[Paleopsych] CHE: The Neglect of the American Elite

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The Neglect of the American Elite
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.1


    A paradox has baffled historians and citizens generally for as long as
    there has been a United States of America: How can a nation
    consecrated to freedom and equality nonetheless give rise to great
    hierarchies of power and wealth that undermine the very foundations of
    that extraordinary promise? The paradox is more pointed than that. The
    country is a democracy. The people rule. And yet the people do not
    rule; elites, patriciates, castes, classes have ruled in their stead.
    Sometimes they seem to rule with the people's interests in mind;
    sometimes not.

    Phrases like "ruling class" or "ruling elite" sound a discordant note.
    They do not feel as though they belong in the vocabulary of American
    politics and its history. After all, the very openness, fluidity, and
    social heterogeneity of American society defy anything as exclusive,
    ongoing, and inaccessible as a "ruling class." There is something
    ineffably alien about such notions, stepchildren imported from the
    lingua franca of the Old World and its sedimentary layers of titled
    aristocrats, landed gentry, military castes, and dynastic families. It
    is a cherished American folk belief, after all, that classes do not
    exist or, if they do, are always going out of existence.

    Democratic political institutions, whatever their defects, will not
    tolerate a continuous monopoly of power by a tiny clique of
    self-anointed overlords. And even if such usurpation might be
    attempted, the sheer overwhelming tidal force of the American economy
    would wash it away in an onrushing flood of new enterprise, new
    technology, and new sources of wealth that would inundate the old
    ruling groups and either force them open to rising elements of the
    middle classes or dissolve them entirely. So, too, the ethnic
    promiscuity of American society, its open invitation to people from
    every country and culture to come aboard and grab a share of the
    American dream, inexorably wears away at the internal cohesion, that
    vital complex of shared traditions, beliefs, and customs that any
    ruling milieu depends on for its élan and its sense of entitlement.

    Over the last quarter-century, historians have by and large ceased
    writing about the role of ruling elites in the country's evolution. Or
    if they have taken up the subject, they have done so to argue against
    its salience for grasping the essentials of American political
    history. Yet there is something peculiar about this recent
    intellectual aversion, even if we accept as true the beliefs that
    democracy, social mobility, and economic dynamism have long inhibited
    the congealing of a ruling stratum. This aversion has coincided, after
    all, with one of the largest and fastest-growing disparities in the
    division of income and wealth in American history. We have all grown
    used to characterizing the 1980s and 1990s as the second coming of the
    Gilded Age. "Crony capitalism" has re-entered our everyday political
    vocabulary, a term carrying unsavory associations, suggesting the
    cross-fertilization of privileged economic and political circles in
    open defiance of the normal protocols of democratic politics. Since
    historians, like everybody else, are hardly immune to the subtle
    influence of the pressing issues of their own day, even as they burrow
    deep into the distant past, it is noteworthy that so few have felt the
    urge of late to explore the class dimensions of power in years gone

    That this recent neglect of the way ruling groups formed, exercised
    their power, and came to an end has followed the "social-history
    revolution" of the 1960s also seems peculiar. That revolution
    generated a remarkably fertile outpouring of historical research and
    writing that focused on the experience of oppression going all the way
    back to the colonial origins of the New World and beyond. But the
    meticulous examination of the lives of slaves, immigrants, industrial
    workers, Native Americans, impoverished underclasses, women,
    disenfranchised minorities, and others has, for the most part, not
    concerned itself with the social and political history of those
    presumably responsible for their oppression.

    However valuable and innovative such historical detective work on the
    experiences of the subordinate often was (and is), it drained
    intellectual attention away from the collective lives of the
    superordinate. Of course, these histories treated as axiomatic the
    power and exploitation exercised by upper classes, master races, and
    patriarchs. Beyond that, any more intimate examination of how ruling
    groups coalesced, how they exercised their authority in an ostensibly
    democratic political environment, how they formulated the ideological
    justifications for their empowerment, how they faced up to crises and
    challenges to their supremacy -- those and a dozen other similarly
    intriguing questions often fell from view.

