Sunday, October 31, 2010

Whither the Elite?

The fourth part in a series

Economic worry has partially (but only partially) contributed to the growing anxiety about elites in contemporary society. Pummeling the effigies of the elite has been a commonplace in US politics since at least the days of the Whiskey Rebellion. But panic over the elites has spiked in the past few years.

The crash was triply damaging to the current elite: it caused the American public to view its current elite as dishonest, avaricious, and (perhaps most damaging of all) incompetent. Before late 2008, many Americans suspected that their economic and political elite was far more concerned with profiting itself than profiting the nation as a whole; the near melt-down showed for many that the elite was even willing to profit itself by taking down the prosperity of the whole.

For many Americans, the crash, its aftermath, and, in retrospect, the years before the crash showed a triumph of mendacity. Even as many Americans view the elite as growing more insular (increasingly pedigreed, increasingly dismissive of middle-class concerns, increasingly self-protective), they also see this elite as incompetent at getting the real work---of business and of government---done. Say what you will about the titans of over a century ago, but their work enriched the nation as well as themselves. Rockefeller’s oil fueled the nation, while Carnegie’s steel provided an industrial backbone and Vanderbilt’s railroads knit together the nation. FDR and his Ivy League crew led the nation to triumph in World War II and created an enduring postwar diplomatic infrastructure.

The past decade has witnessed the spectacular failure of the governing class on many levels, from national security to international affairs to the economy. And yet the members within this class often seemed immune from any consequences of their failures. For example, consider the public image of Tim Geithner. He began serving as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2003. Yet his stewardship at ground zero of the investment nightmare of the 2000s did not result in his chastisement but his promotion to Secretary of the Treasury. Geithner's tax problems suggest further aspect of anxieties over the elite: a sense that the elite uses its power to ensure that the rules will not apply to its members.

So American views of elites are conflicted. Even as many Americans worry about the growing power of elites within the system, they also fault the elites for weakening the whole (of government, of finance, of security).

This backdrop of anxiety and scorn is important for understanding the fate of Obama and, more broadly, "progressive" Democrats for the 2010 elections. One of the central principles of Obama's vision of governance is the centralization of power. What was the Orszag/Obama gambit on health-care but the assertion that a centralized bureaucracy in Washington could effectively set health policy for the nation as a whole, from the pediatrician's office to the nursing home? Conveniently enough, this centralized power would fall into the hands of the credentialed elite, which would churn through and hand off power with an almost dynastic sense of inevitability.

Many of the "reforms" championed by Obama and his Congressional allies would, while increasing the power of certain government bureaucrats, also offer further incentive for the rich and powerful to manipulate the decisions of these bureaucrats. Cap-and-trade would have created an army of interested parties and interested governmental adjudicators. Debates over bailouts and financial reforms have been saturated with the influence of corporate giants.

Since the passage of the new health-care law, members of the Obama administration have threatened companies with the stick of regulatory retribution if these companies make undesirable claims about Obamacare while at the same time holding out the carrot of "waivers" from this law's rules for certain politically favored entities. The passage of health-care "reform" itself seemed to many Americans a display of bubble-like elitism, as members of Congress rushed and double-talked through a greatly unpopular measure.

Many Americans see in Obama's "progressive" vision an increase in power for an elite that has used its power irresponsibly. Beyond his political appointments and his policies, some of Obama's personal comments have only helped to identify him with some of the trends in politics that many Americans in the middle find so toxic. His infamous "bitter-clinger" comments of 2008 suggested a tendency to equate skeptics of certain "progressive" claims with backwards-looking bigots. Obama picked up on that theme in some recent comments, when he implied that opposition to his program is based on irrational fear rather than a reasonable disagreement or prudent doubt. Many Democrats and their allies have made this theme even more explicit.

That sort of argumentative tactic may seem one additional sign of the elite's rapaciousness: in addition to demanding a greater and greater share of economic and political power, the elite also seeks to have a monopoly on setting the grounds of "correct" political discourse. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that many Americans feel shut out.

Worries about elitism are not just jealousy of people with big bank accounts and Ivy League diplomas or just proletariat resentment: they can also be legitimate concerns about how to maintain the United States as a free and fluid republic.

Consider the fact that a prominent New York Times columnist and Pulitzer-prize winner has numerous times dreamed about the virtue of having an absolute dictatorship (led, of course, by the noble and good---that is, those who agree with him), if only for a day. Consider the fact that what many "progressives" found so good about the Orszag-like medical review panels is that they would not be directly accountable to the democratic process. One need not invoke the specter of the "road to serfdom" to find these developments troubling.

A fundamental source of the contemporary anxiety about the elite is the deeper worry about the future of the American republic. Is there hope for economic progress? Will our nation have to accept a future of diminished expectations---for our security, our wealth, our health, our freedom? Can we defend deliberative democracy in the face of so many seeming obstacles? Can we remain a nation rich in our differences but also strong in our fellowship?

The political pendulum has swung back and forth over the past few cycles, as Americans look for a way forward. So far, it seems as though all the paths of seeming hope have become dead ends. And so these questions are asked with more and more urgency. And so passions broke forth into movements angry with the establishments of both political parties.

Next: The Future?

Previously: The Resurgent Right, A Radical Gamble, The Stupid Economy

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