When Machiavelli wrote, “in order to know Moses’ virtue it was necessary that the people of Israel be slaves in Egypt …,” he was pointing to the truth that knowing what one is up against is a powerful incentive for dealing with it intelligently. Genesis tells us that only in Moses’ time did the Egyptians make clear how harsh was the alternative to the Exodus by deciding to kill their longtime slaves’ baby boys.
Today, the oligarchy that controls American society’s commanding heights leaves those who are neither its members nor its clients little choice but to marshal their forces for their own exodus. The federal government, the governments of states and localities run by the Democratic Party, along with the major corporations, the educational establishment, and the news media set strict but movable boundaries about what they may or may not say—on pain of being cast out, isolated from society’s mainstream. Using an ever-shifting variety of urgent excuses, which range from the coronavirus, to the threat of domestic terrorism, to catastrophic climate change, to the evils of racism, they issue edicts that they enforce through anti-democratic means—from social pressure and threats, to corporate censorship of digital platforms, to bureaucratic fiat. Nobody voted for this.
What forces can and can’t this oligarchy bring to bear? We have a hint from Time magazine’s Feb. 4, 2021, valedictory of “a vast, cross-partisan campaign” by leaders of business, labor, and the media, in cooperation with the Democratic Party, that “got states to change voting systems and laws” for the 2020 presidential election in contravention of black-letter constitutional law. Rulings by judges in Michigan and Virginia that changes to those states’ absentee ballot laws were blatantly illegal matters not one whit.
Why not? Because the coalition of masters controls the levers of the state and the press. As Time reveals, they “helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears.” Because these elites realized that “engaging with toxic content only made it worse,” they decided on “removing content or accounts that spread disinformation and by more aggressively policing it in the first place.” Instead of answering facts and arguments with which they disagreed, they would ignore their substance and smear whoever voiced them.
The boldness and novelty of these as well as of unmentioned tactics delivered the desired electoral result, and power heretofore unimaginable: Americans in 2021 are being fired or “canceled” from society for whatever anyone connected with the oligarchy finds objectionable—even for asking for evidence of the oligarchy’s assertions. Yet Time tells us that because the process of defeating Donald Trump’s voters angered them further, these oligarchs worry that they gained only “a respite.” Hence the united oligarchy must seek, as The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie put it, permanent “national political dominance.”
Though that dominance seems at hand, the general population’s compliance with it is not. That is because isolating and alienating anybody, let alone half the country, is the proverbial two-edged sword. Anytime you isolate and alienate someone else, you do the same to yourself. The boundaries that the oligarchs have drawn, are drawing, separate them from the American people’s vast majority, whose consciousness of powerlessness and defenselessness clarifies their choice between utter subjection and doing whatever it might take to exit a system that no longer seems to allow for the prospect of republican self-government.
Composing the differences between traditional America and our new woke oligarchy is impossible because their conflict is asymmetric. The American Revolution, the Constitution, and two centuries of custom endow traditionally minded Americans, conservatives and others, with the preference and habit of living as they please and letting others do the same. They understand concepts like virtue, righteousness, and leadership in terms of the duty to live exemplary lives themselves, not to force others to do so. The enlightened oligarchy and its elite servant classes follow Woodrow Wilson’s progressive dogma: “If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself.”
By this century’s second decade, the oligarchs who occupy the commanding heights of American life had ceased trying to persuade. Self-government has declined as corporations have wielded public powers with private discretion. America’s ruling class—bipartisan, public and private—grew to disdain the rest of America’s religiosity, patriotism, and tastes. But until our own time, most Americans either had not noticed their loss of status as citizens or assumed that they could vote to regain it. But the rulers inspired no confidence and ruled by pulling rank.
In 2014, Pat Caddell’s study of public opinion, which he titled “We Need Smith,” found that:
Eighty-six percent of all voters believe political leaders are more interested in protecting their power than in doing what’s right for the American people. Eighty-three percent believe the country is run by an alliance of incumbent politicians, media pundits, lobbyists, and other interests for their own gain. Further, 79% believe that powerful interests from Wall Street banks to corporations, unions, and PACs use campaign and lobbying money to rig the system to serve themselves and that they loot the national treasury at the expense of every American. … Ninety-two percent say we must recruit and support for public office more ordinary citizens and fewer professional politicians. Not surprising when you consider that 81% believe both political parties do what’s in it for them rather than fix our nation’s problems.
Such figures bespeak neither conservatism nor liberalism, but widespread alienation and disdain among people who understand themselves to be subjects of a selfish power to which they have no personal connection and that exists beyond their collective control. Hence, in the runup to the 2016 election, the bipartisan ruling class entirely lost control of right-leaning voters and failed to hold on to nearly half of left-leaning ones. Opposed by both parties’ hierarchies, Donald Trump won the presidency more as a social rebel than as any kind of recognizable economic or political conservative, by appealing to people whose personal style and opinions on any number of subjects deviated from what was being presented as “mainstream”—including any number of people who had previously voted for Barack Obama and for Bernie Sanders.
Trump won in 2016 as the candidate who would lead the country class out of the clutches of the ruling class—as a caricature of Caddell’s Mr. Smith. The ruling class—Wall Street, K Street, Washington grifters, the educational establishment, the media, and the corporations—saw the alienation that Trump embodied as the mortal threat that it is to their own power and positions. Unable and unwilling to change their way of governing, or the system of heavily bureaucratized crony capitalism from which they so massively benefit, these people resolved to secure the votes of Blacks, Hispanics, women, and the young by encouraging them to make war on whites, men, and conservatives. “Hate thy neighbor and stick with us!” was their program. Hence the four-year campaign leading up to the 2020 election was all about hating Trump and beating down his voters on the basis of race, sex, the Russians—anything to divert from what the rampant oligarchy was doing to the rest of the country.
Hate-as-identity was key to the ruling class’s victory in the 2020 election. For the elites, indulging sentiments of moral superiority, promoting hate, and rubbing “deplorable” faces in the dirt is a means to secure and mobilize supporters, which itself is incidental to securing the material benefits of power. For those who deliver the votes, indulging hate is affirmation of identity.
Ruling people by insulting and harming them is problematic, and not reversible. The use that the oligarchy made of the COVID epidemic added to insult and injury, as well as to its power, in a manner previously unimaginable. Boldly dismissing without argument the fact that viral infections cannot be stopped from running their course once they have taken root in a population, they asserted that acquiescing to indefinite cessation of social and economic activities they deemed to be nonessential would stop the disease’s progression. The ensuing lockdowns, mask mandates, and other measures made life for most Americans worse in every way. But these strictures also crippled the sectors of American society independent of and resistant to the oligarchy—religious institutions and small businesses. They isolated people and limited what they could hear from and say to each other, leaving them prey to one-way propaganda narratives backed by nightly threats of mob violence.
Correctly, however, the American oligarchy, which resides these days in the Democratic Party, feared that the weaponized, mutually validating narratives with which it had bombarded the population could not guarantee that the American people would vote differently in 2020 than they did in 2016, widespread public dislike for Donald Trump notwithstanding. Not a few suspected that the COVID heavy-handedness had increased resentment among people who had learned to be suspicious of pollsters, reporters, and opinion-samplers.
Ordinary credulity was never enough for swallowing the narrative that universal vote by mail, coupled with drop boxes for ballots and ballot harvesting by self-proclaimed civic groups, plus the reduction or elimination of verification of signatures, would do anything other than transfer electoral power from those who cast votes to those who count them—that is, to the oligarchy and its party. Even so, the ruling class’s victory depended on tens of thousands of votes out of 156 million, in some of the most corrupt counties in the land. In Pennsylvania, the vast majority of all mailed ballots were for Biden. The oligarchy sealed the victory as brazenly as they gained it: by meeting demands for transparency with ad hominem accusations backed by threats of social ostracism and enforced by control, which itself was attained in part by issuing naked threats backed by legislative and bureaucratic power—all over partisan, monopoly digital platforms which eventually participated in censorship.
Ruling people by insulting and harming them is problematic, and not reversible.
The oligarchy’s power over American institutions public and private, however, does not change the fact that it rests on near universal voluntary compliance. The irrevocable alienation of and from at least half of Americans has canceled much of the oligarchs’ moral legitimacy and left them obliged to rule by further alienating and punishing—to rule a house that they divided against itself. Hence, the unprecedented power it gathered will prove less significant than the manner in which it did the gathering.
In the first few months of 2021, it is clear that widespread compliance with institutions and leading personages on which the American system of government has long rested is no longer possible. The oligarchy exercises all earthly powers. Its theophobia dismisses heaven’s. It substitutes “narratives” for truth. Because its members internalized the assumption that reason is simply what Hobbes called a scout for the passions, what Marx said is superstructural to material reality, and what the woke call “logism,” it has placed itself beyond the reach of argument. It can neither admit those it deems deplorable to real citizenship— never mind to society’s commanding heights—nor can it set bounds to the next round of exactions and humiliations that, having ditched persuasion, it must visit upon them.
The deplorables plainly stand no chance of dismantling the new American system. Corporate executives, not legislatures, governors, or presidents are the ones who decide what happens to the trillions of dollars created jointly by the Federal Reserve and Wall Street. They are the ones who regulate speech and attitudes, who for the most part decide who rises and who does not. And they are the part of the oligarchy most insulated from republican institutions.
New laws may be most useful for reviving old ones, such as the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. But the problem lies in a century’s accretion of administrative arrangements, court rulings, and above all, of self-serving practices. Nor would it be possible for these elected officials to restore the republic that was founded in 1776-79, even if an economic recession or act of Providence were to deliver solid electoral victories in the Senate, House, and presidency to a party of the country class (were one to come into being). That is because the republic’s substance withered over a century, and its husk collapsed over the past five years.
In our time, millions of people have grown up or been educated no longer to want or be able to live as citizens of what had been the American republic. Partisans in mind, heart, and habit, their support of the oligarchy’s partisan rule has left the United States with two peoples of opposing character, aspirations, and tastes within its national borders. The government bureaucracies are led by persons selected and habituated against the deplorables. The same can be said of the educational establishment and corporate boardrooms. What sort of dictatorial power would it take to purge them? Were the deplorables to struggle for the partisan power to oppress the others, they would guarantee dysfunction at best, war at worst. That is why it makes most sense for them to assert their own freedom.
Some sort of mostly peaceful exodus is within our powers to achieve. A very bad imitation of Mr. Smith was able to convince 75 million to rise against dangers that were still largely theoretical in 2016. Better imitators can lead many more to act against present ones, and to live within institutions of their own making. We can withdraw our compliance, go our own way, and build anew.
Separation from our oligarchy requires stripping it of its claims of legitimacy. Their means of control—from making and breaking careers to control of institutional machinery—are daunting. Individuals may be penalized easily. But every bit of this power vanishes in the face of mass resistance. The oligarchy is frightened of this, with good reason. Nor can they stop an exodus by using force, sensing that they might well lose the ensuing civil war.
In the American republic, legitimate political power flowed from the voters through their elected representatives. The oligarchy’s claim to rule by superior knowledge and morality dissolves the public’s moral obligation to obey. The oligarchy, illegitimate in republican terms, now rules through threats and fear. But for the solvent consequences of illegitimacy to follow, the falsehood of claims to superior knowledge and morality must be asserted and explained, at the same time as acts of collective disobedience physically defy fear.
Our American exodus won’t be led by a Moses. The Republican Party, with the exception of a few national-level personages, may be as useless as ever. But politics is a collective activity, and the lack of top-down leadership notwithstanding, our exodus is already in progress, thanks to Americans’ legal structures and traditions of state and local autonomy, as well as our Tocquevillian taste for organizing ourselves into ad hoc groups for the common benefit.
Already in the winter of 2021, 33 states, pressed by their voters, are introducing bills to prevent the kind of executive and judicial manipulation of election procedures that occurred in 2020. Ordinary citizens who are oppressed by COVID-inspired overregulation have also organized themselves to take advantage of the fact that safety in numbers is the first rule of civil disobedience. Thus, hundreds of California restauranteurs jointly defied the governor’s order to keep them closed, and sued him. Joint action is also the key to transforming what the authorities want to treat as disciplinary or criminal matters into political ones.
Important as spontaneity is, the substantive and exemplary importance of what elected governors and legislatures can do is even greater. Because Govs. DeSantis of Florida, Noem of South Dakota, Kemp of Georgia, Abbott of Texas (to a lesser extent), and others defied the directives first of the Trump, then of the Biden administration regarding COVID restrictions, their states compiled an incontrovertible record that proves how intellectually wrong, substantively disastrous, and politically malevolent those directives were and are. This is a touchstone for impeaching the oligarchy’s legitimacy on other matters as well, and proof—if any further be needed—that for good and ill in the 21st century, the 50 states need not fear to do pretty much as they please. Nullification has been a fact of U.S public life since Colorado and California rewrote drug laws. There is no reason why it should or can stop there.
It is no less necessary for Americans to subtract themselves from big companies that exercise public powers with private discretion. Stricter application of antitrust laws and ones upholding privacy can help. So can organized boycotts. Sometimes, action does not have to be organized at all. When the Gillette company aired an ad on toxic masculinity, nobody had to tell millions of its customers to shave with other razors. Record low numbers of Americans are tuning in to the Oscars, the Grammys, and other national awards shows, in part because they are sick of being fed an endless diet of contemptuous political rants by self-described “activists” in place of entertainment. They naturally go elsewhere to be entertained.
The exodus requires more, very much including leadership at the national level. Likely, as the national elections of 2022 and 2024 approach, competition for votes will produce persons who answer the call of constituents to affirm their values and defend their ways. The next generation of House and Senate candidates already bears little resemblance to former ones. Around them a coherent movement may well coalesce to end oligopoly in the media, to free Americans from the reign of political correctness, to reaffirm ordinary citizens’ interest in equality under law and in the primacy of nature over politics, to cancel the partisanship of U.S. government agencies—especially law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and the military—and to return American schools to the work of educating our children. Because contending notions of legitimacy are at stake, actions undertaken to such ends must be accompanied, at local and national levels, by relentless explanation about facts, truth and lies, right and wrong.
Once a majority of Americans understand that Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, the Times, and Gannett are partisan instruments—that they use lies, censorship, and insults to subjugate us to a form of oligarchical totalitarianism—a substantial portion of their customers will begin to patronize alternatives, and their power over information will cease. That is because their power depends on the public accepting the pretense of objectivity and neutrality that these platforms still see fit on occasion to wear after sucking the life out of 20th-century American media. Stripping them of this borrowed pretense, and highlighting their overtly manipulative partisanship, must be every action’s proximate objective.
Unleashing the tort bar against the media giants while stoking the public’s anger may well do to them what it did to the tobacco industry, to the manufacturers of asbestos, and to the Boy Scouts of America. The states of Florida and Texas are in the process of trying to make the social media giants criminally liable for censoring citizens on their platforms, and civilly liable to individuals who may feel that they have been wronged by acts of censorship or slander. Other states are sure to follow. No doubt the tech cartel will appeal state-level judgments to the federal courts, citing the Communications Decency Act, Section 230. But its language, as Philip Hamburger has shown, by no means self-evidently exempts these companies from liability for censorship or for harm. Surely, proceedings about the giants’ withholding, falsifying, and censoring information would disenchant millions of people who had become their customers in search of a neutral means of communication, and lead them to patronize alternatives actually committed to that goal.
Not so long ago, government power was the only threat to the First Amendment. But oligarchy’s essence is precisely the blurring and blending of public and private power.
What to do about the media’s banning or restricting the circulation of ideas with which it disagrees, including the distribution of books and movies, is a major issue of national politics. Without shame, medically unqualified “fact checkers” censor the writings of physicians on medical matters, while defining their own beliefs about gender and race as “science.” Letting such pretenses stand also ratifies the negation of the First Amendment. Overcoming them requires ending the exercise of what amount to governmental powers, indeed of police powers, by nongovernmental persons and entities.
Not so long ago, government power was the only threat to the First Amendment. But oligarchy’s essence is precisely the blurring and blending of public and private power in a partisan manner. Hence, media malpractice must be dealt with as part of a bigger political problem, namely expanding the Bill of Rights’ coverage to ostensibly private entities.
What is to be done about private companies that subject employees to training aimed at convincing them that there is something wrong with being white—or at least pretending to convince them? Or that they must abide by the oligarchy’s preferences? To be sure, state governments may outlaw such training within their borders, as part of their general police power. But big employers may object to such laws as contrary to their own freedom of speech, while asserting that the employees’ attendance at those sessions is voluntary. Even if courts back them up, governors and mayors don’t have to listen and can impose their penalties. Public figures, or brave employees, can organize many if not most employees to stay away and to explain just how wrong it is to racially stereotype. Management can’t fire them all. Yet republican self-government can return to at least some Americans only if and when a bloc of major states puts itself in the position of dictating what will and will not happen within their borders.
It’s not as if we, the Smiths, were not warned. As our collective republican grandfather, President Dwight Eisenhower, was leaving office, he told us that “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity,” that “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is … gravely to be regarded,” and that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” The outsize power of the military-industrial complex he knew too well was but one of the consequences of our abandoning due caution about those who rule by virtue of their qualifications. Ike would not have been surprised at the attempted dictatorship of self-interested pseudo experts.
Leave aside that pretenses of expertise prove hollow as often as not. Even if those who pretend to rule on behalf of “science” had earned their status by examinations as rigorous and competitive as those of France’s Third Republic bureaucrats, their expertise would not negate the inalienable interest that the rest of us have in living our lives as we see fit—in our own freedom, pursuing our own interests, according to our own lights. “Who the hell do they think they are?” is the core of every Smithian complaint, and republican government’s bedrock argument.
Not all of Americans share it. Some really believe that controlling the Earth’s climate, and facilitating every manner of sexual gratification while exacting racial vengeance, must trump the freedoms of whomever objects. For them, rule by groups, each upholding its ideological and material stake and bargaining behind closed doors—that is, oligarchy—is fine.