    Neglecting the powerful had not been characteristic of historical work
    before World War II. To the contrary, the story of the ruling elites
    had preoccupied historians for a very long time. Moreover, to talk
    about classes and the struggles between them was common parlance.
    Indeed, for the first 150 years of the nation's life, the language of
    ruling and subordinate social groups defined the contours of one of
    the grand narratives of American history. Measured by the long sweep
    of that history, stretching back into the colonial era, it is the
    recent muting of those concerns about the concentration and exercise
    of power that seems odd. That does not mean that those who once
    stressed such matters were right. But it does mean that a whole set of
    historical metaphors and categories of analysis once taken for granted
    have lost much of their legitimacy.

    Beginning sometime after World War II, and with increasing force in
    the wake of the Reagan "revolution," a gathering consensus concluded
    that events, "History," the impersonal forces of the market, or some
    other analogous abstractions rule, not classes or elites. Certainly
    the cultural cold war helped stigmatize notions of "class struggle"
    and "ruling classes" as so much communist verbiage, a purely
    propagandist rhetoric that failed to capture the more centerless,
    polymorphous, and pluralist makeup of American politics and social

    Yet precisely the opposite conviction runs likes a red thread through
    much of the nation's past. It is virtually impossible to make sense of
    any of the great epochs in American political history or of the
    grander chronicle of democracy in America without coming face to face
    with "Tories," "moneycrats," "the Monster Bank," "the slaveocracy,"
    "robber barons," "plutocrats," "the money trust," "economic
    royalists," "the Establishment," the "power elite," or the
    "military-industrial complex." All those colorful variations echo a
    single theme: that, the fluid and anarchic character of the American
    experience notwithstanding, organized political and social groupings
    have arisen at key junctures in the country's history and have
    succeeded for more or less extended periods of time in exercising
    broad dominion over the nation's political economy and even its
    cultural and social life.

    One might view that rich imagery of the pursuit of power either as a
    reproach or as a vindication of the pursuit of happiness -- a reproach
    insofar as it suggests that the American promise of freedom and
    equality has been a sham and a delusion, a vindication inasmuch as it
    implies that democracy has been a permanent revolution, forever
    embattled against those who have tried to abrogate that promise.
    Either way, America is depicted as densely populated with an
    assortment of social groups that all seem to behave suspiciously like
    ruling classes or elites.

    Survey the landmarks of the national drama. Every president of
    enduring reputation up to John F. Kennedy is remembered for some vital
    crusade against a usurping or entrenched elite. Washington and
    Jefferson overthrew the minions of the British monarchy and then
    fended off attempts at aristocratic counterrevolution by homegrown
    Tories. Andrew Jackson waged war against a "Monster Bank" that
    presumed to monopolize the credit resources of a fledgling nation and
    turn enterprising citizens into its vassals. Lincoln purged the nation
    of its mortal sin by extirpating the "slaveocracy." Teddy Roosevelt
    unleashed rhetorical thunderbolts against those "malefactors of great
    wealth" whose gargantuan corporate combines showed no regard for the
    public welfare and bought and sold senators and congressmen like so
    many pigs at a market. Woodrow Wilson promised, if swept into office,
    to take on the "money trust," that financial octopus whose tentacles
    were strangling to death the economic opportunity and democratic
    independence that were every citizen's birthright. In the midst of the
    greatest calamity since the Civil War, FDR chased the "money changers
    from the temple" and declared that his New Deal would henceforth
    police and punish the "economic royalists" who had brought on the
    Great Depression. Even the mild-mannered Dwight Eisenhower left office
    cautioning the country against the overweening power of the
    "military-industrial complex."

    In the wake of the conservative intellectual ascendancy that
    accompanied the rise of Ronald Reagan, however, what had once been a
    main current of the country's historiography became little more than a
    tributary. It is true that plenty of books have appeared over the last
    decade or so revisiting the lives of legendary business titans such as
    Jay Gould, Edward H. Harriman, J. Pierpont Morgan, and John D.
    Rockefeller. But nearly without exception, they steer clear of
    treating those figures as emblematic of some ruling elite. Nowadays it
    may seem old-fashioned, against the American grain, or even subversive
    (pace President George W. Bush's warning that to criticize his tax
    cuts for the wealthy was to indulge in "class warfare") to talk about
    classes, about the struggles between them, about something as exotic
    and alien as a ruling elite. But it is not. The corpus of thinking
    about hierarchy and democracy that extends all the way back to the
    first days of the Republic has left behind a series of questions still
    worth pondering.

