One of the ironies of American political discussion in the last generation or so — indeed, of the last century — has been that, for all our boasting and braggadocio about being a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, it is almost impossible to find any significant American social thinker who really believes it. Power elites, managerial elites, cultural elites, media elites, cognitive elites, the “mandarins,” the “new class,” the “rich and the super-rich,” the “overclass,” and probably half a dozen other, similar minotaurs have crept through the labyrinthine political sociology of the last fifty years, and eventually each one has escaped its academic cavern and roamed at large through the meadows and hamlets of American journalism. The entire history of social and political thought in the United States since at least the time of Charles Beard’s dubious claim that the U. S. Constitution was the product of a cabal of self-interested property owners has been one long retreat from the Jeffersonian egalitarianism that supposedly rested at the center of our founding national mythology.
The constitutional prohibition of the granting of titles of nobility is strong evidence that the Framers and most of their contemporaries did not want anything like the ruling aristocracies of Europe to emerge in this country and that they believed such powdered and privileged orders were as unnecessary as they were undesirable. But if any of the twentieth-century theories of elites and social and political stratification has merit, the Framers, at least for once, were wrong. Regardless of the names they take and the wigs they wear, aristocracies — minorities that control the political, economic, and cultural life of the societies in which they live — are inherent in the nature of human society, and the oratorical piddle about all men having been created equal does not alter this ineluctable fact.
The inevitability of elites and of the inequality of human beings and human society was a fact conveniently forgotten by some of the Framers, some of their contemporaries, and many of their successors, here and in Europe, until in the late nineteenth century various Italian social theorists, mainly Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, began to rediscover what was then dubbed the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” and to explain and explore its implications. Whatever illusions the eggheads of the Enlightenment convinced themselves of, anyone who has ever actually run any kind of human organization, from a bridge club to a multinational empire, knows the law is true. Human beings do not get organized spontaneously, and things do not happen unless someone decides to make them happen. In the case of the bridge club, someone has to decide who will be members and who won’t, when and where it will meet, who will provide refreshments, and all the other trivia that most of those who eventually show up never suspect have to be done. Most human beings have neither the time, the interest, the opportunity, or the ability to think about these matters, take them in hand, and actually do them, and if, as Pareto remarked, “history is a graveyard of aristocracies,” then human social life is an endless record of bridge clubs that never played a single trump because no one ever bothered to decide on a time and place to meet.
Pareto and Mosca crafted what today is known as the “classical theory of elites” largely in response to the egalitarianism of Karl Marx, which was itself an extension of Enlightenment egalitarianism gone mad. One implication of the classical theory of elites is that the “classless society” is no less a creature of mythology than the Minotaur himself, but another is that the ancient division of the forms of government into the three basic types of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy is also wrong. One man cannot rule any more than most men can rule, and behind even the most ostentatious Ozymandias or the noisiest rabble there lie the ranks of your friendly neighborhood oligarchy — priests, warriors, clerks, merchants, landed magnates, capitalists, bureaucrats, or secret police. In classical elite theory, there is really only one form of government, ever — oligarchy, the rule of the few — and the other forms are simply different costumes that different kinds of oligarchies don depending on their internal structures, interests, and circumstances. In the aborning democracies of the late nineteenth century, in Italy and elsewhere, as in their more mature descendants a hundred years later, this was a school of thought that was fairly easy to formulate and sustain, and the divers experiments in classless societies founded since Pareto and Mosca wrote have yielded results that are not exactly incompatible with their ideas.
Today, the ideas of Pareto and Mosca have entered the language even of such advanced social thinkers as Dan Quayle and Bob Dole, who instruct us in the iniquities of the “cultural elite” and the “Hollywood elite,” and indeed everyone seems to have his own favorite elite as a perennial bugaboo. Hence the catalogue of elites mentioned earlier, and there is a vast academic literature on the subject of elites in American politics and society, social and political stratification, and the various kinds of elites that do or do not exist. One conventional academic distinction that still prevails is that while there certainly are different kinds of elites, there is not and cannot be any such animal as a “ruling class,” at least in advanced industrialized, democratic societies.
It is now a commonplace of sociology and political science that elites do indeed exist, though there is endless quibbling over their exact nature and interests, but virtually no one claims that a genuine ruling class exists or prevails. The distinction between an elite and a ruling class is indeed an important one. An elite is simply a dominant minority within a particular field — business, politics, culture, religion, sports, etc. — while a ruling class is a unified dominant minority that prevails over many different or all fields. The “media elite,” for example, may dominate the major newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting networks, but no one would claim that the same elite also controls large corporations, universities, the political parties, the federal bureaucracy, or other pastures of power where the high and the mighty happily disport themselves. Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of mass democracy in the nineteenth century, it is held, ruling classes did prevail, certainly in European and British societies, where landed and usually titled nobilities monopolized political office, the church, the army and navy, and such media as then existed. But in our own happy and progressive days of flush toilets and electronic voting booths, such monopolization is not possible. The most we can have are elites in different fields that are distinct from each other and are often in conflict with each other, and while that’s not the kind of equality we’d really like or the kind Marx and his Enlightenment forebears chattered about, it’s close enough, at least as long as the elites are reasonably open to new members and are sufficiently competitive with each other that they do not collude against the non-elite parts of society.
