The United States was founded as a commonwealth and has devolved into an oligarchy, the interests of which are at odds with those of the people at large. This ruling “elite” includes not only unelected bureaucrats ruling in their own interests but also corporate leaders in tech, finance, and media, who establish rules from which they themselves are exempt or of which they are the beneficiaries.
By Maclubin Owens and Victor Davis Hanson for American Greatness
The American Oligarchy
Over the past few months, it has become common for Democrats and progressives to invoke “Our Democracy”™ whenever they criticize efforts to ensure election integrity or condemn the perpetrators of the January 6 “insurgency.” On one level, the phrase is just another annoying example of debasing the language by the very people who have been working overtime to rewrite the Constitution.
But on another level, the phrase suggests something even more sinister: that those who invoke it literally mean “their” democracy, i.e. a regime that belongs to them, validated by the votes of the “right people” who approve of their so-called progressive enterprise. Anyone who doesn’t approve is, by definition, an insurgent, an enemy of the state. Any attempt to limit their power—e.g., by insisting on election integrity—is therefore “anti-democratic.”
I am only one of a number of writers who have argued that the United States has devolved from a republic or commonwealth to an oligarchy. Lest we succumb to the error of progressives and simply use a word to mean something we don’t like, it is important to understand the nature and background of oligarchy. It is not just any “ruling class” but an elite and ruling class of a particular sort. In this regard, it helps to examine the taxonomy of regimes outlined by the first political scientists, Plato and Aristotle.
These writers identified three types of rule: the one; the few; and the many. Each form had a good and bad version, the former based on rule for the benefit of the entire polity and the latter rule on behalf of the ruler or ruling class alone. Thus, the good form of rule by the one was kingship; the bad form tyranny. The good form of rule by the few was aristocracy; the bad form oligarchy or plutocracy. And the good form of rule by the many was politeia or a balanced constitution, which the Romans translated as res publica and which is most properly rendered as commonwealth in English; the bad form was pure democracy or ochlocracy: that is, mob rule.
For Aristotle, all regimes were subject to metabole, a process of change that included corruption and decline. His successor Polybius went further, suggesting that all political regimes were subject to the “cycle of constitutions” (anakuklosis politeion). He saw the cycle proceeding this way: A kingship begins virtuously, but over time the rule by the one on behalf of the whole deteriorates into tyranny. The virtuous few, the aristoi, depose the tyrant and reestablish well-ordered rule. But over time that aristocracy deteriorates from the rule of the virtuous to the rule of the wealthy: oligarchy. The oligarchs are then overthrown by the virtuous many (the people), but the balanced constitution that is put in place inevitably deteriorates into unruly democracy. Then the cycle repeats itself. This process of degenerating constitutions was the central problem for the Greek founders of the science of politics: essentially, that good forms of rule become corrupted and descend into bad forms.
The United States seems to have been subject to the same metabole described by the Greeks. What was founded as a commonwealth has devolved into an oligarchy, the interests of which are at odds with those of the people at large. This ruling “elite” includes not only unelected bureaucrats ruling in their own interests but also corporate leaders in tech, finance, and media, who establish rules from which they themselves are exempt or of which they are the beneficiaries.
Of course, all complex societies have a “ruling class,” which can be either aristocratic or oligarchic. The United States has prospered when its ruling class has been aristocratic—prosperous but public-spirited philanthropists devoted to the common good. In such cases, the interests of this aristocratic ruling class have coincided with interests of the nation as a whole. But problems arise when an aristocratic ruling class devolves into an oligarchic one—motivated by self-interest that diverges from that of the republic and its citizens.
We have seen this with the evolution, or rather devolution, of previous American elites from aristocracy to oligarchy:
- America’s first aristocratic elite, the Federalists of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, devolved into an oligarchic rump of resentful and bitter New Englanders.
- Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy of virtue and talents” became the cotton oligarchy of the antebellum American South.
