In the 2010 electoral campaigns, some tea-party candidates referred to the objects of their middle-class enmity as “the ruling class.” The ruling class, as its critics understand it, consists of the overlapping circles of Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Big Labor who have the sense that their resourcesfinancial and intellectualentitle them to an outsize say in how America is governed.
The idea that there is a British-style ruling establishment in America is touched by more than a little hyperbole. But in the past three decades the political and class structure of the U.S. has indeed been rearranged. We have seen more and more “assortative mating”wealthy, highly educated professionals marrying other wealthy, highly educated professionalsand the rise of information-age fortunes. In 1982, 20% of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans was composed of people whose fortunes were based on old money. By 2008 that portion had dropped to 2%. The vast new accumulations of wealthenabled, for the most part, by the creation of a world economybelong to a small group of bicoastal beneficiaries.
In “Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America,” David Callahan regards the political power of the newly enriched as a largely benign phenomenon. The lefts “traditional prism of class politics,” Mr. Callahan argues, is hopelessly outdated at a time when wealthy liberals are more than willing to make common cause with the barons of labor and the working class: “Far from corrupting the Democratic Party, some wealthy liberal donors are actually doing the exact opposite; they are helping the party find its moral backbone.”
Mr. Callahanâ€”a senior fellow at Demos, a left-leaning think tank that he co-foundedbegins by describing how moneyed liberals jammed the airspace around Washington when they arrived in private jets for Barack Obamas inaugural. He notes that one “progressive” donor group, the Democratic Alliance, has been dubbed “billionaires for big government.”
The author admits to some qualms about the way Jon Corzine used the fortune he acquired at Goldman Sachs to win first a seat in the U.S. Senate and then the governorship of New Jersey. Mr. Corzine, in effect, bought the support of the states famously corrupt Democratic Party. “Yet Corzine was also extremely liberal,” Mr. Callahan notes approvingly, “so liberal that Americans for Democratic Action gave him a perfect 100 percent liberal rating for three of the five years he served in the Senate.” Mr. Corzine was not an outlier. Mr. Callahan acknowledges that his book “will confirm the rights worst fears about the ties between coastal elites and left-wing activists.”
If the liberal rich are indeed a kind of class of their own, what holds them together? Mr. Callahan doesnt say, but we can always speculate. First there is the assumption that the technical know-how that built their wealth qualifies them for a privileged position in the political world. And then there is their contempt for George W. Bush and the voters who made him president. The left-wing and wealthy, accustomed to giving orders, dont understand why the political systemwhich operates on a truly egalitarian principle (one man, one vote)â€”doesnt automatically validate their worldview.
Mr. Callahan traces the rise of the liberal rich to the 1960s and the vital role played by Stewart Mott, a General Motors heir, in financing the 1968 anti-war campaign of Eugene McCarthy. But Michael Knox Beran, in “Pathology of the Elites,” looks well beyond the 1960s, finding the liberal-rich quest for power rooted in an older set of beliefs. In a collection of elegantly written essays on Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hannah Arendt and Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Beran argues that this “arrogant” class is in thrall to the sort of utopian impulses long associated with radical leftism.
The liberal rich, Mr. Beran believes, imagine that government would be able to eliminate pollution, racial discrimination and other social scourges if only their own wise counsel were accepted. Mr. Callahan takes as a given the virtue of “supercitizens” like Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and financier George Soros. But when Mr. Beran discusses Googles substantial economic investments in environmental projects, he sees not only self-interest but also vanity and a will to power that masks itself as virtue.
Many have noted the hypocrisy of Sen. John Kerry, he of the five mansions, haranguing others to reduce their carbon footprint. But even more important, as Mr. Beran sees it, is the way the imperiousness of John Kerry and his fellow moralists can quash “the common culture of the market square.” It is the interaction between citizens of varied sorts in the public common, Mr. Beran argues, that offers the opportunity for a degree of civic equality. Yet the liberal rich who would lecture us about equality tend to live in their own isolated social worlds and self-segregated neighborhoods.
Mr. Beran cites his hero, Abraham Lincoln: Those who, in one way or another, deny equality, Lincoln said, are “the miners and sappers of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.”
In one of his closing essays, Mr. Beran, a man of wide reading, strains to connect his argument with todays headlines. He suggests that, in criticizing liberal pretension, Sarah Palin and the literary critic Lionel Trilling share a commitment to what Trilling described as the “moral” as opposed to the “social” imagination. Placing Ms. Palin and Trilling in the same sentence is misleading in more than the obvious way. Ms. Palin has her own kind of social imagination, one in which a self-organized society would largely govern itselfif only the elites could be forced to retreat. Mr. Beran wouldnt go that far. He acknowledges, as Jefferson did, that “a complete overthrow of the aristocratic element in society would be a catastrophe.”
Just such an overthrow, by political means, is what Angelo Codevilla has in mind in “The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It.” Mr. Codevilla, a professor emeritus at Boston University, says that our elitesleft, right and centerhave discredited themselves. The financial crash was caused by the cant-miss mathematical models of Wall Street whizzes. The outcry over climate change has been driven by scientific hucksterism. The private-sector middle class feels itself ground down by the costs and regulations imposed by the statist coalition of the liberal gentry and their allies in the pampered public-sector unions. Meanwhile the liberal gentrys favorite politician, Barack Obama, displays priest-king pretensions.
Mr. Codevilla divides the U.S. into the categories of the 18th century: the Country Class of ordinary workaday Americans and the Ruling Class of the coastal elites, many of whom made their fortunes directly or indirectly from government. American society, he believes, has been deeply corrupted by the malign influences of an increasingly parasitic polity. “Regardless of what business or profession they are in,” he writes, referring to the Ruling Class, “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.”
Discussing the rise of the tea party, Mr. Codevilla note that, “while most of the voters who call themselves Democrats say that Democratic officials represent them well, only a fourth of the voters who identify themselves as Republicans tell pollsters that Republican officeholders represent them well.” His argument is grounded in the spirit of Federalist No. 62, which warned: “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood” except by government experts and their allies, who can “harvest” the value of new regulations.
Carrying that admonition into the present, Mr. Codevilla says that “laws and regulations nowadays are longer than ever because length is needed to specify how people will be treated unequally. . . . Congresses empower countless boards and commissions arbitrarily to protect some persons and companies, while ruining others.” Thats why companies hired 2,500 lobbyists last year just to guide the shape of climate-change legislation.
The books core argument, though too broad, has some purchase: The overreach and incompetence of the Obama administration has markedly weakened the publics willingness to defer to Washingtons authority. But Mr. Codevillas anger leaves no room for the exceptional talent and expertise that can only grow more important in a complex world linked by trade and high technology. What good will it do us as a country if the Barbara Boxers of the world are replaced by the Sharron Angles?
With the occupant of the Oval Office bitterly disparaging “the wealthy” and tea-party stalwarts attacking “the elites,” a peculiar sort of class conflict is roiling American politics. Its a well-funded conflict: On both sides of the aisle, as Mr. Callahan notes, “the most active donors hold the most ideologically extreme views.” That is why, regardless of the outcome of any one election, the mutual contempt evinced by liberal grandees and tea-party activists is likely to be with us for years to come.
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