This version of elite theory, known generally as “democratic elitism” or “pluralism,” was closely associated with the political liberalism of the 1950s, was the dominant school of thought among American social scientists until the rise of New Left Marxism in the 1960s, and was particularly useful in explaining why, whenever the American rabble got out of control in movements like those centered around Sen. Joseph McCarthy, elites rather than the people should be in charge. Its major proponents included the sociologists Talcott Parsons, Daniel Bell, Suzanne Keller, and political scientist Robert Dahl, and echoes of it are to be found in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, George F. Kennan, Walter Lippmann, and the early John Kenneth Galbraith, among others.
Whether the theory of “democratic elitism” was ever true, whether distinct, competing, and reasonably open elites ever actually performed in the neat Newtonian waltz they were supposed to be dancing, has never been very clear, but today, whether they once existed or not, there are clear signs that they don’t any more, that those elites are beginning to come together to form what can only be described as a ruling class, of the kind eighteenth-century oligarchs would have envied.
One major problem with the theory of “democratic elitism” has always been that its proponents tend to assume that things really are the way they are supposed to be and that they seldom troubled to look beneath the surface of political and social competition to discover the underlying unity that supposedly competing elites display. Democratic elitists often cited conflicts between “business” and “government,” for example, to show that each checked and balanced the other, never grasping (or at least never revealing) that the supposed conflict between them more often disguised close cooperation, that government regulatory agencies were often staffed by the same people who were supposed to be regulated and who in fact merely used government power to promote the interests of the regulated industry against its smaller competitors. Nor did they grasp that the “adversarial” thrust of the major media and cultural institutions was unilaterally directed against older, rival elites and their institutions rather than against the leadership of large corporations, labor unions, major universities, or major figures in the political establishment. Archie Bunker was a figure to be ridiculed; Jackie Kennedy was not, much less the repellent brood of gangsters into which she married. Even in the heyday of “democratic elitism,” then, the elites stuck together a good deal more than the theory said they were supposed to.
If their collusion was apparent even then, it is even more obvious today, and the kind of conflict that does exist — between the political parties or the “competition” between multinational oligopolies, for example — are by no means unusual even in what are clearly known to be ruling classes. In eighteenth-century England, the political and cultural conflicts between Whig and Tory, Court and Country, were no less real and no less bitter than those between Republican and Democrat, Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown, today; but no one imagines that the conflicts of the Augustan Age were anything more than family squabbles within what Disraeli called the increasingly monolithic “Venetian oligarchy” of the British ruling class. Today, the essential unity of the elites is obvious not only in such shadow-boxing as the national election just concluded (far calmer than any eighteenth-century contest for a seat in the House of Commons) but also in the incestuous and self-serving structure of the elites in government, the economy, and the dominant culture. Each elite supports the others; their members share the same ideas, values, tastes, and manners; and they all collaborate in smothering anyone or anything that makes an audible squeak against the ruling class and its interests.
Genuinely adversarial dissent is discouraged or actively condemned, while books espousing ideas that question the common world-view and ideology of the ruling class are banned, candidates who challenge the political monopoly are systematically smeared and excluded from the official debates, and political groups that dissent from or challenge the monopolization of power are branded as “extremist” in the ruling class media and subjected to political and legal harassment and persecution by the ruling class police apparatus. Meanwhile, the policies and ideologies that each “competing elite” follows or peddles reinforce and support each other, so that even the illusion of competition and balance begins to shrivel. What stands out today as noticeable about the elites of business, government, and the dominant culture is not any fiction about the “countervailing power” they represent but their increasing unification and cooperation in defense of their common identity and common interests.
The process of oligarchization is evident also in the emergence of the typical traits of a ruling class, its class consciousness, manifested in the appearance of snobbery and the evolution of codes of dress, speech, manners, taste, and lifestyle that distinguish the ruling class from those outside it. In late twentieth-century American society it is increasingly easy to pick out of a crowd those Americans who are in the ruling class and those who are not, and only a brief conversation is necessary to confirm your intuition. The distinctions between them are only in part those of education, speech, and dress, and any extended conversation at once reveals the attitudinal gulf that separates the two orders of society.
The British ruling class of the eighteenth century was lucky, and almost unique, in escaping the usual fate of an aristocracy that solidifies itself into a unified oligarchy and exercises social and political power exclusively in pursuit of its own interests, with little concern for the interests of the larger society from which its power derives. But the British aristocracy, for all its flaws, remained a healthier class than its continental counterparts, which eventually fell to the firing squads and guillotines of new elites. There is little indication that our own emerging ruling class exhibits its virtues or even some of the flaws that helped it preserve its power. Efficient tyranny requires a certain amount of strong character, and the very structure of the American ruling class tends to weed out anyone who exhibits the traits necessary for the construction and maintenance of serious tyranny. That failing constitutes a major vulnerability of the new oligarchy, its incapacity to grasp fully the nature of power and what the exercise of power demands of those who wield it. Whether that failing is a vice or a virtue, it is certainly a weakness that those social forces outside the new ruling class can exploit to help send the American oligarchy to the same graveyard where all aristocracies eventually wind up.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in January 1996.