Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:
Angelo Codevilla has written a thought-provoking piece, positing that the great political conflict in this country is actually between the “ruling class” and the “country class.”
Angelo M. Codevilla at The American Spectator:
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. Moreover, 2009-10 establishment Republicans sought only to modify the government’s agenda while showing eagerness to join the Democrats in new grand schemes, if only they were allowed to. Sen. Orrin Hatch continued dreaming of being Ted Kennedy, while Lindsey Graham set aside what is true or false about “global warming” for the sake of getting on the right side of history. No prominent Republican challenged the ruling class’s continued claim of superior insight, nor its denigration of the American people as irritable children who must learn their place. 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.
The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century’s Northerners and Southerners — nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, “prayed to the same God.” By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God “who created and doth sustain us,” our ruling class prays to itself as “saviors of the planet” and improvers of humanity. Our classes’ clash is over “whose country” America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark’s Gospel: “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
DRJ at Patterico:
This American Spectator essay by Angelo M. Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University and former U.S. foreign service officer, is a must read for every American. Codevilla defines America’s ruling class and country class and reviews the decisions we Americans have made that will decide our and our children’s futures.
Implicit in Codevilla’s essay is the following question: Will Americans choose to be governed by a ruling class or will we return to self-governance by the country class? I think most blue states have already chosen the ruling class with its comfortable promises and European-style goals. I pray most red states and especially my fellow Texans will choose the Country Party, but at this point I have little hope it will be enough.
John Ballard at Newshoggers:
This weekend’s reading assignment is America’s Ruling Class — and the Perils of Revolution in American Spectator. Thanks to Memeorandum for bringing this piece to our attention. Only one commentary link so far, and comments there make think it may be a ton of lipstick, but I’m holding judgment until I read for myself.
Again, no, I haven’t read it yet. As I write it is printing out for me to read later, some fourteen thousand words plus. Much too long to sit here and digest at the computer monitor. If anyone else reads feel free to leave a comment and we can discuss it. I’ll do a followup later if the spirit moves me.
[A few hours later…]
I should have waited. This is a wasted post, along with several pages of ink used to print it out. I’m reminded of an exchange years ago told by a sales rep for a meat company.
Chicken farmer: “You know what that white stuff is in chicken shit?
Sales rep: “No, I never thought about it. What it is?”
Chicken farmer: “That’s chicken shit, too.”
By the end of the first page I counted half a dozen instances of spin preparing the reader to swallow what followed. Clearly the writer was breaking out more than a broad brush, a journalistic equivalent to a fire hose. I could hear Beck in the background railing about Progressives.
By the end of the second page it became fourteen pages of prose not unlike that which can be heard any time from conservative talk media. Somewhat turgid. Reading it is like driving in the rain with no windshield wipers. Turns out to be lipstick after all in a pathetic effort to legitimize the Tea Party.
Sorry to have furnished the links. I will do better next time after due diligence. Steve and Joyner are too polite.
James Joyner, first quoting the piece:
Its attitude is key to understanding our bipartisan ruling class. Its first tenet is that “we” are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained. How did this replace the Founding generation’s paradigm that “all men are created equal”?
This not only grossly exaggerates the attitudes of the current elites but confuses the flowery rhetoric of our Founding elite with their actual attitudes. There’s not much doubt that the people who wrote and signed the Declaration and the Constitution were much less egalitarian than their successors. Codevilla goes on the cherry pick history to demonstrate just the opposite: An elite who became ever-more contemptuous of the unwashed masses. After several paragraphs of this, he comes to:
Franklin Roosevelt brought the Chautauqua class into his administration and began the process that turned them into rulers. FDR described America’s problems in technocratic terms. America’s problems would be fixed by a “brain trust” (picked by him). His New Deal’s solutions — the alphabet-soup “independent” agencies that have run America ever since — turned many Progressives into powerful bureaucrats and then into lobbyists. As the saying goes, they came to Washington to do good, and stayed to do well.
As their number and sense of importance grew, so did their distaste for common Americans. Believing itself “scientific,” this Progressive class sought to explain its differences from its neighbors in “scientific” terms. The most elaborate of these attempts was Theodor Adorno’s widely acclaimed The Authoritarian Personality (1948). It invented a set of criteria by which to define personality traits, ranked these traits and their intensity in any given person on what it called the “F scale” (F for fascist), interviewed hundreds of Americans, and concluded that most who were not liberal Democrats were latent fascists. This way of thinking about non-Progressives filtered down to college curricula. In 1963-64 for example, I was assigned Herbert McCloskey’s Conservatism and Personality (1958) at Rutgers’s Eagleton Institute of Politics as a paradigm of methodological correctness. The author had defined conservatism in terms of answers to certain questions, had defined a number of personality disorders in terms of other questions, and run a survey that proved “scientifically” that conservatives were maladjusted ne’er-do-well ignoramuses. (My class project, titled “Liberalism and Personality,” following the same methodology, proved just as scientifically that liberals suffered from the very same social diseases, and even more amusing ones.)
