Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
Progress and Return: Overcoming the Leftist Oligarchy
This essay appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The United States is very likely in the midst of a regime change. The full scope of that change is still unclear. The possibilities range from moderate restructuring of the current system, to a complete overhaul of the Constitution, to breakup of the Union. The change may become violent and chaotic—leading perhaps to a fundamental weakening or dissolution of American sovereignty and identity. It is likely that some severe crisis, probably a financial shock, will occur before the people and the political class are stirred to action. This does not prevent thoughtful citizens from reflecting now on what might be necessary to address the defects in our political, economic, and social institutions.
Mainly, our problems stem from the ways the Progressives and their successors repurposed our government with the intent to make it rational and therefore modern. The regime that emerged from those efforts is under assault. Donald Trump’s attacks on the old ruling-class consensus, and the disturbing revelations about the “deep state,” are exacerbating a crisis of legitimacy in the establishment. To the degree that the original constitutional order, created by the founding and consecrated in the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments, is still operable, it is nevertheless badly damaged.
The rehabilitation of republican government faces twin dangers. Though there is still vestigial attachment to the Founders’ Constitution (witness the intensity of the Tea Party movement not very long ago), veneration of the laws that comes only from long custom and undisturbed habit has become badly attenuated. Now, during, and after the change, we will need to rely heavily on the fragile power of what Lincoln called “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” That may not work. Related to this, the bonds of civic friendship are badly frayed; partisans both left and right seem to feel we can no longer coexist.
* * *
The Founders relied, in part, on Aristotle’s political science to inform their statecraft. Can we also find some wisdom there applicable to our own difficulties? In the Politics, the generic name for regime is politeia, polity, which is also a certain mixed form of rule. Though kingship, tyranny, and aristocracy are distinct forms of government with their own characteristic features, most regimes range between extreme oligarchy (the rule of the few rich) and extreme democracy (the rule of the poor multitude). Oligarchs, who see their success as a reflection of superior ability that sets them apart, tend to exaggerate how people are different. The multitude, who see clearly that everyone is equally a citizen, tend to emphasize sameness or similarity. Typically, we find some mixture of both—that is, a polity, which seeks to mask the differing claims about justice by blending the partial truth of each.
Every attempt to solve the challenge of American union has grappled with this essential division. The Federalist notes that “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” And because the causes of such factional differences can never be eliminated, “relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” We can see the persistence of this theme in our current polarization: the working class versus the elites; rooted, low- and middle-income “Somewheres” versus wealthy, cosmopolitan “Anywheres.” Still more, the Red State/Blue State divide captures the split between the coastal habitat of the oligarchs and the heartland home of the “democratic” majority, the demos.
The Founders’ solution to this enduring tension was not to deny Aristotle’s schema, but to soften the permanence of his divisions in the heat of economic liberty. Personal freedom and property rights—and the ever-rising wealth that flowed from this combination—could liberate the American people from hereditary classes. In turn, wealth and social standing would become more fluid as the “spirit of enterprise” was released. (The seemingly boundless opportunity of the frontier also helped for the first century.) The national character itself would be improved by encouraging ingenuity and scientific exploration. “To cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not among the least considerable of the expedients, by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted,” Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures noted.
Hamilton and his allies helped unleash an economic dynamo nearly unparalleled in the history of the world. The population of the United States grew at a staggering rate: from 4 million in 1790 to 95 million in 1912, the high point of Progressive influence. During the same time period, GDP (in 2012 dollars) expanded even faster, from $4.6 million to $654 million.
Promoting economic liberty was a clever improvement on Aristotle’s political science—both effective and noble. Yet Aristotle would have viewed with cautious skepticism this trust in the commercial advantages of science and technology. The Founders seemed to overlook that the productive arts reflect only partial goals, and therefore must be subordinated to the common good. In response to the ideas of a reckless innovator named Hippodamus, Aristotle advises that rewarding all inventions “is not safe, though it sounds appealing.”
The most glaring omission in America’s story of economic freedom is of course slavery. Hamilton’s economic-development plan was intended in part to help move America away from reliance on forced servitude. But it required the Civil War to destroy the oligarchy of the slave owner. By the end of the century, the rule of the factory and the mine owners appeared to be taking its place. The unchecked growth in population (including, importantly, nearly unlimited tolerance for immigration) had created problems of urban poverty and blight, revolting labor conditions, and public health nuisances that undermined the general welfare. In the eyes of the Progressives, the Founders’ Constitution had neither anticipated such problems, nor provided the means properly to address them. The federal government needed new authority to act.
