American politics is involved in something of a revolution. What else can explain the surprising success of Trump’s bombast and the remarkable tenacity of Bernie Sanders’ earnestness? Now two books offer analytical insight into this matter.[†] One comes from the right and the other from the left. Both make the same argument. The nation, they argue, has lost faith in the leadership of a meritocracy that it once held in high esteem. People have come to realize that instead of serving the nation’s interest, these best minds from the best schools, the ruling class one book calls them, has failed to deliver. Worse, they have used their positions of power to advance a self-serving agenda, often at the public’s expense. Worse still, this ruling elite has pursued the culture wars to secure a monopoly of power, trying at every turn to destroy the main bulwarks of public opposition, traditional culture and religion.
Events surrounding the 2007-09 financial crisis offer a particularly vivid illustration of how some these matters have gone. The crisis itself speaks to the general failure of this elite. In banking, industry, and government, all the presumed intelligence and superior education of this ruling class seems to have conspired to bring the nation to the calamity it suffered. Legislation, without a thought to consequences, had for years pressured banks to issue mortgages to people who could not pay. The elite in banking found ways to comply and still make money by packaging the questionable loans to sell off to small savers and less clever folk in pension funds, also without a thought to the consequences. The brilliant souls at the government-sponsored agencies, among them the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), facilitated the process by dealing heavily in these packages of bad debt, while the regulators found ways to look the other way. All the members of this elite got what they wanted as the nation’s financial structure become increasingly fragile.
When the crisis broke, this class’ self-seeking conspiracy became still more evident. All those in positions of power claimed that a remedy required extraordinary action, consisting largely of putting enormous amounts of money at their disposal. The Federal government, under the guise of stimulating the economy, transferred billions in taxpayer funds to the special interests that had helped those in power secure their positions. The Federal Reserve bought still more packages of questionable assets from the negligent bankers, effectively socializing the risks the clever financial operators had taken. Taxpayer funds, too, found their way into the largest financial institutions. The best minds in academia, the nurturers of this ruling elite, praised these actions to a man and woman, as did the best and the brightest in the commentariate.
History will long remain uncertain whether circumstances required these unprecedented measures. What is painfully clear, however, is that these strenuous efforts helped those in the power elite keep their enviable incomes and their positions of influence, all while millions outside this ruling class lost their jobs and countless smaller firms, with weaker class connections, folded. No one in government suffered any blame or was forced to resign. Most CEOs of larger firms kept their jobs. Corporate boards of directors hardly changed. As if to underline the collusion, subsequent “reforms” have enshrined such protections into law. Look at the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. Its designation of a too-big-to-fail category of financial institution gives the elite running these firms security against bankruptcy and great competitive advantages over smaller financial institutions where management comes from less privileged classes.
Such self-serving is, if anything, more vicious in the culture wars. Here the power struggle goes to something even more important than incomes and job security. Because this ruling elite legitimizes its position in power through claims of superior intelligence and enlightenment, it must hammer on this crucial distinction continually. So it characterizes the general public as bunch of dolts who could not manage their own lives without direction. It refuses to brook even the least resistance to its judgments, for to do so would implicitly admit that someone else can think effectively for himself or herself. It cannot even argue with those who resist, for that would give these others too much credit for independent thought. Its only recourse then is to ridicule and otherwise discredit any who balk at its direction by, for instance, calling them racists or xenophobes or simply backward. Worse, the ruling class sees its position threatened by any practice or institution that in any way bolsters contrary thought. Traditional culture and religion get special attention, since they do the best job of bolstering.
President Obama has tipped his hand on this matter any number of times. A most egregious example arose during the 2008 campaign, when, as a candidate, he told a well-heeled San Francisco audience that many in the rest of the country were incapable of coping with the modern world and so “cling to their guns and Bibles.” It would have been hard to be more condescending. Other centers of elite power are even less careful than the president was. They regularly express their contempt for any who would resist elite example and direction. In the New York financial sector, where your correspondent spent much of his career, a person can earn suspicion from one’s colleagues just by showing respect for members of the general public. The contempt has gone so far that bankers and money managers entirely forget whose money they are moving and act as if it is simply a vehicle through which they can make money for themselves.
