Blaming “The Elites” is Simplistic and Misses the Real Problems
Robert W. Merry, writing at The American Conservative notes Removing Trump Won’t Solve America’s Crisis with a subtitle (and basic thesis): ”The elites are the problem.”
He starts off with:
America is in crisis. It is a crisis of greater magnitude than any the country has faced in its history, with the exception of the Civil War. It is a crisis long in the making—and likely to be with us long into the future. It is a crisis so thoroughly rooted in the American polity that it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved in any kind of smooth or even peaceful way. Looking to the future from this particular point in time, just about every possible course of action appears certain to deepen the crisis.
He notes problems with immigration policy, foreign policy, financial policy, and economic policy. That we have serious challenges in all those areas, perhaps even to a crisis state in some cases, is not an unreasonable position to take. Still, I would take issue with the way in which he characterizes a lot of these specific issues, as well as to whom blame for various failures belongs. I very much wonder if we are in the biggest crisis since the Civil War, however. The combo of the Great Depression and WWII ranks up there, and problems such as segregation and resistance to the Civil Rights movement (and the political, social, and economic upheaval associated thereto) comes to mind, not to mention the real threats of nuclear war during the Cold War. I say all of this not to dismiss real problems, but to simply suggest some perspective.
Still, that really isn’t what got my attention in the column, it is his litany about “the elites.” This manifests in two basic ways. The first is about Trump and the elites, and the second is a broader discussion of “the elites.”
In re: Trump,
Now comes the counterrevolution. The elites figure that if they can just get rid of Trump, the country can return to what they consider normalcy—the status quo ante, before the Trumpian challenge to their status as rulers of America. That’s why there is so much talk about impeachment even in the absence of any evidence thus far of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” That’s why the firing of James Comey as FBI director raises the analogy of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” That’s why the demonization of Russia has reached a fevered pitch, in hopes that even minor infractions on the part of the president can be raised to levels of menace and threat.
First, to use the term “counterrevolution” is to state that there has been a revolution. Trump’s election, while highly lamentable, is no revolution. Second, there is no “Trumpian challenge” to the status quo save the chaos that comes from an incompetent, immature president (to suggest a systematic threat gives Trump far more clarity of motivation and goals than any empirical observation would suggest is the case). Indeed, the GOP leadership in the House and Senate appear currently quite willing to ride Trump to whatever legislative success they can muster. Neither Speaker Ryan nor Leader McConnell look to be working to oust Trump. Third, the litany of concern over Comey, Russia, etc. is not derived from some pretense by elites to oust Trump, but from a series of events and actions that raise real questions about Russian influence in the campaign process, and actual connections to Trump allies.
Regardless, what I find the most problematic about the column is the attack on “the elites.” Now, let me be clear: my point is not to defend the current crop of political (or financial or whatever) leadership in the country. There is plenty of criticism to go around (but it is ever thus). My problem is with mindless usage of “the elites” as a target of derision. For one thing, that is essentially how we got Trump in the first place. It is Populism 101 to blame “the elites” (whether that is the terminology used or not). “Drain the swamp” and other such bromides are in the same family of rhetoric.
He concludes his column as follows (emphasis mine):
There is no way out for America at this point. Steady as she goes could prove highly problematic. A push to remove him could prove worse. Perhaps a solution will present itself. But, even if it does, it will rectify, with great societal disquiet and animosity, merely the Trump crisis. The crisis of the elites will continue, all the more intractable and ominous.
Really, all of this is part of very long-standing philosophical debate over government. Aristotle noted, a very long time ago, that a monarchy was the best form of government, if you could find a truly wise king. He further noted, however, that the absolute worst form of government was tyranny, which basically what one gets when the monarch is a rotten bastard. Since a wise monarch was unlikely, and a tyrant far more likely the outcome of one person rule, Aristotle had further ideas about how to create a functional polity (see The Politics for more on that). Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, had a vision of governance based on a selective breeding scheme that would have produced a class of philosopher-kings who would know what was best. Thomas Aquinas thought if kings were subject to the priests and to God, they could rule wisely, and so on. Indeed, much of human history has been predicted on the assumption that getting the right people into government would result in good governance. The whole notion of the King as appointed by God, or the notion that the right families would produce good governance is a long-standing one that is reflective of this position. All of this is ultimately vested in the notion that if we just had a better class of politician (or leaders in general) then all would be well.
