The Productive Class and the American Aristocracy

As the hostilities between the current government and the Tea Party movement have become increasingly rancorous, the division of American society into two cultures holding thoroughly incompatible worldviews has become obvious. In fact, the two forces are clearly on an unavoidable collision course. Although many people may understandably be most interested in knowing which side will prevail, I think an equally important and troubling question is precisely by what means the matter will be resolved. Will reason prevail and the people in power either have their agenda confirmed or step aside gracefully? Or will there be intransigence, increasing conflict, and even violence?

I do not believe that the answer to that question is by any means obvious.

In his excellent American Spectator article on "America's Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution," Angelo Codevilla calls these two antagonistic and irreconcilable groups the ruling class and the country party. Although I agree with Codevilla's outline of the two groups, I prefer to characterize them as the progressive aristocracy and the productive class. In fact, I think that it's vitally important for those in the productive class to understand that what Codevilla calls the ruling party is an aristocracy, albeit a corrupt one.

Differences in nomenclature notwithstanding, Codevilla's article is particularly useful in its lengthy descriptions of the two parties to the conflict, for they are more than just political movements and are in fact separate cultures. The culture of the progressive aristocracy is devoted to statism, whereas the productive class tends to hold classical liberal values.

Unlike their voters, who are in the country party and adhere tenaciously to their values, Republican politicians are eager to join the aristocracy, Codevilla observes:

Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class. . . . Differences between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas are of degree, not kind.

Rush Limbaugh read extensively from Codevilla's article on his radio program on Tuesday, and he correctly noted that Republican politicians' position on the edge of the aristocracy makes them extremely insecure and manipulable by the Democrats:

The Republicans want to be even more accepted in the ruling class. They want to be even more powerful. They want to be considered part of it. They want to be in the clique.

To that I would add many of those serving in conservative think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups, publications, and websites. They provide the intellectual cover for Republicans eager to flatter their way into what they fancy will be real membership in the aristocracy. Thus Limbaugh rightly observes, "Our battle is as much with those in the Republican Party who defend statism as with the radicals in the Democrat Party."

Codevilla notes that this ruling class is nothing like the American leaders of the past, who came from truly diverse backgrounds and held a variety of beliefs while accepting the nation's founding values. And unlike most past aristocracies, which were based on heredity, the progressive aristocracy is based on commitment to a set of ideas. Foremost among these is hostility toward Christianity: "While the unenlightened ones believe that man is created in the image and likeness of God and that we are subject to His and to His nature's laws, the enlightened ones know that we are products of evolution, driven by chance, the environment, and the will to primacy," Codevilla writes.

Accountability and personal responsibility -- the sine qua non of liberty and of the American experiment -- are kryptonite to the ruling class. In fact, Limbaugh notes, the aristocracy of today looks down upon real accomplishments, just as their predecessors in hereditary aristocracies often did, I would add. "The men in the country class are the fixers, and they're looked upon with disdain," Limbaugh notes.

Just as old-fashioned hereditary aristocracies in their corrupt mode enjoyed the privilege of breaking laws and social codes with impunity, so it is with ours today. Codevilla documents a vivid example in which the aristocracy kept its own from being held accountable for their misdeeds:

If, for example, you are Laurence Tribe in 1984, Harvard professor of law, leftist pillar of the establishment, you can "write" your magnum opus by using the products of your student assistant, Ron Klain.

When Tribe's assistant admitted to having plagiarized some of the material he wrote for the book published in Tribe's name, Tribe said the plagiarism was "inadvertent," Codevilla notes, and the Harvard Law School's Dean appointed a committee that whitewashed the incident. That dean, Elena Kagan, is now about to become a Justice on the Supreme Court. Thus are principles of accountability and responsibility flouted:

Not one of these people did their jobs: the professor did not write the book himself, the assistant plagiarized instead of researching, the dean and the committee did not hold the professor accountable, and all ended up rewarded. By contrast, for example, learned papers and distinguished careers in climatology at MIT (Richard Lindzen) or UVA (S. Fred Singer) are not enough for their questions about "global warming" to be taken seriously. For our ruling class, identity always trumps.

Limbaugh describes this process as the aristocracy circling the wagons:

Everybody totally lied. Not one genuine, authentic action by a whole cadre of people, but they circle the wagons. Dan Rather, the George Bush National Guard story proven to be based on fake documents. What happened? Brokaw and Peter Jennings circled the wagons, and the big members of the ruling class of journalism gave Rather a career award. And none of them did anything right.  But they are in the ruling class.

Thus the ruling class is by no means a meritocracy. On the contrary, what is required is conformity, and it is enforced without pity. Campus political correctness codes can thus be understood as a way of instilling in future leaders an awareness of the detailed code of manners they will have to follow if they wish to succeed in life -- and a stern warning to those who would disobey. After graduation, hate speech laws and the like continue to enforce the code.

Aristocracies commonly prevent talented individuals from earning more wealth then their social betters, and today's progressive aristocracy runs true to form. Far from being the most talented individuals, its recruits are "people whose most prominent feature is their commitment to fit in," Codevilla writes. He continues:

Once an official or professional shows that he shares the manners, the tastes, the interests of the class, gives lip service to its ideals and shibboleths, and is willing to accommodate the interests of its senior members, he can move profitably among our establishment's parts.

Limbaugh describes this group as "the conformists; the people who will sacrifice their own identity; the people who will sacrifice who they really are in order to be accepted by people they think are their betters." Like courtiers in an especially corrupt monarchy, prospective aristocrats today must flatter their rulers and humble themselves to prove their fealty. One can hardly think of a better example of this degrading process than President Clinton's notorious intern Monica Lewinsky.