On the issues of the day, these financial people, like other members of their class, simply and often derisively dismisses any opinion formed outside elite circles. When the Tea Party first gained prominence, for instance, one would have thought that financial people would have engaged with the issues, government spending and taxation on which the Tea Party dwelt. Instead, people in financial circles glibly described people in the movement as racists and nativists, not because they necessarily believed it or had evidence but because it gave them an excuse to ignore what these people were saying. To their mind, it could not possibly be interesting. Even today, any effort to inject a more nuanced view into conversation evokes a personal attack, frequently with the suggestion that the questioner might be a racist, too, or, worse, unworthy of a place in the elite. The tendency to dismiss anything except received elite opinion has actually driven church goers in New York financial circles to hide the fact in order to avoid a subtle ostracism and suspicions that they may not really belong to the ruling elite.
Such attitudes have certainly prevailed among all in the ruling class throughout the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The legislation itself reveals the elite’s compulsion to direct an infantilize others. It not only designates what medical procedures and practices the government-linked insurance will cover but it goes on to itemize what practices and procedures people and employers must buy. When some, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, have balked at certain provisions, the ruling elite in Washington has refused to acknowledge any legitimate basis for the objections. To do so would have raised questions about the elite’s monopoly on intelligence and insight and given ammunition to others who would rather not yield to its judgements. Since it is still too soon in the power struggle for Washington to outlaw The Little Sisters, they have proposed cosmetic instead of substantive accommodations, while continuing to dismiss resistance as unreasonable and akin to medieval prejudice.
Treatment of the LBGT agenda is, if anything, more obvious. The elite really cares little about LBGT problems, but it sees in them a way to overawe those who still look to traditional culture for guidance. Take the school lavatory embroglio. Anyone who has had contact with teenage girls knows the intense angst most of them would suffer if a teenage boy entered their toilet to relieve himself, whatever sex he claimed as his identification. Because traditional culture supports these young women’s claims for psychic protection, the ruling elite has dismissed such sensitivities as false. It will hear nothing about alternative solutions, such as separate rest rooms for young people with male parts and female identification, for instance, or perhaps four rest room designations to cover all combinations. Though cumbersome, such arrangements would offer greater equality and not ask one group to suffer for the sake of another. But Washington has little interest in such practical answers. They would fail to serve elite need to discredit traditional mores and those who remain sensitive to them. The girls, so tenderly treated by federal rules on college campuses, get treated in this fight simply as collateral damage.
The matter was even clearer in the way that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a part of the elite if ever there was one, pursued its case against Kim Davis. She is the Kentucky county clerk who refused to sign same sex-marriage licenses on the basis of her Christian faith. Even after the governor eliminated the need for clerks to sign licenses and so made the matter moot by simply erasing the cause of her resistance, the ACLU continued to demand that a judge return Ms. Davis to jail. Since its clients had already got what they wanted and would gain nothing from Ms. Davis’ pain, only three things can explain the ACLU’s continuing vendetta. Either it wanted to punish her for having the temerity its resist the elite’s supposed superior wisdom or it wanted to cow others who would resist elite direction or both. Certainly the ACLU was no longer fighting for its clients.
If Trump and Sanders are an indication, and they no doubt are, a significant portion of the American public wants very much to dislodge this failed and self-serving elite. In Trump and Sanders these voters could not find a more awkward way of accomplishing their goal, but even with stronger champions, the dislodging would be tough. With clear intellectual support emerging increasingly from both the left and the right, however, it seems likely that the fight will go on and also become more effective. Even if not entirely successful, it might at least temper the elite’s arrogance and instill a measure of caution into its actions as well as its attitudes. That in itself would constitute a revolution.
[†] Lawrence B. Lindsey, The Conspiracy of the Ruling Class and Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal.