Whatever it is that Americans are good at—a category that has included such wonders and amazements as designing and building rockets, Chuck Jones cartoons, the world-shaping genius of Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry, dams, blimps, local self-government, manufacturing nuclear bombs, and so on—elite is not a word that comes immediately to mind. American elite has therefore always seemed to me like a funny-wincing contradiction in terms, like French rock star or fine English food. As far as highfalutin and putting on the Ritz are concerned, I would rather go with the seventh arrondissement of Paris, Swiss bankers, old Italian family wealth, rich Nigerians, and noble Ghanian families, or any other group of people whose common culture stretches back for millennia and remains deeply rooted in institutions and social arrangements that ratify and reify their privilege, a concept that is as very definitely un-American in this century as it was in every century before it.
Consider the Americans who won the Cold War. They were the products of Texas oil fields, Appalachian hollows, and urban asphalt neighborhoods, leavened by an admixture of graduates of classy New England prep schools who went on to Yale and then to the State Department and the CIA, as depicted in the best chapters of Norman Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost, which captured the chi of the Cold War American security state so perfectly that it will soon be disappeared from Google Books. The country’s ad hoc nobility of raw talent retained enough of a sense of place to be unmistakably American yet enough breadth and ambition to more or less run the world; they were living proof of the energy and creativity that could be unleashed by a democratic ethos that championed excellence, which is different than the cultivation of elites.
The Cold War ended over three decades ago, as did the radical social mobility legitimated by a dash of the hereditary elitism that democratically inclined Americans loved to both celebrate and mock. Today’s American “elite” is something else. First of all, according to current definitions, there are over a million of them—from executives at Google, Facebook, and Apple to the ambitious lawyers and bankers who serve them, to their outward-facing flacks and fixers, to journalists who spend their days on microblogging platforms, to the graduates of elite universities and liberal arts colleges who are read into the governing jargon of corporate and governmental HR and therefore are suitable candidates for possible employment in subsidiary verticals of the Democratic Party.
Of course, a million people is far too many to be the elite of anything. In reality, they are the sprawling servant class of an oligarchy that lives in the clouds and has arrogated all real decision-making power in the country to themselves. As a class, the servants have power over the supplicants who stand outside their masters’ mansions and country houses, but as individuals, they are more or less interchangeable with each other.
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Larry Ellison, Michael Bloomberg, and Peter Thiel are not part of “the elite.” They are nobility, as measured by the immensity of their private corporate holdings and mastery over technologies and logistics nodes that are key to the operation of advanced societies and the activities of states. Eric Schmidt’s private jet is paid for directly or indirectly by the nobles who send him on errands. He is therefore an exceptionally well-paid member of the professional-managerial servant-retainer-optics class, i.e., the elite.
In what way, then, is the “American elite” an elite? It’s hard to say. They have no real money or institutions of their own and can therefore be fired or disappeared at will, a predicament that is only underlined by their emphasis on the terms “expert” and “expertise,” by which they seek to give substance to their paper credentials. Nearly all of their actual job functions, aside from containing and surveilling the natives, can be done just as well or better by machines. As a result, they are abysmally ignorant, even by the standards of ordinary university graduates in other countries. Proud of their ability to order Burmese food on their iPhones, they lack the ability to read or speak other languages or do basic math, let alone complex feats of physical engineering, which is how Americans once built things and got rich. They lack any feel for the richness and flavor of the American idiom, an incapacity that severs them from their fellow citizens and from their own history, which they profess to abhor. In their relations with each other, they communicate in stilted bureaucratese laced with impenetrable acronyms that read like something generated by an old IBM punch-card machine.
It gets worse. The men can’t do basic home repairs, shoot a gun, read a map, or pick up a girl at a bar—an act that inspires such fear in all of their sexes or genders that it has been pronounced to be a capital crime by the legislatures of at least seven states. Their taste in clothes, books, etc., is abysmal; instead, they rely on “politics” to tell them whether art is “good.” Lacking any feel for beauty, they find safety in ugliness. The very summit of coolness on their planet is Barack Obama, whose dull corporate taste in music, books, and television shows (The Man in the High Castle, The Wire) remains the gold standard for all aspiring wonks and bureaucrats. Any successful peasant farmer works five times harder than the United States’ so-called elite. The average provincial French shopgirl has better taste in food, wine, books, and clothes.
What this wealth of fact-based evidence suggests is that the United States was never meant to be an empire, in part because the concept of a governing American “elite” exists in fatal opposition to the national DNA. Or maybe it’s that the Baby Boomers, who continue to control the lion’s share of the national wealth as they enter their dotage, were truly the worst generation, just as Robert Stone and Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe all warned us—selfish, conceited, self-obsessed, ignorant, lazy, fatally lacking in foresight and humility, and still blaming their parents. Or maybe the real culprit is digital technology, which concentrated unimaginable power and money in the hands of a small number of autists who have sucked up all the power and wealth into the cloud-lands while paying their lawyers and security gurus and HR chiefs and chefs and art consultants and Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell to keep their wealth intact.
Or maybe I have it all wrong, and the true reign of social equality and justice is finally at hand. Or maybe the United States is becoming a more advanced and sophisticated version of China, a one-party state run by a revolutionary class that wields new technologies like a sword and is bound together by a shared ideology.
To find out, I asked five of my favorite experts—a word that in today’s United States unfortunately comes equipped with its own set of invisible air quotes—to help explain how the so-called American elite cohort was formed and how it functions. What I mean by “experts” here is that these people are all very smart.
Angelo Codevilla, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Boston University
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University
Michael Lind, professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a columnist for Tablet
Ilana Redstone, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy
Wesley Yang, essayist, author, and a columnist for Tablet
David Samuels: What is the proper name for the current American system? Oligarchy? Democracy? Technocracy? White supremacy? Rule by a “New Class” of bureaucrats and managers who believe in science?
Michael Lind: To use James Burnham’s term, the United States today is a managerial regime dominated by those who hold high offices as a result of selection rather than election in major bureaucracies—corporations, major banks, government agencies and the military, major foundations and NGOs, the corporate media, and the universities. The regime is technocratic in government, insofar as decision-making authority has been substantially transferred in the past half century from elected legislatures and elected executives to less democratically accountable entities: government agencies, the judiciary, corporations, banks and nonprofits, and transnational courts and other transnational institutions.
The personnel for the managerial elite that controls the commanding heights of the private, public, and nonprofit sectors are recruited almost exclusively from the much more numerous overclass, a largely but not exclusively hereditary class of college-educated families—who make up about a third of the U.S. population, compared to the two-thirds without four-year bachelor’s degrees. The college-credentialed American overclass as a whole corresponds to the Outer Party in George Orwell’s 1984, from which the fewer and more privileged members of the Inner Party are recruited.
Angelo Codevilla: It is an oligarchy, run by a class of persons linked to the Democratic Party. It is not a standard oligarchy, by and for persons intent on preserving and enhancing their economic primacy—though that is a part of it. But the defining feature of today’s American oligarchy is the sense that the class that runs essentially all U.S. institutions senses itself so intellectually and morally superior to the rest of Americans that it may rule rightly without the latter’s consent.
Todd Gitlin: I’d say we’re an oligarchy that shares political power with a more or less fascist movement and is at the same time tinctured with a democratic residue largely composed of Democrats who are not beholden to big money. The oligarchs are chiefly corporate. Which oligarchs stand tallest fluctuates: Jeff Bezos would not have featured 30 years ago, nor Mark Zuckerberg 20 years ago.
In what ways is the new American system you describe continuous or discontinuous with its predecessors?
Todd Gitlin: The continuities are dramatic: the Republican Party as a white supremacist redoubt (starting in the late ‘60s, accelerating in the ‘80s); vast inequality; erosion of democratic norms; a mediascape tilted far right. But the discontinuities are not negligible either: Biden’s new New Deal breaks with the neoliberal consensus in the Democratic Party (someone has said that Biden is “pre-neoliberal”); Biden takes climate change far more seriously his predecessors; George W. Bush’s authoritarian tendencies pale in the light of Trump’s. It must, however, be remembered that the rise of Republicans to anti-democratic and unreasoning power begins with 2000’s Bush v. Gore decision, followed rapidly by Bush’s neglect of evidence about the impending 9/11 attack, and his lunatic attack on Iraq. It remains to be seen how substantial Biden’s rollback will prove. Resemblances to nationalist domination in Brazil and India are hardly trivial, but the American hybrid is distinctive.
Ilana Redstone: As a response to Todd, I’m not sure it’s helpful or accurate to refer to the Republican Party as a “white supremacist redoubt,” and I don’t know what mediascape he’s referring to that’s “tilted far right.” In fact, it has seemed to me that, collectively, we do a decent job of identifying media bias when it comes to the political right and a much poorer job of identifying it when it comes from the left.
Michael Lind: Some continuity with the American past exists in the form of the overrepresentation among non-Hispanic white members of the national overclass of descendants of the old Northeastern mainline Protestant establishment, along with assimilated descendants of the old Southern bourbon gentry class. Continuity also can be found in the woke social engineering culture of managerial America, a secularized version of older Northern Social Gospel Protestantism that has no parallels in modern managerial France or managerial Japan, with their different cultural traditions.
Angelo Codevilla: White supremacist redoubt? That can be only on the planet where Larry Elder is the face of white supremacy.
The current American system grew inside the Republic’s constitutional and institutional structures. The mechanism consisted of an increasing blurring of lines between private and public power. Government regulated business, and business was happy to return the favor. This has been happening all over the West since Italy’s 1926 Law of Corporations (fascism’s charter). In the United States, it happened more slowly but with the same results.
At a certain point, circa 2007 to 2010, the holders of institutional power began to dispense with increasingly empty ritual obeisance to the will of the voters and began exercising the powers of “stakeholders.” In that sense, there is nothing peculiarly American about it. The American peculiarity comes from the social animus with which the stakeholders rule.
Todd Gitlin: Responding to Ilana, there is no left-wing equivalent to Fox “News” and its nonstop propaganda, not to mention the echo chamber than emanates therefrom. In addition to its liberal opinionators, MSNBC also has “Morning Joe,” which did quite a lot to promote Trump until they were shocked, shocked to discover who he was.
Are we witnessing the growth of a truly national American elite—a thing that perhaps last existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as exemplified by the rise of the New England prep schools that served to unify old New England and New York with the fortunes of industrial arrivistes such as the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Goulds? Or are we instead watching the death throes of the much more down-to-earth 20th-century American elite that emerged out of the New Deal, won the Cold War, and is now scrambling to maintain its fading hegemony—and its incredible wealth—through a policy of divide and rule?
Michael Lind: Although George Washington promoted the idea of a single federal university that would create a nonsectional, national American elite and even bequeathed money to endow it, from the American War of Independence until the late 20th century the United States had multiple regional Anglo-American Protestant elites, not a single national elite. Only in the past half century has a truly national, post-Protestant, multiracial secular elite emerged from the assimilation of old regional elites and upwardly mobile Americans. The agency of assimilation and upward mobility has been the culturally leftist and technocratic university, which has replaced the mainline Protestant church as the source of both elite values and elite credentialing.
The new national overclass is multiracial but monocultural: a group of highly educated people, mostly from affluent families, who look different but think the same.
The new national overclass is multiracial but monocultural: a group of highly educated people, mostly from affluent families, who look different but think the same. They even sound the same: The nationalized overclass accent is a version of the placeless TV broadcaster variant of American English, in which the hard “Rs” and flat stresses of the Midwest are often mixed with the question-like, sentence-ending “uptalk” of the California Valley Girl dialect.
Angelo Codevilla: Surely, today’s governing elite—and its legitimacy—are not grounded in any system of education, whether intellectual or moral, or in the production of essential goods and services. The current elites got to their places and amassed their wealth exclusively through the old Republic’s structures, which they have turned to their own accounts. Precisely because the current elites do not embody any economic or social good in which the ruled may participate, precisely because they glory in being obnoxious to the rest of the population, their rule has the hallmarks of decline, not rise. Unlike traditional oligarchs, they revel in humiliating those over whom they rule.
