives and that because Republican politicians are supported by only a fourth of their voters while the rest vote for them reluctantly, most are aspirants for a junior role in the ruling class. In short, the ruling class has a party, the Democrats. But some two-thirds of Americans — a few Democratic voters, most Republican voters, and all independents — lack a vehicle in electoral politics.

Sooner or later, well or badly, that majority’s demand for representation will be filled. Whereas in 1968 Governor George Wallace’s taunt “there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties resonated with only 13.5 percent of the American people, in 1992 Ross Perot became a serious contender for the presidency (at one point he was favored by 39 percent of Americans vs. 31 percent for G.H.W. Bush and 25 percent for Clinton) simply by speaking ill of the ruling class. Today, few speak well of the ruling class. Not only has it burgeoned in size and pretense, but it also has undertaken wars it has not won, presided over a declining economy and mushrooming debt, made life more expensive, raised taxes, and talked down to the American people. Americans’ conviction that the ruling class is as hostile as it is incompetent has solidified. The polls tell us that only about a fifth of Americans trust the government to do the right thing. The rest expect that it will do more harm than good and are no longer afraid to say so.

While Europeans are accustomed to being ruled by presumed betters whom they distrust, the American people’s realization of being ruled like Europeans shocked this country into well nigh revolutionary attitudes. But only the realization was new. The ruling class had sunk deep roots in America over decades before 2008. Machiavelli compares serious political diseases to the Aetolian fevers — easy to treat early on while they are difficult to discern, but virtually untreatable by the time they become obvious.

Far from speculating how the political confrontation might develop between America’s regime class — relatively few people supported by no more than one-third of Americans — and a country class comprising two-thirds of the country, our task here is to understand the divisions that underlie that confrontation’s unpredictable future. More on politics below.

The Ruling Class

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?

The most widespread answers — by such as the Times‘s Thomas Friedman and David Brooks — are schlock sociology. Supposedly, modern society became so complex and productive, the technical skills to run it so rare, that it called forth a new class of highly educated officials and cooperators in an ever less private sector. Similarly fanciful is Edward Goldberg’s notion that America is now ruled by a “newocracy”: a “new aristocracy who are the true beneficiaries of globalization — including the multinational manager, the technologist and the aspirational members of the meritocracy.” In fact, our ruling class grew and set itself apart from the rest of us by its connection with ever bigger government, and above all by a certain attitude.

Other explanations are counterintuitive. 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.

Professional prominence or position will not secure a place in the class any more than mere money. In fact, it is possible to be an official of a major corporation or a member of the U.S. Supreme Court (just ask Justice Clarence Thomas), or even president (Ronald Reagan), and not be taken seriously by the ruling class. Like a fraternity, this class requires above all comity — being in with the right people, giving the required signs that one is on the right side, and joining in despising the Outs. Once an official or professional shows that he shares the manners, the tastes, the interests of the class, gives lip service to its ideals and shibboleths, and is willing to accommodate the interests of its senior members, he can move profitably among our establishment’s parts.

If, for example, you are Laurence Tribe in 1984, Harvard professor of law, leftist pillar of the establishment, you can “write” your magnum opus by using the products of your student assistant, Ron Klain. A decade later, after Klain admits to having written some parts of the book, and the other parts are found to be verbatim or paraphrases of a book published in 1974, you can claim (perhaps correctly) that your plagiarism was “inadvertent,” and you can count on the Law School’s dean, Elena Kagan, to appoint a committee including former and future Harvard president Derek Bok that issues a secret report that “closes” the incident. Incidentally, Kagan ends up a justice of the Supreme Court. Not one of these people did their jobs: the professor did not write the book himself, the assistant plagiarized instead of researching, the dean and the committee did not hold the professor accountable, and all ended up rewarded. By contrast, for example, learned papers and distinguished careers in climatology at MIT (Richard Lindzen) or UVA (S. Fred Singer) are not enough for their questions about “global warming” to be taken seriously. For our ruling class, identity always trumps.

Much less does membership in the ruling class depend on high academic achievement. To see something closer to an academic meritocracy consider France, where elected officials have little power, a vast bureaucracy explicitly controls details from how babies are raised to how to make cheese, and people get into and advance in that bureaucracy strictly by competitive exams. Hence for good or ill, France’s ruling class are bright people — certifiably. Not ours. But didn’t ours go to Harvard and Princeton and Stanford? Didn’t most of them get good grades? Yes. But while getting into the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or the Ecole Polytechnique or the dozens of other entry points to France’s ruling class requires outperforming others in blindly graded exams, and graduating from such places requires passing exams that many fail, getting into America’s “top schools” is less a matter of passing exams than of showing up with acceptable grades and an attractive social profile. American secondary schools are generous with their As. Since the 1970s, it has been virtually impossible to flunk out of American colleges. And it is an open secret that “the best” colleges require the least work and give out the highest grade point averages. No, our ruling class recruits and renews itself not through meritocracy but rather by taking into itself people whose most prominent feature is their commitment to fit in. The most successful neither write books and papers that stand up to criticism nor release their academic records. Thus does our ruling class stunt itself through negative selection. But the more it has dumbed itself down, the more it has defined itself by the presumption of intellectual superiority.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

jiorje May 11, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Hi today I heard the Lord speak to me about a stream of justice that will flow down from the media mountain like an everlasting stream. Id never heard of a “media mountain” and so im trying to learn what this is but i guess im getting brain cramps, lol. anyway can you shed any light on this for me please? thanks.

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