The point is this: though not one in a thousand of today’s bipartisan ruling class ever heard of Adorno or McCloskey, much less can explain the Feuerbachian-Marxist notion that human judgments are “epiphenomenal” products of spiritual or material alienation, the notion that the common people’s words are, like grunts, mere signs of pain, pleasure, and frustration, is now axiomatic among our ruling class. They absorbed it osmotically, second — or thirdhand, from their education and from companions. Truly, after Barack Obama described his opponents’ clinging to “God and guns” as a characteristic of inferior Americans, he justified himself by pointing out he had said “what everybody knows is true.” Confident “knowledge” that “some of us, the ones who matter,” have grasped truths that the common herd cannot, truths that direct us, truths the grasping of which entitles us to discount what the ruled say and to presume what they mean, made our Progressives into a class long before they took power.
In reality, what we had was a government that took on more and more power in order to address the ills of society. Maybe the practical difference is moot. But the fact of the matter is that there was never an age when the governing class thought themselves the equal of the governed: They’ve always thought themselves smarter and better.
Further, cherry picking statements like Obama’s unfortunate campaign slip obscures the fact that most politicians — especially on the Republican side — actually go out of their way to flatter the Real Americans who aren’t part of the Beltway Elite. Indeed, elite has been a bad thing as long as I can remember.
The essay breaks it down into a country class – the people, versus a ruling class – the establishment. Also, consider that, if the Democrat machine is better at gaining control of the levers of power and using them, the Republican Party is better at keeping its country class of would be followers down. That’s part of why we saw a Netroots on the Left, but chiefly see only more establishment-related punditry being elevated on the Right.
Of course, the Netroots is now being marginalized, even by the ruling Democrats, because it served its purpose. But there’s yet to be the same larger genuinely peopled-power movement on the Right, because the Republican ruling class is so set on marginalizing it, while funding more ruling class-related punditry in new media, before a more genuinely people-powered form of punditry ever rises up on the Right.
Take the ruling class away, and the real battle for America’s future is out here between the Left, Right and would be centrist blogs. Were it purely democratic, and not now largely formed by the flow of capital, I’m confident the center-Right would ultimately win out. It best reflects the views of a majority of the American people. So, I don’t fear the type of revolution upon which Codevilla speculates. But whether or not that battle ever truly takes place remains to be seen.
The so called conservative pundit class that is actually DC-centric punditry in new media is not our true ally. It functions more as a filter, or governor of our beliefs and desires as regards politics, than our enabler. And that will remain true until more people stop being nice to it, or fawning over it, simply because it has power and is purported to be wise. Its more truly Reaganesque thinking has long been corrupted by money, influence, access and power, just as has the GOP establishment.
Joyner responds to Riehl:
He approvingly cites the Ruling Class vs Country Class piece that I discussed in my previous post and, I gather, thinks that he’s doing his part of the latter by refusing to politely engage those on his side of the aisle who don’t see themselves as part of a religious war against the evil Left.
The problem with this, as Reagan himself noted, “somebody who agrees with you 80% of the time is an 80% friend not a 20% enemy.” If David Frum and David Brooks and George Will are outcasts in the conservative movement, then Reagan’s “Big Tent” becomes a lean-to. Winning such a war is thus a Pyrrhic victory.
It’s doubtless true that there are plenty of us in the right-of-center blogosphere who aren’t firebrands. We’re not enamored of Sarah Palin and the Tea Parties. We support homosexual rights and an immigration policy based on reality rather than frustration. But we’re still on the same side on most issues.
Further, Frum and Brooks and Will and the like are much more effective in articulating conservative ideas than those who preach to the choir. If you treat people who disagree with you with contempt, they’ll rather quickly tune you out. So, you’re left with firing up the people already carrying pitchforks.
To what end?
For anyone with an appropriate skepticism toward meritocracy and its works, there’s an obvious critique of my suggestion, in today’s column, that America might be better off if our top-flight colleges welcomed more students from demographics — the white working class, rural America, evangelical Christians, etc. — that are currently viewed with suspicion and hostility by the highly-educated elite. Part of the problem with meritocracy is that it homogenizes in the name of diversity: It skims the cream from every race and class and population, puts all of the best and brightest through the same educational conveyor belt, and comes out with a ruling class that’s cosmetically diverse but intellectually conformist, and that tends to huddle together rather than spreading out to enrich the country as a whole. This is Christopher Lasch’s lament in “The Revolt of the Elites” — that meritocracy co-opts people who might otherwise become its critics, sapping local communities of their intellectual vitality and preventing any kind of rival power centers from emerging. And it’s something that Angelo Codevilla gets right (while getting a number of other things wrong) in his recent blast against the American elite:
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 … 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.
