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The Elite Class in America: Explaining Trump and Setting the Agenda for Democratic Revival

Karl Marx is noted for the theory that capitalism breeds distinct social classes. Evidence came from his observation of 19th century England and Germany. Marx’ followers early on saw United States as an exception. They claimed lack of barriers to mobility militated against permanent classes in America. Constraining capitalism rather than overthrowing it became the objective. That approach informed Progressivism, the New Deal, and it remains in vogue today.

That said, we do have a semi-permanent class in America today––a ruling class of elites who are products of our university system and whose primary ideology is that they and not the people of this country know best. Today the elite control the federal government and our universities. Even Congress is discounted as we see in Barack Obama’s usurpation of powers that previously required Congressional approval.

While early social scientists were not elitists, their theories provided the backbone of today’s elitist ideology:

  • States and localities are too parochial (i.e., too much under the control of interest groups) to deal with important, national issues.
  • Policy implementation requires an entrenched civil service at the national level.
  • The market place inevitably fails to provide for the less privileged and less able and thus must be controlled by the federal government.

Today’s elites believe those who resist the policies promulgated by the federal government are social misfits––racists, bigots, religious zealots, and people trying to hold on to undeserved privilege.

The elite class has found a home in the Democratic Party. While claiming to be the party of inclusion, its policies favor those who have emerged from the chosen channels to claim their place as movers and shakers.

Symbolic of the gap between the elites and the rest of the country is the drive to legalize marijuana. While our nation’s inner cities are ravaged by the drug trade, which results in gang violence and thousands of lives lost to addiction, the elite want to be able to enjoy their pot parties. Visit the campuses of the top-ranked colleges and universities if you have any doubts. As a result, instead of stopping the traffic of heroin and other drugs at our borders, which could be done if made a priority, our legislators protect drug use by the elites and make a superficial effort to conduct the war on drugs.

The problems we face as a society today as a result of the existence of an elite class stem from an ideology/philosophy that conflicts with the principles upon which our country was founded. They justify their power as being deserved by merit, by electoral victories and the application of social science methodologies to address societal problems. But national electoral victories are won with the help of a media industry driven by the same elitist ideology. Then, when push comes to shove in making policy, social science practice and technological potential get set aside. Ideology wins out, which is why political appointees and not civil servants make the ultimate decisions in the federal government.

Donald Trump vs. the Elites

Those who rail against Donald Trump’s views see those who tell pollsters they plan to vote for him as part of the misfit class. In fact, however, the vast majority of his supporters are neither racists nor nutjobs, but people who recognize that their voices are not represented either in Washington or Hollywood. Rather than trying to protect their privileges, Trump supporters (as well as those who favor Carson, Cruz, and some of the other GOP candidates) lack the privileges enjoyed by members of the elite class. Trump supporters are not graduates of America’s elite colleges, they don’t hold high level positions in government or academia, they are not on the boards of huge corporations; nor do they earn six figure salaries at not-for-profit organizations or cultural institutions.

Trumpism represents a problem for the Republican Party because the Party’s leadership shares in the benefits of elitist power. They hold down positions where they earn high salaries, have a voice (every once in a while) on policy, and can avoid the worst of society’s detritus––urban slums and crime, rural poverty, and social malaise.

The past two national elections saw the GOP lose when they nominated moderate candidates who did not excite enough of the disaffected population to defeat the dream candidate. While nominating Trump or one of the other conservatives might energize the disaffected, it also might lead to the kind of defeat that happened in 1964 when the party’s leadership failed to pull out the stops for conservative Barry Goldwater. The sad part of Trumpism is that people accept slogans for policies and seem to want a savior to solve everything for them instead of becoming an ongoing part of the decision-making process.

Pundits say the GOP cannot win behind a conservative––however you want to define that––because they will inevitably lose the minority and female vote. They report the ethnic balance of the country is shifting towards minorities who at the moment see their futures and those of their children tied to the Democratic philosophy.

To win, the GOP must find a way to disabuse minority and female voters of the elitist implications of the Democratic Party’s philosophy. They must ask black Christians why they stick with the party that is hostile to Christianity; why blacks who live in depressed cities ruled by the Democrat Party continue to vote Democratic; why Hispanics who are in this country legally support a party that rewards illegal entry; and why women who chose a traditional role in the family are disparaged in the media?

Does Democracy Have A Future in America?

Other commentators have identified the existence of an elite class in America. One observer, Christopher Lasch, author of The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, which came out more than twenty years ago, asked whether democracy has a future. Odd question? Not at all. What Lasch is getting at is that holding elections does not signify the existence of a democratic culture––one in which an educated citizenry determines policy and elected officials represent the interests of those who elected them.

Today’s elite hold a view of democracy in direct conflict with that of our country’s founders. The Founders believed democratic habits of self-reliance, responsibility and initiative were necessary for the establishment of ‘self-governing communities’––not an all-powerful federal government that usurps power from localities, the states and even Congress.