- The industrialists of the late 19th century became the plutocrats of the Gilded Age.
- Finally, the great statesmen who won World War II and presided over the establishment of the post-war liberal world order devolved into today’s oligarchic government-corporate-media-technology-finance complex, the policies of which have hollowed out the American middle class and helped to impoverish American workers while the economic gains have accrued to the oligarchs.
This latest faction resembles the Roman elites who replaced free labor with slaves from Rome’s wars of conquest, creating a seething urban proletariat to be bought off with bread and circuses.
Today’s American oligarchy, however, faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the oligarchs exhibit an unprecedented disdain both for the American republic and their fellow citizens. In the past, the members of an aristocratic ruling class loved the United States as a nation and its principles or at least identified their own interests with those of their country. But not only does today’s oligarchy not love the United States, its members make it all too clear that they hate it. In this, they resemble the ancient Athenian tyrants who favored Sparta over their own city and its citizens.
Yet America’s oligarchs must profess fealty to “democracy.” But when they say “our” democracy they mean “their” democracy. So like the Roman oligarchs before them, they buy off those who can be bought with government programs. Those who cannot be bought, those who do not acquiesce in the oligarchy’s enterprise, those who are not compliant with its actions, are denounced as the real enemies: potential insurrectionists, mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging Trump cultists, resentful racists, and “anti-science” troglodytes. “Our Democracy”™ demands that such deplorable be subject to surveillance and limits on speech and association. If they do not accept the tenets of “diversity and inclusion” in language or the workplace, they are subject to the loss of employment and social status.
This is the true meaning of “Our Democracy”™: an oligarchy in fact but with the external trappings of democracy to provide rhetorical legitimacy. We stand at a crossroads. We as citizens will either reclaim the mantle of republican self-government or, by meekly submitting to the rule of our oligarchic elites, bid a sad farewell to the American commonwealth.
An elite is always variously defined.
The ideal elites, as ancient philosophers argued, were a “natural elite” due to their exemplary character, aptitude, and work ethic. Understandably, a towering few ascended from all walks of life to positions of power, influence, and occasional wealth.
But such a natural meritocracy, for obvious reasons, rarely leads to an equality of result.
Who Are the American Elite?
Our current idea of ostensible elites could be defined by noting their money and influence. But money alone—even in the huge sums now found on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley—is not the only elite criterion.
Donald Trump is a billionaire with much influence and lives accordingly. Yet few of our “elite” would consider him a kindred soul. Ditto Elon Musk. He is the richest man in the world. But the elite mostly despise and ostracize him.
Birth itself has given way somewhat to insider influence and professional parentage. You may be a fifth-generation scion with a name such as Mellon, Vanderbilt, or Rockefeller, but if your dad was not an ambassador, your mom not a VP at CBS, your sibling not a Harvard professor or Google executive, you have fallen out of the elite.
Zip codes still count. Although there are certainly “elites” who hail from Kansas City, Boise, or Sacramento, most of those who exercise national clout are found inordinately on the two coasts, from Boston to Washington, D.C., and from Seattle to San Diego—with respective windows on the wealth of Europe or Asia.
The Obamas were going to be anointed as multimillionaires wherever they lived. But they would not necessarily remain as elite as they have become living back in Chicago rather than in a tony D.C. neighborhood and out on Martha’s Vineyard. So, it was an easy call for them to follow the trajectory of the Clintons rather than the Georgia-bound Carters.
In the 21st century, other elite criteria seem to count as much as the old markers of lineage, money, and location. “Certification,” defined as degrees from the “right” undergraduate and graduate schools, is essential for an elite resumé.
Such brands have little to do with education per se or aggregate knowledge acquired. (It is not clear that an Ivy League student would do better on the same SAT, taken upon graduation as earlier, upon admittance). Are our best generals those with Yale degrees, and our best CEOs those with Stanford MBAs? And are Harvard Law Review editors—think Barack Obama, the boss of Lois Lerner, Eric Holder, James Comey, and John Brennan—our top legal and ethical minds?