Two events are emblematic: The Feb. 4, 2021, publication in Time magazine of what was effectively an admission of manipulation of the 2020 election, coupled with increased venom against whomever suggests that such things happened; and Barack Obama’s 60th birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard, with 200 maskless guests and dozens of masked servants, i.e., conspicuous consumption in the face of growing establishment restrictions on ordinary people. Not even the likes of Mobutu flaunted themselves so.
Todd Gitlin: The cultural elites that dominate national media and wide swaths of higher education obviously exercise considerable power (“hegemony,” if you prefer) over national predilections, with polarizing consequences for political culture but next to no short-term power over economic reality. “Death throes”? No. Rather, chronic anxiety over the cultural elites’ right place in the world and their proper relations to other elites and the working classes alike.
How important were Donald Trump and the novel coronavirus respectively in the formation of a new American governing class—both practically and in terms of its own self-awareness as a class? Would this class have existed in its current form without these two entirely contingent phenomena?
Wesley Yang: The Trump presidency radicalized America’s governing and chattering classes, who saw in his election the fulfillment of one of the dark possibilities of democracy—that the people would elect a demagogue intent on bending the arc of history backward—and felt themselves summoned to act as guardians of the Republic righting the course of that arc. We were in a state of exception that it was both their warrant and their duty to decide.
The standards and practices that marked our professional classes as elites deserving of our trust in ordinary times (impartiality, procedural correctness) were no longer applicable. In a time of “literal white nationalists in the White House” putting “babies in cages,” these protocols would in practice end up colluding with an existential danger. Departures from those practices become not just excusable but a moral imperative. Thus was undertaken a principled abandonment of scrupulousness in reporting, proportionality in judging, and the neutral application of rules once held to be constitutive of professional authority, all in favor of a politics of emergency. The new politics demanded loyalty and unanimity in an effort to defeat the usurper at any cost. The loss of proportionality in judging and scrupulousness in reporting created an echo chamber in which the bulk of the governing and chattering classes confirmed and exacerbated self-generated fantasies and fears of foreign subversion and fascists on the march.
Did you know that Russians hacked our electrical grid? Did you know that Trump was connected to a server communicating with Russians? Did you know that Russians were paying bounties for dead American soldiers in Afghanistan? Get his taxes—the answers are there. When The New York Times eventually got ahold of them and parenthetically noted, amidst a cloud of dire innuendo concerning profits and losses of his real estate business, that no evidence existed in them pointing to any ties to Russia, the narrative was already too well entrenched to dislodge.
Angelo Codevilla: Donald Trump turned out to be the indispensable catalyst for the oligarchy’s seizure of something like total power. Trump’s peculiarities made it possible for the oligarchy to give the impression that its campaign was about his person. The principal consequence of the ruling class’s opposition to candidate Trump was to convince itself, and then its followers, that defeating him was so important that it legitimized, indeed dictated, setting aside all laws, and truth itself. But by all that unanimity, all that effort and vehemence, the ruling class showed that its real target could not have been one pudgy, orange-haired septuagenarian, but was nothing less than the traditional America that they did not entirely control.
Yet, on the morning after the 2016 election, talk of “resistance” to the unexpected outcome notwithstanding, no one imagined that it could morph into the oligarchy that has destroyed the American republic. The presidency’s awesome powers to hurt enemies rested thereafter in Trump’s hands. But it did so morph, because President Trump displayed what Theodore Roosevelt had called the most self-destructive of habits: combining “the unbridled tongue with the unready hand.” He denounced his and his supporters’ enemies, while suffering rather than hurting them, motivating them to do their worst, and letting them do it with impunity. He effectively accredited the very people who were discrediting him. Within a month of Trump’s inauguration, few if any in Washington were afraid of him.
Blaming Trump for the ruling class’s oligarchic seizure of power makes no sense. But that seizure became possible only because Trump was who he was and acted as he did. He let himself be stampeded into firing Michel Flynn on wholly specious grounds—the only high-profile national security official who had supported him and who stood in the way of the intelligence agencies’ plans against him. He appointed to these agencies people loyal to them and hostile to himself, and he gave them power over the substance of policy—regardless of his own previous commitments. He let himself be persuaded by his first secretaries of state and defense, and his second national security advisor, to give a nationally televised speech in July 2017 effectively thanking them for showing him that he—and his voters—had been wrong in opposing ongoing war in the Middle East. Later, he fired them because they were mocking him publicly.