The chasm between the urban poor and the Gilded Age fortunes amassed from the nation’s rapid industrialization also revealed to the Progressives that the Civil War had not eliminated class divisions. Indeed, the slide toward oligarchy could be seen in the corruption of state legislatures. (A popular joke was that Standard Oil had done everything to the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it.) Not only was the Founders’ Constitution inadequate to the regulatory needs of a modern society; the belief that free elections would elevate a “natural aristocracy” to office, imbuing the government with wisdom and virtue, had been shown to be laughably naive.
Some contemporary defenders of the Constitution agreed that most or all of these problems required more vigorous action from the federal government, but that appropriate responses could be devised within the Constitution’s existing framework. This important subject is covered in two valuable collections of essays: Toward an American Conservatism: Constitutional Conservatism during the Progressive Era, edited by Joseph Postell and Johnathan O’Neill, and Progressive Challenges to the American Constitution: A New Republic, edited by Bradley C. S. Watson.
The Progressives showed little interest in such tepid amelioration (as it appeared to them) and were determined that enlightened administration of the government by disinterested and professionally trained experts was not only required but historically destined. “The science of politics has received great improvement,” wrote Publius in 1787. Not enough, retorted Woodrow Wilson one hundred years later. The founding, though a reasonable and even admirable effort for its time, was a product of eighteenth-century thinking. The Progressives thought they had discovered the ineluctable laws of history that govern the development of the human race—or rather, races. History, they believed, had demarcated Anglo-Saxon culture as the vehicle for mankind’s final stage of development. The time for the rationally administered State, as articulated by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and his disciples, had arrived.
Drawing the exact contours of Progressive thought would require a larger canvas than this essay can cover. Our purpose here is to examine how our current system became partly constitutional, partly progressive, and mostly dysfunctional. The Progressives were often correct in their assessments of the nation’s ills. Many conservatives now recognize this, even as we can see that an End-of-History bureaucratic government was a cure worse than the disease. What’s harder to accept is how quickly Progressivism was able to take root here—as if the soil had already been prepared for this invasive species of German ideology.
While the Progressives’ belief in the inevitable upward march of history gave them a millenarian faith in man’s perfectibility, Thomas G. West—a close and sympathetic student of American political thought—points out in his book Vindicating the Founders that the framers were also susceptible to an overly optimistic belief in human enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson’s views here are familiar (“All eyes are open or opening to the rights of man”). Less well known perhaps is Hamilton’s passage from The Farmer Refuted: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature.” The usually sober New England Puritan John Adams could lapse into similar flights of fancy. Writing to Jefferson in 1813, he exclaimed: “Many hundred years must roll away before We Shall be corrupted. Our pure, virtuous, public Spirited federative Republic will last for ever, govern the Globe and introduce the perfection of Man.” Even Calvin Coolidge, so dour that H. L Mencken once jibed he had been “weaned on a pickle,” was not immune, invoking in one speech, “the dominion of man over himself and over nature” to justify “the superiority and increasing progress of modern civilization.”
It didn’t take much for the Progressives to convince optimistic Americans that some fresh ideas would solve their old problems, and that History was on their side.
* * *
More than a century has now passed since the graven image of Progress was erected to displace our Constitution, but neither Providence nor History have delivered us to the promised land. Oligarchy is back (this appears to be the way our commercial republic lists), and in important ways, worse than ever. Social mobility has petered out for many middle- and working-class Americans. Opioids are a new plague. The spirit of entrepreneurship, though hardly dead, is increasingly displaced in the imaginations of the poor by idle fantasies about the lottery and sports as paths to wealth and success.
In the knowledge economy, our leading oligarchs in law, finance, the tech community, and the entertainment industry are clustered along the coasts and a few inland cities. They uncannily exhibit what Aristotle describes as the characteristic vices of the rich: hubris and condescension. The demos is concentrated in central suburban and rural areas, and is not immune to its characteristic vices (also described in the Politics) of resentment and envy.
