In Part 1 of this (now seemingly endless) series of posts I described America’s elites as those people so positioned as to drive public opinion and therefore ultimately the direction of American public policy. These folks can be found in such places as the media, the universities, the large foundations and NGOs, the entertainment industry, high level state and Federal bureaucrats, think tanks, opinion journals, and so on. As I pointed out, the opinion makers are in a position to articulate and disseminate their opinions and to enforce compliance with them.(1)
America’s elites share with their foreign counterparts some characteristics but not others. For example, like most of the foreign elites, at least when they first arose, America’s elites believe themselves to be, and in general are, well-intended. They view themselves as having advanced opinions that will soon be, and frequently are, shared by the broader society. On the other hand, unlike the elites in virtually every other part of the world, America’s elites are not primarily the official rulers of their society. Indeed, the elites in the US are frequently at odds with their own elected leaders.
Because America’s elites don’t, for the most part, sit in Congress or the White House (there are exceptions, of course), it’s more difficult in the US than elsewhere for elites to fail, as they are doing in Europe and China and as they have already done in India. When elite opinion globally has turned out to be wrong, as it was with respect to Communism and socialism, the results proved to be catastrophic in Europe, the USSR and India, and they certainly would have been catastrophic in China but for Deng Xiaoping. But in the US those opinions were subject to checks and balances, since Congress and the Presidency never shared them.
But the trouble with elite opinion in the US doesn’t arise because it’s wrong. Our elite opinion makers go off the rails in several less obvious ways: when they try to push American public opinion too far too fast; when they try to foreclose debate on an issue; when their opinions harden into something approaching religious dogma.
Consider the first problem. There is a very real sense in which elite opinion in America is directly responsible for the rise of the Tea Party and, hence, for the hopeless divisions that bedevil the American political system today. It didn’t matter that elite opinion might actually be correct in most of its beliefs (though certainly not all). What mattered was that the opinion makers tried to push the agenda of elite opinion too far and too quickly, resulting in a very serious digging in of the heels of a great many Americans.(2) The Tea Party, in other words, is more properly understood not as representing extreme right-wing opinion, but simply as representing the unwillingness of many citizens to be dictated to.
Or consider the second. If a society is to move forward, it has to encourage – or at least tolerate – debate on almost every issue of any importance. Yet, one of the characteristics of elite opinion is that it forecloses debate on an issue once it decides the matter is closed. This is the aforementioned scourge of Political Correctness. Opinion makers typically do this because they are either trying to prevent backsliding on some important matter or because they fear that the progress they’ve engendered is fragile and won’t survive ongoing debate. These are legitimate concerns, but query whether the overall harm to society is greater as a result of occasional backsliding on issues or as a result of foreclosing debate altogether.
Finally, although people like me who live in the flyover states don’t always notice it, elite opinion makers frequently allow their opinions to congeal into religious zealotry. Listening to opinion makers discuss, well, the opinions of folks in the flyover states, you hear the same dismissive note you would have heard if you’d been listening to Julius Caesar on the barbarians, to Pope Paul III on Martin Luther, to Irish Catholics on Irish Protestants, or to Sunnis on Shiites.
Note that these are the three mistakes Europe’s elites made. The only difference between Europe and America is that the American elites weren’t governing the country on a day-to-day basis. Still, one serious problem is that American elites can’t “fail” in the usual sense, since they can’t be thrown out of office. Instead, they “fail” by ignoring the consequences of their opinions and how far they are pushing them. It’s an extreme case, of course, but I am reminded of how the dismissive attitudes of the German elites (the aristocrats who had survived World War I) toward the fledgling Weimar Republic led directly to its fall and to the rise of the Nazi Party.(3) As anyone who has a teenager knows, but as elite opinion makers apparently do not, even correct opinions can only be pushed so far.
In sum, India’s elites have recently been taken out and shot, Europe’s elites are in wholesale retreat, and China’s elites are an out-of-control freight train heading straight for a bridge abutment. In each case, no one knows what will fill the vacuum, and in each case the likely candidates are seriously worrisome. America is fortunate that it’s own elites aren’t running the country, but even here our elite opinion makers seem determined to overplay their hand. When they do, the results are unlikely to be palatable – to them or to any of us.
(1) Usually by disregarding such opinions – if the elites aren’t listening, the opinion, in effect, doesn’t exist. Public shaming is also a powerful weapon at the disposal of the elites.
(2) In other words, the influence of the Tea Party is out of all proportion to its membership because, on many issues, American voters share the Tea Party’s view that social and political changes are being pushed forward too quickly.
(3) Speaking of Nazis… Is it not a worrisome sign that at the formative institutions that develop America’s elites – our colleges and universities – large numbers of faculty seem to be teaching, and large numbers of students seem to be majoring in, Stalinist Thought Control?
Next up: Maybe We Should be Afraid… [But not next week, I’ll be traveling in Europe]
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