Sure, better is swell and all, but the bottom line reality is, to quote one of my favorite passages from James Madison, the following:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
This is, by the way, a long and fancy way of saying something I note all the time: the rules of governance matter. Humans aren’t angels. Government is necessary. The challenge, then, is designing a government that can both govern and curtail the negative impulses of some of those who seek to govern. At the root of Madison’s argument, and of constitutionalism in general, is the notion that properly designed institutions can facilitate good government in a way that relying solely on good people cannot. All of this is, ultimately, why “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time.”
I suffer no illusions that human being are perfectible, and therefore government can be perfect. I do think, however, that relatively successful governance is quite possible (history bears this out) but that public policy is rightly dubbed, as Charles Lindblom did back in the 1950s, “the science of muddling through.” The better we can design mechanisms for getting input and feedback from the public, as well as creating appropriate accountability mechanisms for those who makes decisions, the better. And if we have a crisis of governance in this country, that is where the crisis is.
- Our congressional districts are not competitive (that means inadequate, if not absent, feedback from citizens).
- Gerrymandering and geographical sorting lead to large swaths of voters being ignored in their own districts. Also in many cases, politicians are picking their voters, rather than the other way around.
- Primaries are more important than the general election in most districts (which are low turnout affairs typically driven by more extreme elements of the electorate).
- The process to elect the President is skewed in a way that allows a minority of voters to choose the occupant of the office. This is the result of poor design (this is manifestly clear) and has now happened twice in the last five cycles. This is not healthy for the country.
- The nature of the Senate creates substantial representational imbalances that skews legislative outcomes in a way that can thwart majority preferences. (Yes, I know this will not change, and some of the inequality might be defensible on federalism grounds, but a dispassionate assessment has to acknowledge the gap between large and small states has grown considerably since 1789).
- Rules of the Senate exacerbate the power of numeric minorities.
- The system to amend the constitution is onerous (and that is part of why the courts have taken on such an important constitutional role: reasonable reform is all but impossible, and so SCOTUS interpretation becomes the only way to affect constitutional change).
- Lifetime appointments to SCOTUS (and the federal courts in general) ramp up the political significance of appointments. This makes such battles into political life and death. Throw in the fact that a president can be elected with a minority of the votes and a lifetime appointee can be confirmed by a Senate contingent that represents a minority of the population and you have a bit of a mess if you take the notion of popular governance seriously.
This is just a partial list of big ticket item that occur to me on a Sunday afternoon (although informed by a good bit of academic pursuit of over the years). I am, I am sure, missing something from the list or perhaps not adequately explaining the significance of the items I have provided.
Still, the problems, therefore, of governance in Washington are not that we don’t have the right people in place, necessarily (at least not in the sense that if we could just throw the current set of bums out that the new set of bums would fix things). The institutional structures of congress itself make things like financial and immigration reform almost impossible. The current system rewards impasse (the reward in question is re-election). There is no incentive to govern and the mechanisms of our system, despite the veneration it receives, reinforces that fact. If we want better governance, we need a better way to have our views understood in Washington and better way to hold officeholders accountable. A simple place to start might be to elect the president on the basis on the majority preference of the country. Changing the way we elect the House so that there would be clearer competition and feedback would be a massive start. Another reasonable reform could be changing the structure of SCOTUS so that it looked more like the system used for the Fed (i.e., long, fixed, staggered terms). These are all pipe dream, and so I am not even sure what to call reform of the Senate or of the amendment process.
As I usually point out in the comments to this posts: I recognize that none of this is likely to change, but I do want to encourage thought, discussion, and debate on these, and related, ideas. The US polity treats its institutions as if they are carved in granite by the finger of God and are thus perfect and unalterable. This is, however, not the case.
So, back to the column, the problem isn’t the dreaded “elites” because, as soon as one set of elites is gone, another takes it place, since the very definition of “elite” is a person in power.
(Okay, I have ridden my hobby horse, now back to our regularly scheduled blogging…).