The point of certification is that it is the cattle brand to open networking doorways and empower even banal arguments from authority. A Harvard MBA or a Princeton BA is not difficult to obtain. But getting into such places in the first place to obtain such a certification most certainly was hard. And whether it was in the past a matter of being white, rich, and well connected, or in the present being non-white, female, and well-connected, the key is joining an elite club—not justifying one’s membership in it by current and future demonstrable excellence.
Another route to being an elite is found in some sort of political, media, academic, sports, or entertainment celebrity—the Robert De Niros or LeBron Jameses of the world. We are not sure how all these celebrated people became elites, only that some exercise influence and win adherents through their ubiquity—and notoriety. A Don Lemon or Jeffrey Epstein is not an elite by virtue of proven achievement or innate talent, much less character. But they sort of became mysteriously famous for being famous (or infamous).
The Kardashians are elites. But they reached this status by merchandising and popularizing larger than normal posteriors—and to be frank, more shamelessly than others—posting selfies of their ample boobs and butts. Ditto an earlier Madonna or Britney Spears, both of whom could somewhat sing in addition to doing burlesque.
Finally, left-wing politics are essential for the new elite. The brilliant Tom Sowell or Shelby Steele is not an elite; the racialist Ibram Kendi or madwoman Joy Reid is.
The CNN masturbatory legal-eagle Jeffrey Toobin is considered an elite expert of jurisprudence, despite having never won a landmark case or being renowned for his courtroom presence or seminal legal scholarship. In contrast, proven expert constitutionalists, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito, are not so well regarded as authorities on the law by the elite.
Does Harvard Law have a mini course on ethics, advising graduates not to expose their phalloi to female colleagues? That is the sort of Toobin illness that would earn a poor deplorable time in the clink or a lifetime on the sex-offender register,
So woke progressivism does not just cement elite membership. It also serves as an acceptable scab to mask a lack of character beneath, especially in the case of scoundrels like one-time would-be presidential contender Michael Avenatti, or the once blackfaced like Justin Trudeau and former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. It covers the bloody work of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as well as long-ago discredited fabulists like Dan Rather and Brian Williams, or plagiarists like the famous Doris Kearns Goodwin, the late Steven Ambrose, and even Joe Biden.
The Elite Res Gestae
What counts more, however, is not so much who becomes an oligarchical elite, but what exactly has this newer sort of elite class done for our society at large?
Collectively, this generation’s record of leadership, such as it is, has been mostly dismal: no Hoover Dam, no subsequent moon-landing or trip to Mars, no Normandy Beach or Inchon, no polio vaccine, no “Casablanca,” “The Best Years of our Lives,” or “Shane” movies, and no novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Grapes of Wrath, Tender is the Night, Absalom, Absalom! or Invisible Man—but plenty of California-like Solyndras and Stonehenge high-speed rails, skedaddles from Kabul and Benghazi, gifting of $80 billion in arms to the Taliban, double-vaxxed and boosted, sorta, kinda short-term immunity, “X-Men” and “Avenger” comic-book films, and How to Be an Anti-Racist best sellers.
The more we gained Silicon Valley billionaires, the more we moved into the world of 1984, merely substituting J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men for woke, suit-and-tied James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Kevin Clinesmith—or legions of nerds with cancel buttons sitting in rows of computer carrels in Menlo Park.
Movers and shakers who operate Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, or GoFundMe are much more devoted to Soviet-style censorship than to the First Amendment. They worry far more over profits rather than over the Uyghurs. And their creed is more McCarthyism than the Sermon on the Mount.
Our four-star elite officers have more degrees than ever, more contact with the Hill and the White House—and had no more idea, than the clueless bureaucrats who dispatched them, how to discover what was the purpose in Libya or the agenda in Afghanistan.