With this in mind, one could easily argue that it would be terrible for America if the meritocratic elite admitted more members of what Codevilla calls the “country party” to its ranks, because that would represent the final victory of centralization and homogenization over local allegiances and competing power centers. Once inside the machinery of meritocracy, aspiring farmers would become bureaucrats, R.O.T.C. cadets would enter investment banks, and evangelicals and Mormons would join the ranks of purely secular do-gooders. Better for such young people, and for the country, if they’re educated locally and stay local, rather than ascending and leaving their communities behind.
My only rebuttal to this argument would be the somewhat pessimistic point that centralization is very difficult to roll back, that some sort of broad national elite is probably here to stay, and that given those premises it may make more sense to create more room for real diversity within that elite — by holding meritocracy to its professed ideals — than to hope vainly for a localist revolution that undercuts the ruling class’s political and cultural authority. But good intentions often go awry, and I concede the possibility that this prescription could only end up making America’s current divisions even worse.
Tim Fernholz at Tapped:
The key fact that Douthat never returns to is that Buchanan is homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic. Those despicable Ivy Leaguers are right! There is also plenty of evidence that Buchanan is wrong — starting with the fact that a plurality of Ivy Leaguers are white Christians. So Douthat has to draw a narrower case — that America’s elite colleges discriminate against not just white Christians but working-class, rural white Christians. Oh, and the presumption is that they must be his kind of Christian — you can’t be liberal and Christian, or “elite” and a Christian. As Adam notes, what discrimination exists comes down to a question of class, not culture.
Douthat’s second strange equivocation is the concern he is trolling — that the lack of interaction between poor white Christians and liberals creates a dangerous paranoia between groups in this country. (As a side note, I’d love to know how much time Douthat spends with white, rural, working-class Christians himself.) He observes that conservative-leaning white voters think Obama is a “foreign-born Marxist,” among other conspiracies, while liberals perceive an increase in “crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs.”
Once again, the conspiracy theories of the conservatives have no basis in reality. Meanwhile, the idea that liberals see right-wing conspiracies “everywhere they look” reveals that Douthat has as little knowledge of liberals as he does of rural, working-class whites. Liberals do fret that the Tea Party and like-minded right-wing groups are providing an outlet for racist and violent sentiments, but that’s only because the Tea Parties do provide an outlet for racist sentiments — and McVeigh-types have already attacked federal buildings and been arrested for plotting similar escapades.
This is the worst kind of opinion column, a sort of tease — Douthat airs competing claims but declines to weigh in on either side, instead offering a mealymouthed support for a kind of soft affirmative action for, well, he doesn’t quite say white Christians, which is where he began his column, but for those whom he believes are culturally affiliated with white Christians.
The “competing claims” I aired, so far as I can tell, were what I consider the more unfortunate paranoias of left and right — and yes, I do decline to throw my support to either side. As for my “mealymouthed” conclusion, Fernholz basically gets it right: I support, albeit with some ambivalence, a kind of soft affirmative action on elite campuses for the sort of Americans — Southern and Midwestern, blue-collar and rural — who are much more likely than the current population of the Ivy League to be conservative white Christians.
This doesn’t mean that I want to see some kind of “evangelical quota” at elite schools. It just means that I regard greater religious and ideological diversity as a likely (and happy) consequence of greater socioeconomic and geographic diversity. And not, I should note, because white Christians from Montana or Alabama are hapless victims whose sufferings need to be redressed. It’s just that so long as top-tier colleges claim to be in the business of molding a suitable national elite for a country as vast and varied as the United States (as opposed to just admitting the absolute smartest people possible, regardless of race or class or ideology or geography), they have an obligation to extend their idea of “diversity” to encompass many more factors than just race and ethnicity. (The same goes for elite faculties, too, but that’s another story …)
Adam Serwer at The American Prospect:
Douthat never actually suggests that the admissions process relies too much on factors that favor the wealthy — he merely suggests that minorities are getting too many of the scraps and that lower-class whites are therefore correct to fight with people of color for the gristle being tossed under the table. Douthat never questions — and these days few do — the implicit size of the pie retained by the wealthy, as though being born into the type of family that can afford to send you to Andover is a matter of individual merit. It’s possible to argue that both African Americans and lower-class whites are underrepresented on elite college campuses — not exactly hotbeds of racial diversity either — but Douthat doesn’t make that argument.