The COVID-19 affair became the occasion for the oligarchy’s solidification of its powers. But only Trump’s complaisance made possible the American people’s submission to scientifically nonsensical regulations that transferred more wealth and power from one class to another than possibly ever before in mankind’s history.
Todd Gitlin: Trump was, and remains, a great consolidator of illiberal tendencies—he who gets to name the enemy list that can rally a large plurality of the population and keep the country on a knife-edge. COVID-19 seems to have hardened lines of polarization (both geographically and via economic class and race), though how stable those lines prove to be will depend to some degree on the course of the pandemic. Would the more or less governing quasi-class have existed without the two viruses? Existed, yes, though less virulently.
Also, I wouldn’t be so sure we’ve heard the last of Trump as a longtime Russian asset. Craig Unger’s American Kompromat offers testimony from a former KGB agent. As for Trump’s real estate business, its use by Russian oligarchs for money-laundering purposes is indisputable, as is the way Vladimir Putin has managed the oligarchs for his own combined authoritarian and treasure-accumulating purposes.
Ilana Redstone: There’s a persistent question of whether the election of Donald Trump was a symptom or cause of the deterioration of our current national discourse. While the full answer to that question is probably “both,” it’s certainly difficult to argue that discourse was healthy before the 2016 election. As far as his formative role, Trump gave non-Trump supporters a figure to rally their hatred around, so he was certainly a consolidator in that sense. Into this mix, COVID-19 took our deep divisions and mistrust and preyed upon them. It created a perfect storm that both exploited and exacerbated already-present rifts in how we think about truth, harm, risk, and community.
Is the cementing of ideological control over the institutional landscape in the hands of a small class of people convinced of their own rightness and eager to punish dissenters a sign of their increasing strength or weakness?
Ilana Redstone: In any given moment, it’s hard to say whether the ideological control over the elite institutional landscape is gaining or losing strength. However, regardless of its trajectory, it is clearly quite strong. There’s both strength and power in asserting that there is only one morally legitimate way to understand the world. When it comes to the institutional landscape we’re talking about here, that assertion sits at the core of many of our deepest divides.
Michael Lind: The new national elite is far more powerful and unconstrained by effective opposition than any previous American elite. The Northeastern establishment that dominated U.S. government and society between the Civil War and the New Deal did not control the South. The largely Southern Democrats who controlled Congress during the New Deal era never displaced the mostly Northern mainline Protestant Republicans who continued to dominate U.S. business, banking, and major foundations.
In contrast, with the sole exception of some elected politicians, the national managerial elite now controls every major national institution—the major corporations and banks, the civil service and the military, the universities and NGOs and foundations. Under the name of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” initiatives, the oligarchy is forcing Americans to take part in Mao-style “struggle sessions” (“diversity training”) and internalize the official ideology of woke progressivism as a condition of employment. Meanwhile, the managerial elite uses corporations, banks, and media companies, along with government agencies, to harass, censor, cancel, and deplatform intellectual and political dissidents on the left, right, and center.
Angelo Codevilla: The current American elites hold every lever of power. But their power is brittle. They no longer try to persuade. They command and find ways of hurting and mocking the reticent. No organization that lives by pulling rank can be considered strong.
Is the current American elite unified by a binding set of post-liberal ideas that motivates its attitudes and actions—whether so-called “wokeness” or what Wesley Yang calls “the successor ideology”? Or do you see the ideas and attitudes of this class on whatever subjects as more instrumental or ornamental, a matter of inter-elite gamesmanship and social positioning?
Michael Lind: The adoption of wokeness by most large bureaucratic institutions, including corporations, government agencies, universities, and nonprofits, began around 2010 and reflects a generational shift among the managers at the top of American society. The cultural revolution of wokeness has been pushed by young staffers who are mostly the children of the elite and reflects the left-wing culture of the top universities in which the next generation of managers and professionals is both credentialed and indoctrinated.
It is conceivable that a sufficiently strong electoral backlash against the excesses of woke ideology could lead the national managerial elite to engage in a strategic retreat in the culture war. Post-woke technocratic neoliberalism might take forms like those of the Clintonite New Democrats or the Reagan-Bush-Paul Ryan Republicans, with symbolic affirmation of traditional values—even as they lower the wages and marginalize the values of the multiracial working-class majority.
The Russia hysteria served a psychological function for those at a loss as to how the country they led had slipped from their grasp. It allowed them to offload the blame for the serial failures through which they rendered themselves beatable by a carnival barker onto the machinations of a foreign power.
Wesley Yang: The Russia hysteria served a psychological function for those at a loss as to how the country they led had slipped from their grasp. It allowed them to offload the blame for the serial failures through which they rendered themselves beatable by a carnival barker onto the machinations of a foreign power. It allowed them to indulge fantasies of the president’s imminent replacement. It helped media companies reverse a downward spiral and restore themselves to profitability as they turned all of public life into a mutually profitable kayfabe with the object of their obsession.
But when the campaign of leaks and innuendo failed to dislodge Trump from power, the horizontally integrated pieces of the newly assembled anti-Trump messaging complex needed to pivot. They sought a new basis for maintaining the ongoing state of emergency, and they found an out-of-the-box solution in the form of “anti-racist” doctrines elaborated in obscure corners of academia and the activist industrial complex but increasingly circulated by online publications through the 2010s. The executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, made this point explicitly in a town hall meeting:
We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story... It is a story that requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred, but it is also a story that requires imaginative use of all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years. In the coming weeks, we’ll be assigning some new people to politics who can offer different ways of looking at the world. We’ll also ask reporters to write more deeply about the country, race, and other divisions. I really want your help in navigating this story.
Later in that meeting, an unnamed staffer responded to Baquet to challenge the paper to become even more expansive in its coverage of racism—indeed, to begin to treat it as the foundation of every subject:
Hello, I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”
In these two comments we see the coalescence of the new sensibility that now pervades the official pronouncements of all American institutions, and we see where it came from. The failure of the campaign seeking to treat Trump as an aberration in an arc of history otherwise headed toward the millennium led to the embrace of an analysis framing him as the latest manifestation of an all-pervading, transhistorical phenomenon at the “foundation of all of the systems in the country.”
Monomania of this sort is of course the end of the journalistic endeavor as such (since journalism seeks to tell us the contingent particulars of what happened rather than reaffirm a daily catechism containing all the answers) and its replacements by a priestly vocation. In search of a new warrant to rule, the various organs of the horizontally integrated governing class moved as one to undergo a process of mutual co-optation. Now the corporations and national security agencies genuflect as one toward the idols and mystagogues of the new faith, together comprising what I have termed “the Successor Regime.”
Ilana Redstone: The ideology that dominates in many educational and cultural institutions is indeed more than an ad hoc, instrumental assemblage of responses. It’s a way of understanding the world that includes norms for thinking about morality, harm, identity, fairness, and truth. Reasonable minds can disagree about the strengths and weaknesses of this view in terms of how well it accurately describes the state of society today. As I said earlier, the bigger problem by far is the moral valence that’s attached to this particular perspective. With a sense of moral superiority comes a belief that disagreement or dissension is definitionally a reason to call a person’s character into question.
Angelo Codevilla: The utter lack of “post-liberal” ideas makes it impossible for anyone who might wish to make peace with our elites to do so by surrender. Surrender to what? In fact, elite demands on the rest of America do derive from the inherently endless jockeying among elites and their ever-changing priorities.
What role does the enforcement of attitudes about race and gender play in legitimating the current elite in its role as custodian of the commanding heights of American political and corporate culture? Is “identity” a way of disempowering the landless peasants while splitting and disciplining the ambitious professional classes—and thereby preserving the wealth of the few? Or is “identity” the sole remaining life-raft of men and women in a world atomized by advanced capitalism and digital technology?
Todd Gitlin: The hardening of identity lines, especially on race and gender, has become a defining feature of the cultural (not oligopolistic) elite, and I wouldn’t bet that those lines will soften soon. Splits in the professional classes are obviously real, but more consequential politically is the racial split that divides those who work for wages from the inheritors and elite-trained managers, a split that deepened in the ‘60s (in no small part because of the cataclysm that befell unions) and remains profound. Whether a new life-raft can be fashioned from multiracial materials for political purposes is unlikely in the short run, but possibly not precluded forever.
Ilana Redstone: The attitudes about race and gender that we’re talking about here are, at least in part, the result of a narrowing of how we think and communicate on sensitive issues that touch topics like identity, fairness, and intent. For instance, identity is understood as being primarily one’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. … Fairness is understood as allocating resources in a manner that factors in historic disadvantage based on race—a well-intentioned goal that yields policies that view people as members of identity groups rather than as individuals. Intent is seen as irrelevant in the face of claims of harm. And so on.
Michael Lind: We must be careful not to attribute too much Machiavellian cunning to the American managerial elite, which rewards conformity over intelligence and is grossly incompetent. It has presided over one domestic and foreign policy disaster after another for the last generation.
Few of the members of America’s oligarchy are sincere leftists. They are more likely than the working class to have traditional, intact families, and the most successful among them enjoy plutocratic lifestyles. They pay lip service to transgender rights and racial “equity” but in general do not like labor unions, taxes, or economic regulations, and they send their children to private schools if no high-quality public schools are available.
As a rule, American institutional elites deploy identity politics cynically, to co-opt and bribe the leaders of groups that might either challenge their wealth and privilege or offer reliable blocs of voters. Elite Democrats kneel while wearing kente cloth and back race-based affirmative action in college admissions, business set-asides, and quotas on corporate boards, not to help working-class Black Americans but to co-opt college-educated Black and Hispanic professionals and business owners as intermediaries between the Democratic Party and non-white voting blocs. For decades, Reagan-Bush Republicans have similarly bought off leaders of evangelical Protestant populists who are hostile to big business and big banks with talk of “Judeo-Christianity” and conservative foundation grants for religious intellectuals. “People of faith” is the right-managerial version of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color).
The strategic replacement of autonomous grassroots leaders by a group of elite-designated astroturf leaders who speak for abstract race and gender categories and are wholly dependent clients of the managerial oligarchy needs an alibi. That alibi is provided by the establishment’s ongoing campaign to downgrade representative democracy in favor of representative demography. A. Philip Randolph and Cesar Chavez were union leaders, and Martin Luther King Jr. and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference derived their authority from their churches. In contrast, today’s alleged racial spokespersons are designated by mostly white magazine editors, book publishers, prize committees, and foundation program officers.
Angelo Codevilla: The imposition of pain is what our elites’ authority has been reduced to. Accusations of racism and sexism are all-purpose excuses for shutting down opposition that cannot be quashed on any other terms. One does not have to define or specify. Why give the racists the benefit of argument? Just wield the race card and cancel the opponent. One wonders how long U.S. elites imagine that this business model can last, or what happens when it no longer does.
Do you believe that the next 20 or 30 years of America will look something like a previous incarnation of America, or more like present-day China—or Brazil?
Michael Lind: Brazil. Apart from the Iberian heritage and the involvement of the military in politics, Brazil and the United States are remarkably similar. Both countries have legacies of African slavery and white supremacy (less rigid in Brazil than in the United States). Both are divided horizontally between a former plantation zone (the American South, the Brazilian North) and a region settled by European immigrants (the American North, the Brazilian South). Both have presidential constitutions based on the separation of powers that permit increasing abuse of the impeachment power by legislative factions. Both have extremely high levels of inequality, pockets of shocking urban and rural poverty, high crime, and high levels of police violence, and both have dysfunctional cultures of corruption at the elite level.
In two ways Brazil is superior to the United States, though. Lacking an elite puritan Protestant tradition, Brazil has been spared the excesses of woke post-Protestant progressivism. And Brazil’s national ideal of a racial melting pot, though far from reality, has so far precluded the government-sponsored balkanization of the Brazilian people into arbitrarily defined racial categories.
Angelo Codevilla: If we end up looking like Brazil, we should count ourselves lucky.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.