General Mark Milley was more interested in virtue signaling his furor at white rage than in keeping safe a $1-billion embassy in Kabul, $300-million worth of refits at the Bagram airbase, and $80 billion in arms. He was not so worried over how to win wars or keep the peace. As an elite, he knew he could ignore all that and still not be fired—if he at least virtue signaled his crusade against white rage.
In the current generation of our loud, woke military, we will likely see Afghanistan return as a pre-9/11 terrorist headquarters, Iran go nuclear, North Korea step up its missile launches, and Taiwan and Ukraine at best squeezed into Finlandization, and at worst absorbed.
The more the public listened to the architects of lockdowns, mandates, and quarantines—the elite at the CDC, NIH, and NIAID, the political hypocrites like California Governor Gavin Newsom, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and sham-modelers such as Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College, London—the more people died in classical “the medicine is worse that the malady” fashion.
There are no finer degreed-elites in the world than our medical professionals such as Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, and Peter Daszak. The three became international rock stars as they crafted a coverup by denying links between the pandemic and the Wuhan virology lab, and their own efforts either to fund or hide gain-of-function viral research.
We don’t quite know how we got into $30 trillion of debt, normative $2-trillion deficits, growing stagflation, and adherence to an unhinged modern monetary theory that assures us printing money ensures prosperity. We only know that the 7-Eleven manager, the owner-operator truck driver, and the electrician grasp a lot more about economics than do the Ph.D.s who wrote, argued, and led us into this mess.
The Elite Pantheon
Finally, examine the marquee elites of the past few years. Do we remember the late Jeffrey Epstein, the pedophiliac blackmailer who posed as a legitimate money manager? Do we remember the Lolita express paparazzi who jetted to his various hot spots, whether President Emeritus Bill Clinton or the royal Prince Andrew or allegedly even the global climate change scold Bill Gates? Why did the richest men in the world and so many from Harvard University court him? In contrast, most of the working class knows enough to steer clear of pedophiles.
We are suffering a plague of cop shootings. Yet in a few days, our multimillionaire Super Bowl entertainers will share one thing in common: They all have advocated or glorified violence against the police.
At one time or another, we were told the following elites were geniuses or cutting-edge—men and women in the know and to be known: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, the two Cuomos, the always shouting, always furious, always pampered, but otherwise inane and empty Greta Thunberg.
Our corporate elites gave millions in their stockholders’ money as penance to BLM, without a worry where, how, or why those millions were spent—or siphoned off in real estate investments by the grifter leadership.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is now our nation’s elite chronological expert whose rare insight on race, history, and war taught the nation that 1619, not 1776, was our true foundational date. But so far, she has failed to convince anyone of her latest notion that 1865 was the first year of the Civil War.
Ditto Whoopi Goldberg. She claims rare insight on the catalysts of the Holocaust, apparently better than its architect Adolf Hitler, who, we are told by her, really did not exterminate 6 million Jews because of his racial hatred of Jews. Instead, Professor Goldberg, of “Ghost” fame, lectures us that what went on at Treblinka was a sort of tit-for-tat catfight between white people. Had Goldberg said Hitler took chloroquine rather than killed 6 million for non-racial reasons, she would likely have been censored or kicked off social media.
Elites hate the truckers. We know that from their outrage over the Canadian trucker strike—and Justin Trudeau’s infantile meltdown. They care little for the working moms who lost their jobs when schools closed, and who had to quit work to watch their children. They have no concern for the small businesses that went broke, as the Zoom class made more money than ever during COVID-19. The more we elected credentialed district attorneys, the more crime shot up, the innocent suffered, and the elite shrugged.
The elite gave us the Russian collusion hoax, the beatification of the prevaricator Adam Schiff, the iconization of the disingenuous conniver Alexander Vindman, the neat idea of modern monetary theory, the bold idea of open borders, the beloved idea of critical race theory, and a spiking violent crime wave explained away by critical legal theory.
The only real recent public service of elites has been to persuade us why they were never elites at all.