The real motive for progressive politics is by no means any sense of altruism, as the aristocracy would have us believe. It is all of the usual selfish stuff: money, power, and ego. Limbaugh observes:

When you get down to it, folks, it's all about money. Always follow the money. The left and the ruling class love to say that they do things out of altruism, out of compassion, big hearts, and these people are a bunch of lazy SOBs who have no business in the private sector 'cause they can't succeed there. The only way they can succeed is to be a bunch of brownnosers in the ruling class and try to move their way up that ladder and get whatever they can out of the public trough.  The ruling class has gotten rich off of government.

As Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) noted in Ghostbusters, "You don't know what it's like out there. I've worked in the private sector. They expect results!"

An excellent example of how the aristocracy rules the realm is the global warming issue. All the money, profit, power, and prestige are on the side of the alarmists, and they wield their power ruthlessly, blatantly throwing their weight around in silencing those who try to tell the truth about the science of climate change. Al Gore is a multimillionaire who knows nothing about science, whereas S. Fred Singer is a brilliant scientist who continually endures a firestorm of slanders and harassment for trying to uphold scientific standards. These two men encapsulate the opposing forces of the aristocracy and the productive class.

The productive class consists of natural liberals who want a system in which people reap the rewards of their accomplishments and receive the just consequences of their misdeeds. Such people believe in liberty and are willing to accept the personal responsibility without which liberty cannot exist. The nation's aristocracy, by contrast, needs a powerful, controlling state in order to maintain their perks, privileges, and prestige based on an elaborate scheme of mannerisms and shibboleths no less rigid and arbitrary than those of the court of Louis XIV.

Naturally, the forcible disconnection of actions from consequences has led to a series of catastrophes and misadventures -- bumbled intrusions in Iraq and Afghanistan while failing to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, a ghastly housing bubble and crash of financial markets followed by a nagging recession, horrifyingly irresponsible expansion of government debt, a grotesque comedy of errors as the federal government and a multinational megabusiness fail to plug an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, children's academic achievement at a disastrously low level, entertainment and arts given over in great part to proselytizing for the aristocracy's pet political causes and character assassination of all who dare to question that agenda, and so on and on.

This spectacular litany of misrule has elicited a mass public distrust of the nation's leaders. An April 2010 study found that "Americans are more dissatisfied with the country's direction than at any time since the New York Times/CBS News poll began asking about the subject in the early 1990s." Other polls show similar results. This is not a sustainable situation, and increasing conflict appears to be inevitable. With the productive class pressing for self-governance -- which its members see as both their inherent right and as necessary to their productivity -- and the progressive aristocracy threatened with the loss of everything, compromise is impossible.

It's too late, moreover, for conservatism to provide a remedy. Codevilla writes:

In this clash, the ruling class holds most of the cards: because it has established itself as the fount of authority, its primacy is based on habits of deference. Breaking them, establishing other founts of authority, other ways of doing things, would involve far more than electoral politics.

Traditional conservatism is a woefully inadequate response to the rule of the progressive aristocracy because conserving the changes of the past few decades would be disastrous: the vast increase in the welfare state, the Sexual Revolution and its antinomian devaluation of all values, the nation's catastrophically bad education system, a culture promoting license and irresponsibility, and other such atrocities are necessary to the maintenance of a corrupt aristocracy which relies on the output of a productive class forced into peasant-like docility so that its goods can be extracted for the benefit of its self-proclaimed betters.

In fact, the baneful state of contemporary American society might seem to be no accident at all, as it keeps the productive class in line through threats from above (impoverishment, prison, and family breakups, all of which governments have shown themselves quite willing to inflict) and below (by crime and social disorder) and bought off with cheap pleasures. It's a regime  that combines the worst elements of the dystopias in 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange.

The progressive aristocracy is every bit as morally reprehensible as the worst of those of the past, for it relies on the existence of an underclass that will provide sufficient votes to keep it in power and motivate the productive class to work hard lest they fall into this unfortunate group. That helps explain why the progressive aristocracy has stood idly by while the schools in the nation's inner cities have deteriorated so badly and thus doomed a large swath of the population to poverty and dependence on the government. This inculcation of ignorance appears to be a matter of truly stupendous cynicism.

Thus what there is to conserve in the nation's institutions is largely unappealing to the productive class. The modern aristocrats are the ones who want to conserve the political, social, and cultural institutions of today, for they rely on these forces for their comfortable existence. What is needed, then, is not conserving but reform. The problem is that the aristocracy has so strong a grasp of the levers of power that the means of reform scarcely exist.

Nonetheless, Codevilla argues that the aristocracy can be toppled through political means. His expectation is that the Republican Party will be transformed into one that represents the interests of the productive class or will be replaced by such a party, in order to get their votes:

Because, in the long run, the country class will not support a party as conflicted as today's Republicans, those Republican politicians who really want to represent it will either reform the party in an unmistakable manner, or start a new one as Whigs like Abraham Lincoln started the Republican Party in the 1850s.

Codevilla and Limbaugh believe that such a party can indeed achieve political power and turn things around. Many others join them in that belief. If the contemporary American aristocracy can be forced out without such a terrible confrontation, it will be impressive proof of the Founders' wisdom and the success of the American experiment. If not, the nation may well be headed for a struggle that will make the tumult of the 1960s look like a mild tiff in comparison.

S. T. Karnick is director of research for The Heartland Institute and editor of The American Culture.
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