More frustrating is the way Douthat uses this single study to conclude that Buchanan — and by extension the conservative grievance mongers arguing that there’s an “advantage” to being a Latino jurist given Sonia Sotomayor‘s rise to the Supreme Court (percentage of Supreme Court Justices who have been Latino, .009 percent, percentage who have been white, 98 percent), that there’s some truth about the idea that the Obama Justice Department won’t protect white voters (false) and the idea that the Affordable Care Act was “reparations” (47 percent of the uninsured are white) are actually onto something about white Christians being discriminated against. It seems a little odd to extrapolate from this single study on affirmative action in college admissions that white Christians as a whole are having a harder time in life than everyone else, given that a white guy just getting out of prison has an easier time finding a job than a black man who has never been. If you’re white and lower class, by the time you get out of college you’ve picked up enough to know how to fake the requisite social markers — if you’re black, you’re still black.
When you get down to it, Douthat’s right that being a white Christian is actually easier if you have oodles of money, but when has being broke in America, regardless of race, ever been easy? Douthat’s implicit conclusion isn’t really that we should expand the share of the pie at elite institutions to the underrepresented as a whole; it’s to wave his foam finger for one group of underrepresented people over another.
Daniel Foster at NRO:
I’m disappointed by both Tim Fernholz’s and Adam Serwer’s takes on Ross Douthat’s column yesterday. Responding to empirical evidence that poor, white Christians are among the least well-represented “minority” groups at elite colleges, they both more or less default to saying ‘yeah, well, it sucks to be poor.’
Except Douthat’s point is that, when it comes to elite college admissions, it sucks more to be poor and white than it does to be poor and black, and a fortiori, that poor blacks’ chances improve as they get poorer, while just the opposite is the case for whites. Either Serwer and Fernholz are okay with this or they aren’t. But they won’t say, leaving us to assume that they view it as acceptable collateral damage in the battle for diversity.
They also dismiss as so much whining the feelings of alienation from “elite” culture felt by poor, working class whites — at their peril and ours.
I know, this sounds dangerously mushy-headed for a card-carrying conservative, and I’m not saying our top national priority should be the self-esteem of blue-collar whites. But that poor whites feel disenfranchised from participation in “elite” institutions is a problem whether or not they actually are, all the more so since we live with a political culture that tells them they have nothing to complain about. In some cases, feelings of discrimination become consequentially indistinguishable from actual discrimination. So when smarmy liberals look at poor gun-and-religion-clinging whites and ask what’s the matter with Kansas, this is part of the answer.
Arnold Kling, going back to the original subject:
I put the essay in a class that I call “neo-reactionary.” Other writing in this vein ranges from the best-selling (Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism) to the obscure (Mencius Moldbug’s old blog posts) to somewhere in between (Arthur Brooks’ The Battle, which I still have not read.)I call the outlook neo-reactionary because it is sort of like neoconservatism with the gloves off.
Some core beliefs that I share with the neo-reactionaries:
1. At its worst, Progressive ideology is an ideology of power. It justifies the technocratic few infringing on the liberty and dignity of the many.
2. At their worst, Progressives are intellectual bullies. They delegitimize rather than attempt to persuade those who disagree with them.
3. American government has become structurally less libertarian and less democratic in recent decades. For example, Codevilla writes,
The grandparents of today’s Americans (132 million in 1940) had opportunities to serve on 117,000 school boards. To exercise responsibilities comparable to their grandparents’, today’s 310 million Americans would have radically to decentralize the mere 15,000 districts into which public school children are now concentrated. They would have to take responsibility for curriculum and administration away from credentialed experts, and they would have to explain why they know better. This would involve a level of political articulation of the body politic far beyond voting in elections every two years.
Amen. I live in one of those mega-school districts, which gives unbridled power to the teachers’ unions. The widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced has much more on this theme. (Note to intellectual bullies: please do not confuse nostalgia for decentralized school districts with nostalgia for “separate but equal.”)Where I part company with the neo-reactionaries (and for all I know, Jonah Goldberg parts company a bit as well) is on the following:
1. Brink Lindsey has a point. The Progressives are not wrong on everything, and conservatives are not right on everything.
2. Tyler Cowen has a point. Manichean, confrontational politics is a dubious project. Questioning your own beliefs can be more valuable than issuing a call to arms to those who share them.
3. Tyler Cowen has another point. Do not think that the majority of people are libertarians. Both Codevilla and Arthur Brooks assert, with evidence I regard as flimsy at best, that two-thirds of the country is on their neo-reactionary side. I strongly doubt that, and even if it were true I do not believe that democratic might makes right.
I think that ideology is partly endogenous. I do not think that it is an accident that an ideology of rational technocratic control grew up as America urbanized and as enormous scale economies emerged in the industries made possible by the internal combustion engine, the electric motor, radio, and television. I do not think it is an accident that the Progressive ideology will be challenged as the Internet starts to alter the economy and society, reducing the comparative advantage of mass production and mass media while increasing the comparative advantage of local autonomy and individual expression. The Internet serves as a constant reminder of the wisdom of Hayek.
We live in interesting times.
UPDATE: More Douthat
Tim Fernholz and Conn Carroll at Bloggingheads
UPDATE: More Douthat