But the Smiths notice that the schools are teaching their children less than they had been taught. They have been mortgaging the house to pay for college. Their children’s student loans mortgage their future. But the colleges have produced mostly worthless degrees while credentialing a generation of oligarchs who pretend to control other people’s lives. Remedying this is high on the Smiths’ to-do list, and more within their power than most other things.
Around the country, Americans are fleeing public K-12 schools as fast as they can. This exodus accelerated during the COVID affair as parents observed online the poor quality if not outright dysfunctionality of much that the schools teach. The teachers’ unions stimulated it by showing their priority for their material and ideological interests. Only because most Smiths don’t have the resources for private education or for home schooling is that exodus not accelerating faster.
The Smiths are increasingly open to tying school financing to school choice. Securing for parents a voucher in the amount that their public school spends per pupil, cashable at any school or applicable to the expenses of home schooling, would open a spigot at the bottom of the K-12 industry’s barrel. Merely campaigning to do it would unseat countless oligarchic officials. Though school choice is irrelevant to quality in principle, it frees each set of Smiths to rise or fall to the educational level they choose for their children. Let parents who care about intensively educating their children in science and math or the Greek and Roman classics or the Hebrew Bible to reap the consequences, good and bad, of their own choices. Let parents who want to teach their children that there are an infinite number of genders or that skin color is the all-powerful determining force in their lives or that biology is a human invention bear similar responsibility, without imposing their own beliefs on others.
The issue of quality and the question of what education means in today’s America lead us back to considering the role that reputation for expertise plays in the struggle between republic and oligarchy. We emphasize “reputation” because, as those now in charge of our institutions have rested their authority on “expertise,” they have also downgraded or eliminated objective standards about what that is. The oligarchy similarly perverts “merit,” having declared competitive exams to be out of fashion; in fact, Stanford Law School now decrees “meritocratic” grading policies to be forms of “state-sponsored racial segregation.”
Until recently, graduation from highly selective colleges seemed to certify their graduates as better for having been admitted, and doubly so for having learned more than students at lesser schools. But for a generation, the Ivy League, Stanford, and others have made a point of admitting many students with lower scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test rather than students with higher ones. In general, and with the exception of physics, chemistry, and pure math, the more highly rated the college, the less work it expects from its students. And since learning is inherently proportionate to studying, graduates of these academic peaks often know less than kids out of Podunk State. Yet they give their students something of supposedly greater practical value than knowledge: prestige, pretentiousness, and access to enviable careers.
Which leads one to ask why the nation’s most powerful consulting groups, private equity firms, and big banks hire Ivy League types and pay them so much. They are not necessarily all that bright or knowledgeable. Why then are they so valuable? Not because of what they know, but who they are: junior members of the oligarchy, identically chosen, trained, and confirmed to defend its interests, to communicate its priorities, and preserve its hierarchy. How come the public-private oligarchy was able to use the COVID challenge to crush independent business, thus transferring massive wealth to itself? Because its various parts are staffed by interconnected people who, whatever their differences, instinctively trump the Smiths’ priorities with those of their own class.
Of all the oligarchy’s parts, the educational establishment’s power most depends on prestige. But under the academic regalia, it has no more clothes than the proverbial emperor. The humble Smiths can cut the problem off at the roots simply by ceasing to credit the sources of prestige. The moment that the Smiths cease to think of Harvard and Stanford products as “smart,” and instead think “pretentious,” they deprive the oligarchy of much of its legitimacy. The moment that they realize that most colleges sell expensive four-year vacations from responsibility, they can stop supporting them, and ask instead where and at what price they may best obtain the combination of knowledge and credentials they seek. The Smiths can also urge those choices on whomever they elect at all levels of government.
The oligarchy’s cancellation of most ordinary people out of its desired America leaves the latter with the choice between helotry and exodus. But since submission to inconstant, inept masters is impossible, common sense suggests counter-canceling: limiting involvement with the oligarchy to minimizing its interference on individuals who don’t share its aims and preferences.
The oligarchy’s cancellation of ordinary working people—of those who actively participate in forms of organized religion, and are otherwise attached to the common norms and values that prevailed in America and shaped the civilization in and by which most of us live—signals an alienation deeper than that between citizens of different but friendly nations. Asking how this cultural chasm has come to be detracts from the hard task of understanding its depth and making the best of it. Like married couples who have lost or given up what had united them, trying to work through irreconcilable differences only drives Americans’ domestic quarrels toward more violence.
That is why going one’s own way, while paying no more attention to the woke than is absolutely necessary, should be the agenda of the country party, which in this case includes all of those who still feel an attachment to the ideals of republican citizenship that we once shared in common as Americans.
Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University.