Faced with too much of the oligarchic element, a wise Aristotelian “legislator” (by which he means not an ordinary lawmaker but a prudent and educated man or woman concerned with the common good) would seek to compensate with more democratic elements: homogeneity, nationalism, stability, and the dignity of physical labor. These are not intrinsically superior qualities, just as diversity, economic competition and risk (and the elitism that emerges therefrom), cosmopolitanism, and openness to immigration are not inherently inferior. The latter have simply become too dominant. The blending and mixing done by a philosophic legislator trained in Aristotle’s political wisdom is not always possible. It’s easier to set up a regime properly than to fix one. And adjustment requires the right opportunity. Sometimes regimes change on their own, tumultuously and without conscious planning. In those circumstances, the most a legislator might be able to do is offer sound advice to those with some leverage over events.
There are further complications. Our oligarchs keenly sense their own superiority and aim to hold on to their privileges—clinging not to guns and religion but to their MBAs and alumni connections for security. And yet they maintain a pretense of solidarity with the people. We are ruled by an oligarchy of the left, which is curious in itself, and certainly novel in American history. This makes for some strange partnerships and often tortured rhetoric.
The Progressives, and especially their Populist allies, railed against the “malefactors of great wealth.” Yet with the exception of Bernie Sanders, whose socialism has been on autopilot for several decades now, few Democrat politicians today decry plutocracy. It’s hard to inveigh too much against the “money power” when the nation’s most famous billionaires include such notable Democrats as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Warren Buffett.
The left manages to paper over this and related contradictions partly because its manic obsession with power gives it a natural facility for propaganda. Consider the rather brilliant slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which claimed to represent, however dubiously, the disenfranchised “99 percent.” (Such a claim is not mathematically impossible, by the way; Aristotle points out that even in an oligarchy there may be one who is wealthier than all the other wealthy combined.) By contrast, Mitt Romney, during his presidential run, wrote off as hopeless and unpersuadable the “forty-seven percent of Americans [who] pay no income tax.” My job, he added, “is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them.” The politically preponderant part of the regime may not necessarily be a numerical majority, but if it is smart it does not advertise this fact!
Another complicating factor is the way in which the dogma of expertise, supported by the prestige education establishment, dominates both the knowledge economy and the administrative state. Our current regime sees itself not merely as an oligarchy of wealthy achievers but as an alliance between wealth and wisdom. This pretense of aristocratic virtue helps explain why many people, not really part of the ruling class themselves, adopt the regime’s poses and arguments as an inexpensive way to project fashionable trendiness and moral superiority. Among certain demographics, to be “woke” is not so much a choice as a powerful social obligation. The legitimacy and authority of the current regime seems to merge the attractions of raw power, the abstruse allure of Marxist and post-Marxist theory, and the almost priestly majesty conferred by a top-tier diploma.
This virtue-cratic hauteur is not entirely new. The old oligarchy of the Cabots and Lodges, the Carnegies and Mellons, also saw itself as spiritually superior—not just richer but more civilized. However, their noblesse oblige (often prompted by a sense of Christian duty) was explicitly directed away from their own self-interest. Even if this was observed more often in the breach, it was at least professed. And the philanthropy of the old oligarchy was no mere posture, as the names of many universities, museums, and libraries testify. In a strange reversal, today’s elite wear sneakers and jeans like the working class but disdain any obligation to their fellow citizens beyond the dubious honor of dressing down to look like them. There is noticeably little philanthropy in Silicon Valley, and where it does exist, it is often directed to global ventures with little immediate benefit to Americans. (The Gates Foundation pours almost all its largesse into international causes.) Worse, on issues like trade and immigration, our new elite have slyly yet consistently distorted public policy toward their own financial gain in ways that directly harm the working class—a form of crony capitalism as selfish and dishonest as anything perpetrated by Standard Oil.
Against this bloated edifice of condescension and privilege, Donald Trump has arisen like an avenging angel (or at least a vengeful Tweeter) of demotic indignation. He threatens to change the regime back again, or at any rate away from what it is now. That is to say, Trump is a counterrevolutionary, and from the perspective of the current ruling element, he and his supporters must be dealt with as mercilessly as any anarchists who threaten the peace. From Aristotle’s perspective, Trump’s rise was almost inevitable: oligarchies undergo a revolution “when they treat the multitude unjustly,” flaunt their “aggrandizements,” and take on “too many features of rule by a master.”
Though we are witnessing almost exactly what Aristotle would expect, events so far are following the natural ebb and flow of political currents. If matters are not to cascade uncontrollably, we must see what measures for thoughtful guidance by a statesman or philosophic legislator are still available. (One of the most dire lessons of the Politics is how easy it is for regime change to descend into tyranny.)