If the Republican Party, independents, or a third party would compete with the elite ruling class, they will have to start at the grass roots level, offering opportunities to average citizens to participate in a process that is not dominated by people at the top. Political “reforms” like open primaries undercut the role of local leaders and should be opposed. Open primaries are another victory for elitism couched as a democratic reform.

The second component of a campaign to challenge the elite is to overcome the mainstream media’s elitist bias. Opponents of elitism need to do more than develop their own alternative media outlets. Those are necessary, but not sufficient. The mainstream needs to be challenged, not catered to. Some of this year’s candidates have been willing to take on the hostile questioning of media chosen moderators. The notion of impartial moderators is in itself a function of elitist ideology. Opposition candidates should only participate in debates where the format allows them to speak to the issues and where “moderators” represent their supporters. Even if the mainstream media fails to cover such debates, people interested in change will find refreshing a willingness to bypass the networks and will tune in.

Third, a campaign against elitism cannot be confined to election cycles. Political activism has to be a 365-day effort, including representation at government hearings, filing freedom of information requests, court challenges, and protest events. As the Tea Party demonstrated, an active opposition movement doesn’t require a national governing group or a ton of money. It does require, however, people who are willing to stand up and speak out. The leaders of tomorrow need to get engaged today without regard to the outcome of the 2016 election. Elitism has a firm grip on power in America. It will take years to re-democratize America.

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Art in the Service of Evil

Pretend you’re a museum director and a painting of a lovely mountain scene is offered to you. The painter is Adolph Hitler. Do you buy it and display it as art?

Let’s try another example. You work for a major publishing house and someone comes to you with a diary that has just been discovered–-a detailed first hand account written by a slaveholder, which includes descriptions of his punishment techniques. Do you buy it and publish it?

Is something that has all the attributes of art––a painting, a novel, a piece of music––worthy of being displayed or performed if it has a direct connection to evil, either through the artist or the subject?

Now try this one: You’re the general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera and you are offered for your upcoming season an opera that tells the story from the hijackers’ point of view of the hijacking of a cruise ship and the killing of a passenger?

I made up the first examples; the last one is true. The Met, has decided they will perform John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” in the fall of 2014, which they justify by typical liberal relativist thinking.

According to the Met’s director of customer relations, the composer “has said that in writing the opera he tried to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for the humanity in the terrorists, as well as in their victims.”

By the logic, it must also be acceptable to look for the humanity in a concentration camp guard, a slave holder, or a man responsible for the deaths of millions, and, if embodied in a work of art created by “one of America’s greatest living composers,” it is a legitimate choice for an institution whose works will be seen by millions world-wide.

But what happens when one looks for the humanity of murders? It’s not as if this doesn’t color one’s portrait of the events, perhaps by taking the focus away from their actions and pointing instead to what made them turn out that way.

For the title of his opera Adams chose “The Death of Klinghoffer” not “The Murder of Klinghoffer”––muting the evil and suggesting the manner of Klinghoffer’s death was in some way justifiable.

All acts are justifiable if we look for the humanity in the perpetrators. Hitler must have been justified in hating Jews because a Jew didn’t like his paintings. The young man who murdered seven and injured thirteen in California recently was upset because he didn’t have a girl friend. He felt justified in his actions.

Adams has the right to tell whatever story he wishes to tell, but doesn’t the Met have an obligation to consider the consequences of their choices? After all, they can only choose a limited number of operas to perform each season. In this case the opera should have been rejected not just because it distorts the facts of the case and borders on being anti-Semitic, although those faults ought to be sufficient, but because it makes a case for the commission of murder whenever one believes one’s cause is great.

The Met has chosen to be on the side of the slaveholder, the concentration camp guard, the ethnic cleanser, and the young man who feels rejected by society. For shame.

Why Socialism will never arrive. A review of The Impossible Dream

Bernard Johnpoll with Lillian Johnpoll, The Impossible Dream. The Rise and Demise of the American Left, Greenwood Press, 1981

I was fortunate to have taken a class with Professor Johnpoll in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at the University at Albany. He was sui generis––a cigar smoking, iconoclastic, child of Communists who admired people who flirted with the Left while understanding their dreams were impossible.

Why impossible? The conundrum socialists have been unable to solve for two hundred years is how to get from present circumstances to the “cooperative commonwealth.” Further, they never reached a consensus on what the cooperative commonwealth looked like, which made it easy for the leaders of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions to get away with calling their un-cooperative societies socialism.

Bernard Johnpoll dissects the history of the main socialist leaders, movements, and organizations in the U.S. from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. Based on extensive use of primary and secondary sources, he documents his thesis that these organizations and movements were bound to fail despite their high ideals.

The Long History of Protesting Capitalism

From the early days of industrial capitalism in England and the United States there have been people who chafed at the negative side effects of the “industrial revolution”––the lack of restraints on working conditions, wages and output that resulted in a system that chewed up people in the name of profit.

Not that pre-industrial societies lacked poverty or suffering, but what prevented the rise of reform movements in those years was an absence of a clear way to a better world. Once technology, starting with steam engines, introduced the possibility of a world where you were not tied to your previous station in life, reformers and reform movements sprouted like dandelions.

