Several members of our Meetup group asked what I had in mind by “elites.” I deliberately left it undefined to make a point. Americans have some very different ways of defining the horrible, no good elite that everyone supposedly voted to overthrow. In fact, I think vast differences in the way we define our elites lay at the core of our political polarization even before we elected Donald Trump president.
Trump’s populism claims to be a call to arms to overthrow the “Washington establishment” and its collaborators here and abroad. As he said in his inaugural address (in between the talk of carnage and despair):
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. “
Trump’s parasitic elite seems to be our national governing elite, the establishment politicians and the permanent “deep state” that they command. His Hellish vision of a collapsing America sold out by its own elite is pretty stark, that’s for sure.
But, how specific is it, and how accurate? Who exactly are these quislings and what did they do, and to whom? Maybe history helps. When CivCon discussed modern American populism last June, I noted that populist movements everywhere share a basic characteristic. They identify some despicable, self-dealing elite that exploits the virtuous but powerless masses. The elite is not only privileged; it is unfairly privileged. The elite can be a real or imagined; Its victims all of “the people” or just a subset.
Moreover, Right and Left populist movements in U.S. history usually pick a different elite to resent and not quite the same “We, the people” to champion. Left-wing populism’s villain is concentrated private power, like the Robber Barons and their trusts or today’s giant corporations and the 1% that help them rig the game for plutocracy’s sake. Its victims are everybody else (well, except people of color, until recently), but especially the lower classes and the poor. In contrast, right-wing populism has tended to see a conspiracy of both the top and the bottom against the middle. Its corrupt overlords are government insiders helping an undeserving underclass and/or foreigners redistribute wealth and cultural prestige away from hard-working real Americans.
I’m not trying to dismiss this whole topic nor one side’s POV. Quite the contrary. I feel confident in saying that elites have failed the country, as do large majorities of Americans in poll after poll going back years. But, I am pretty knowledgeable about this stuff. I believe I can connect our country’s worst problems to specific failures by the people with all of the power and influence. I picked this topic so we can explore why just about everyone else thinks the same – even though they seem t disagree about who the elites are and what they are doing wrong and why.
We have plenty to talk about on Monday. Here are some discussion ideas and readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
- Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
- Racial and ethnic elites?
- Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
- Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
- Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
- Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
- Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- It happens: In many countries corrupt elites use “extractive institutions” to enrich/perpetuate themselves and immiserate everybody else.
- Liberal hatred of elites versus conservatives’ hatred of elitism. Recommended.
- Short: Economic inequality always leads to political inequality.
Long: Politicians deliberately created our “Robin Hood economy.”
- Conservative POV:
NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?