Our most urgent problem is that the authoritarian left no longer believes in progress or the old liberal ideals that went along with it. Campuses and corporations have largely abandoned the principle of free speech, and elite universities seem more eager by the day to trade tolerance and dialogue for hectoring and grievance mongering. The cancer of identity politics is replacing the rule of law and equal rights (or what remains of those principles) with an explicit program of compensation for preferred groups of victims, and punitive measure against their historic oppressors. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s then-radical call for reparations in 2014 is now finding its way into the speeches of prominent Democrat politicians. The left, it turns out, never rejected the Progressive preoccupation with racial rankings; it just inverted them.
* * *
How can any conventional, moderate means for rebalancing the regime hope to succeed in the face of such radical alienation from discourse and compromise? The arrogant certainty that leftism is historically inevitable, making accommodation superfluous, seems to be a peculiarly modern problem. The Progressives’ historicism—the belief that nature provides no permanent standards for human life, and that truth is revealed in the unfolding of history—originates in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and especially Hegel. The ancient thinkers had no “historical consciousness.” So it may seem that Aristotle has at last let us down, just when we need him the most.
Yet, as they emerge though various twists and turns from historicist premises, the grievances of today’s radicals are strangely backward looking. They are fixated not so much on reaching a beautiful future as on punishing and compensating for past wrongs. To be sure, there is a quasi-utopian element in the belief that nature is a social construct, and injustice—as a product of systemic oppression—can be completely overcome. In this respect it is aligned with the more standard view of liberalism that sees no downside to constant change and innovation; tradition is merely a mask for power.
Because this ideology has developed in convoluted ways from several sources, it has inherent contradictions that are increasingly problematic for its adherents. The growing tension between feminism and transgender rights is the most obvious, but others lurk below the surface. We ought not to presume in despair, then, that the regime’s dogmas are beyond argument. The left may currently be in possession of all the commanding heights of our culture, but we can continue to challenge its weaknesses. And perhaps Aristotle may have something to say after all.
First, we might ask whether this ideological urge is natural or conventional. If it is a permanent impulse embedded in human nature, then philosophers (including the ancients) have probably already considered it and may provide us with some sensible advice. If it is conventional, that would suggest it is not invincible and may be refuted, expunged, or at least temporarily suppressed through conventional means.
Not surprisingly, the regime’s ideology appears to be a mixture. Three aspects of it, at least, are addressed in the Politics. Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s Republic points to the flaws of utopianism; his disparagement of Hippodamus, the reckless inventor, exposes the peril of unregulated innovation; and the discussion of tyranny touches on the passion to rule others without limit. Insofar as at least some aspects of today’s political and intellectual battles are not new, there is much to be learned from the Politics. As intractable as leftist indoctrination may seem at the moment, it is not impregnable. Indeed, it may in the end succumb to a rather prosaic and quintessentially modern principle: self-interest.
George Hawley, writing in the American Conservative, has noted:
Although true ideologues exist, they are found primarily among elites. Outside the Beltway, newsrooms, and state capitals, ideological thinking is uncommon. . . . Although Americans, on average, are not ideological, we are partisan. . . . After deciding that we are Republicans or Democrats, we start to also call ourselves conservatives or liberals, even if we have little understanding of what those terms mean.
This is a key point about polarization that is so often missed. The anger, fear, and mistrust in American politics is real. Polarization is not “fake news.” But political polarization is not ideological in nature. . . . Most of us determine our party identification and our ideological orientation (to the extent that we have one) based on our social identities.
If that’s true, then perhaps it’s still possible to talk—not so much to the ideological leaders as the fashionable followers. People may flaunt their attachment to the doctrines of the regime only because it remains trendy and attractive. David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation observes that these loyalties may suddenly look quite different if a financial crisis compels the U.S. Treasury to choose between servicing the debt or issuing Social Security checks. If we begin thinking now about how to persuade this weakly committed part of the regime, we may be able to speak and act effectively when the time comes.
* * *
Surveying our political landscape, it’s clear that the U.S. can be characterized by a long list of both liabilities and assets. It might be valuable and interesting to have a conference to enumerate and discuss them. The framers’ Constitution (and for that matter the Progressive revolution) was a group effort. They met in convention to debate and deliberate. We should do something similar.