    We need to focus on the variety of economic elites that have ruled, or
    attempted to rule, the nation. We need to look at the different ways
    in which elites have constituted their political, ideological, and
    social worlds; examine the internal fissures and external challenges
    that have threatened and sometimes undermined those worlds; explore
    the special problems facing elite pretensions to political power in a
    democracy. That requires a focus on instability and change as integral
    features of elite rule in America.

    One fundamental transformation involves the etiology of power. In the
    era of Adams and Jefferson, government seemed the principal incubator
    of elite aspirations to overweening authority. By the time of the
    Industrial Revolution, however, civil society, in particular the
    centers of greatest economic power, had supplanted government as the
    breeding ground of aristocratic hubris. Government had become either
    the servitor of powers greater than itself or the inspirational hope
    of those who saw it as the only mechanism capable of wrestling the
    country's illicit ruling cliques to the ground. That great sea change
    in where power was rooted and on whose behalf it might be deployed
    arose in most societies undergoing the transition from precapitalist
    to capitalist mechanisms of wealth creation. Moreover it was itself
    organically connected to an equally profound change in the way elites
    organized and conceived of themselves.

    In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, elites configured
    themselves as an aristocratic caste whose position rested on lineage,
    inbreeding, and various forms of social exclusivity. Even apart from
    their real and personal property, their inherited cultural capital
    commanded deference from those not so blessed. Over time, those
    boundaries blurred along with the explosive expansion and
    differentiation of the economy. Those occupying the commanding heights
    of the economy and the political system began to look more like a
    class, open to -- even forced open by -- newcomers of more plebeian
    origin. That new social fluidity further complicated attempts to
    discern just who ruled and how. That was emphatically the case,
    moreover, as rising corporate industrial and finance capital overcame
    or merged with more settled and dynastic forms of landed and
    mercantile wealth.

    That proliferation of power centers, in turn, generated internal
    divisions that could take on cultural and political as well as
    economic shape. Most significant, it produced a fissure within the
    "leisure class" between those absorbed by their own self-interest and
    self-regard, psychologically and politically deaf and blind to the
    economic mayhem and social antagonisms accumulating around them, and a
    fraction of that same universe -- people such as the Roosevelts, for
    example, or those to-the-manner-born "Establishment" figures of the
    next generation -- who self-consciously took up the challenge of
    ruling on behalf of the whole commonwealth, even if that meant now and
    then risking the enmity of their social peers.

    Within those circles, a sense of social trusteeship subdued the
    instinct for self-indulgence. Here the possibility of collaborating
    with subordinate segments of the body politic -- the labor movement,
    for example -- was actively explored, leaving the makeup, not to
    mention the verifiable existence, of a ruling group even more
    intriguing to ascertain. Fissures that profound took on measurable
    visible form only during mortal crises. One thinks of the
    constitutional period, the Civil War, the political firestorm ignited
    by populist and antitrust passions at the turn of the 19th century,
    the Great Depression, and the defeat in Vietnam and the end of U.S.
    world economic supremacy in the 1970s.

    What is fascinating about those occurrences is that they show how
    dominant groups faced up to the challenge and either succumbed in war
    or public ignominy or else surmounted it, whether through pure
    self-assertion or shrewd political compromise. Whatever the outcome,
    the life and death of ruling elites is one of the enduring themes that
    run through the long literature of wealth and political power in
    America. It remains so today as the country witnesses the tribulations
    of its latest ruling group, born at the dawn of Reagan's "morning in
    America" and now struggling to master what may be either the high noon
    or the twilight of the new American Century.

    Steve Fraser is a writer and historian living in New York. Gary
    Gerstle is a professor of history at the University of Maryland at
    College Park. This essay is adapted from the book they edited, Ruling
    America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, published this
    month by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2005 by the President
    and Fellows of Harvard College.

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