The primary critics of early capitalism were craftsmen whose skills were becoming irrelevant in the face of a new competitive environment where products could be produced in large numbers and sold for less than hand-crafted items. Combining religious images like the golden rule with visions of how industry could be re-organized, Robert Owen and others preached the coming of a society built around cooperative communities. Although the model communities Owen and others set up invariably failed––and did so very quickly by the way, they planted seeds which others sowed in the fertile fields created by capitalism’s destructive excesses.

The goal of socialism––whether Marxian, Christian, or communitarian, is to take over ownership of the “means of production” and put it in the hands of the workers. The problem socialists have never solved, according to Johnpoll, is how one gets there. Nowhere was that more evident in their dealings with the working class.

Labor Unions versus Socialism

In the nineteenth century, while reformers were preaching their individual variants of the total reformation of society, workers who couldn’t wait for the arrival of the cooperative commonwealth, began to form labor unions. For a time the interests of socialists and unionists were allied because owners backed by the police and legal system of the state resisted all efforts of workers to organize––often by force.

Once the workers’ demands began to be translated into law, however, their leaders broke with the socialists. When he expelled the socialists from his American Federation of Labor in 1903, Gompers said, “I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon economics, and . . . I have heard your orators and watched the work of your movement the world over . . . Economically you are unsound, socially you are wrong, industrially you are an impossibility.”

For Gompers and others, socialists wanted to revolutionize all of society, while unionists were satisfied with improving the present-day lot of their members. This caused huge problems for socialists––some eschewed ameliorative gains while others saw reforms as the path to God’s kingdom on earth. Either way they failed again and again to win over the working class.

Socialist leaders, most of whom did not come from the working class, had an even harder time when it came to the problem of whether or not to participate in the electoral process. Some felt socialism could be brought about democratically, while others felt the owning class would never allow that to happen and only through an uprising by the working people of the world could a revolution that overthrew capitalism be accomplished.

Throw in conflicts born of ethnic differences and leaders personalities and you have a history of organizations being formed, making temporary gains, and then failing apart. It happened over and over again. Each generation of leaders thought this time will be different: this time the workers will vote for us or respond to our call for a general strike or join our socialist labor union. When that didn’t happen, they always had fellow socialists to blame.

Johnpoll clearly admires the reformers of the nineteenth century more than those of the twentieth with a few exceptions. Early reformers didn’t have experience to guide them and they paved the way for positive changes in society once social opinion or historical circumstance convinced the political party in power to implement reforms. They didn’t achieve their dream, but we take for granted many of the reforms that they called for, from an end to child labor to unemployment insurance, from compulsory education to the right to collective bargaining.

Are Today’s Democrats Socialists?

Some conservatives accuse the Democratic Party and the Obama administration of trying to implement socialism as they take more and more control over all aspects of the production of goods and services. Of course, that’s the same charge conservatives levied at the New Deal.

The problem is partially one of labels. There’s no worldwide licensing bureau that requires an organization to conform to certain policies in order to use words like socialist, liberal, conservative, etc. Many old-time socialists would be appalled at the role of government in today’s society. They viewed the state as an agent of capitalism––an opinion that one still hears from Wall Street Occupiers and the like––and wanted to destroy the state not take it over.

From a historical perspective what the Democrats are moving towards is more like the system that ruled the Soviet Union than the cooperative commonwealth envisioned by nineteenth century social philosophers––including Karl Marx. The Soviet Union was a totally statist society in which the state apparatus controlled everything, including personal choices in many areas. (There was nothing communistic about it.) We’re not there yet, but that’s the direction we’re heading in––namely, the sacrifice of personal liberties on behalf of the “common good.”

The problem is who defines what’s good. In the Soviet Union it was a bureaucrat who had to satisfy the leaders of the Communist Party. In the US today, it’s also a bureaucrat who gets his direction from the political party in power. The fact that we elect our leaders is a critical difference because it offers the possibility that the power of the state can be restrained, but to the average citizen there’s little difference when waiting to get an appointment with the VA hospital in the U.S. or the poor quality of socialized medicine in the former USSR.

Ultimately, most reformers are totalitarians. They don’t like conditions in the present. Fine. They see a better world. Fine. They want to impose their vision of a better world on everyone else. Not so fine. We only have to look at Russia, China, and Cuba to understand what happens to the individual when reformers grab the power of the state. That’s the danger we’re facing in the U.S. in 2014. Reading Johnpoll’s Impossible Dream can help you understand why the future world painted by today’s reformers is impossible to achieve no matter how appealing the picture.

Coda: Marx’s scientific socialism predicted the most advanced capitalist societies would be the first to undergo a conversion to socialism. Clearly that prediction was wrong. Lack of economic development where the elements of a capitalist system are non-existent or weak, is often coupled with a non-democratic political system, while in the US, where democracy while not perfect is nevertheless deeply embedded, capitalism has raised the standard of living of the entire society even under the restraints of social legislation. Like democracy, capitalism is the best option available on a list of imperfect choices.