It seems clear that the opportunity to think and talk is not yet foreclosed, because our challenges are not really technical or geostrategic, but political. Other than a porous southern border (which poses a demographic but not a military threat), we have no external enemies to fear. Radical Islam may continue its appalling asymmetrical warfare against civilians; however, it poses no threat to our armed forces. And while China has become a global power, its ambitions are limited for now to the pressing need to modernize its economy. The territorial integrity of the United States is not at risk. We have, in that sense, maneuvering room to address our problems.
There are a number of proposals being floated for strengthening Congress, making our parties more effective, and bolstering federalism. Sensible ideas for rehabilitating the best institutional arrangements of the founding deserve careful consideration. We also need to think about social and economic institutions that are not formally part of the government, yet support the regime’s broader power base.
The two most obvious targets for whittling down the oligarchy’s haughtiness are social media and the elite universities. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have become shockingly open about their censorship of conservative viewpoints. The Ivy League and its companion schools such as Stanford and the University of Chicago provide the credentials, indoctrination, and network of connections that support the regime’s singular claim to rule: the supposedly objective—but in fact deeply illegitimate and self-interested—authority of specially trained experts.
The power of technology and education to cultivate loyalty to the regime is perhaps a more potent force even than the vast bureaucracy of the government. No corrective action can hope to succeed without bringing under prudent direction the technological innovation that Aristotle warned against, the Founders too blithely accepted, and the Progressives endorsed. Likewise, education—to which Aristotle devotes the entire last book of the Politics as “the object above all” for a healthy polity—must be wrested back from the control exercised by the left ever since John Dewey penned Democracy and Education in 1916.
Thinking like traditional conservatives rather than Aristotelian legislators, some on the right will bristle at such interference in “private” institutions. But these entities long ago ceased to operate as merely private agents; they are political actors, serving political agendas as the propaganda and ideology arms of the regime. We can—to satisfy the sticklers for the letter of the law—observe some legal niceties for now. The social media companies are natural monopolies akin to public utilities; and their terms of service abuse traditional contract law. (Why can Twitter, for example, use arbitrary standards to destroy the content I created by deleting my account without warning?) The universities rely heavily on federal funding, which creates an obvious opening that the Trump administration, to its credit, seems to be using to protect freedom of speech.
More unconventional means for affecting education could counteract the worst tendencies of the oligarchs who, in Aristotle’s words, are “preeminent in the goods of fortune [and] neither wish to be ruled nor know how to be [because] from childhood on they live in luxury which makes them unfit” for self-government. Our knowledge elite too often disdain manual labor and the importance of physical skills because they are so rarely exposed to it. We could require more physical education and vocational training in schools. In a healthy regime, even future doctors and software engineers would have some experience making their own meals and learning how to fix a car.
These are merely a few examples of the kind of thinking that will be necessary. The point is that there is no compelling reason to think that prudence and philosophical reflection are hopeless in our current situation. Union is the central and recurring theme in the American political drama. But the ancient thinkers (and some modern ones too!) may have additional wisdom yet to offer us. Perhaps above all, their native caution and moderation can draw us back from what Leo Strauss called “visionary expectations from politics.” The trick will be not to lapse into pessimism.
The brainwashing by the hard left is exasperatingly resilient. Yet to suggest that it is permanent or irrevocable would seem to deny human nature. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union scrambled to develop allies and client states, dividing the world into opposing camps. The Soviets—believing that communism was historically inevitable—operated on the maxim “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable.” Ronald Reagan flatly rejected this . . . and so should we. The West in general, and America in particular, has faced apparently insurmountable odds before. If we can recite from memory the patriotic story of Washington at Valley Forge, should we despair so easily at the power of CNN and Berkeley?
The men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor may have been too quick to assume that they had secured for all time, not the perfection of human nature, but the permanent precepts of republican government. Their accomplishments and insights were rejected, misunderstood, or forgotten more easily than they anticipated. John Adams thought that by devoting himself to the arts of “politics and war” he would liberate his grandsons “to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” Alas, porcelain and tapestry must wait; we are obligated again to study “the science of government.”
To determine whether a regime remains at heart the same, or has become something altogether different, Aristotle invokes a standard of moral obligation: Is the new regime responsible for the debts of the old one? The extent of our current regime change may turn on the question of whether we have yet paid our greatest debt—the one we owe to “our fathers.” We would best honor them and ourselves by imitating them, through prudent acts of statesmanship and citizenship that will achieve our safety and happiness. As a son repays his father by becoming a man, so must we secure for ourselves the conditions of freedom. ♦
Glenn Ellmers is a speechwriter and the former director of research at the Claremont Institute.
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