The rise and fall of elites shapes our history and can be predicted.
Civilization is taught as the history of elites. For five thousand years, the world of cities (civitates) has depended on elites for leadership. Yet leadership gone bad is the oldest story of civilization. Leadership becomes aristocracy. The authority to govern becomes the right to rule. Law giving becomes law enforcement. Duty to defend becomes license to oppress.
The relationship between elites and people—at least in the Western canon going back to Greece and Rome—is a narrative with a constant theme: Successful elites get less and less successful at passing on the leadership baton. Eventually, elites that cease to lead face a crisis of leadership. Crisis can be triggered by famine, pestilence, or war, driving the people to insurgency and revolution. The rise and fall of elites forms a distinctive narrative pattern. Indeed, the leadership vitality and decline of elites looks like a natural cycle, or circle of life.
First, there is a “founder” generation: the leadership architects. They are succeeded by a “builder” generation, extending the leadership franchise. After them come the “renewers,” hoping to rekindle the founders’ (often their own fathers) vision. Hence, the first three generations are guided by the memories of an heroic past. Yet overreach by the renewers often leads to a “manager” generation, that seeks to consolidate the paradigm. Their goal is shore up the status quo. They are followed by a born-to-rule “lifestyle” generation (or more!), who have lost the original leadership calling, and who no longer feel the weight of mythic obligation.
This framing emerged from conversations with Neil Howe. His concept—that cycles frame the life of civilization—may seem mystical, as though they occur outside of human decision. Actual patterns in history, however, bear him out, and these are deeply etched in the rise and fall of elites.
A five-generation historical passage from founder, to builder, to renewer, to manager, to parasite-play-actor might last as much as 150 years. Louis XIV to the Revolution was about that long (1643-1789). The planter aristocracy of the American South played out in little more than a century (1770-1876).
Yet such patterns are not an iron cycle. Rather, as a proposition, strong historical patterns suggest that generational cycles are repeatable. Culture itself show us the how and why of such patterns. Builders and renewers do their best to live up to towering forefathers. Managers still measure themselves against ancestral benchmarks. It is, however, the spoiled, entitled, born-to-rule generations that drive the old ship under.
Not only does elite character change over the course of leadership, the composition and distribution of elite society changes too. Old American elites were a more localized and variegated set of subcultures, while today’s elites are a national subculture. Not only are they fully networked in the moment through social media, their lifestyle, aesthetic, recreation, habits, and beliefs are also fully normed and mainstreamed through apps, eats, and Tweets. They represent a unity as intimate as the ruling class of an ancient city state.
As a leadership class, this unitary subculture is in full union politically as well. In just a decade or so, a fusion-vision of politics and religion has converted American elites, almost in their entirety, to a new civic-sacred: The Church of Woke. What had been a bicameral belief system is today a monolithic faith.
Monolithic elites have been winners when they were in sync with the people, but today’s woke elite is at odds with at least half of America. Our most successful elite—the “Greatest Generation” —was variegated, a union of elites and people, and not monolithic. Nonetheless, it led us through World War II and transformed the world.
How did the American nation move from successful, if disaggregated, leadership elites, to a failing, if monolithic, tone deaf and tyrannical elite? Today’s woke establishment traces its lineage back to FDR, so it is just hitting its centennial. Mike Mansfield mentored Joe Biden, just as Mansfield was inspired and guided by FDR, whom he personally served in World War II.
Such electric lineage is visibly invested in age at the expense of vitality—whereas a fifth generation, not yet in power, radiates more venality than authority. Here are five dynamics that have taken the United States from elite leadership in World War II to elite betrayal today.
Elites always seek to grow their status and wealth
Why do elites always seem to get richer while the poor always get poorer? Your eyes do not deceive here. We have Thomas Piketty to thank for his important work, Capital, which lays out hard findings from history.
Invariably, when it comes to self-aggrandizement, elites act essentially as non-playable characters. They always act to increase their status and wealth, and try to keep it forever. Furthermore, this can be a non-volitional decision: when the rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy, then it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than output and income. Under such conditions, it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels.
Piketty concludes bitingly that “the process by which wealth is accumulated and distributed contains powerful forces pushing…toward an extremely high level of inequality,” and that this level of inequality is “potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values…fundamental to modern democratic societies.”
America’s 9+1 percent (the “service gentry” plus high-roller nobility) now have over 50 percent of national wealth. This surpasses our former peak inequality, right before Black Friday in 1929. In contrast, from 1942 to 1982, the average was less than 35 percent.
Elites become disconnected from the people they once led
All triumphant elites march to victory leading their people in battle. This may sound bad to some, but it is true. It was true of Alexander’s Greece and Caesar’s Rome, Carlos Quinto’s Spain, and Louis XIV’s France; just as it was true for Washington’s, Grant’s, and Eisenhower’s America.
What is inescapable is that war is a ceremonial venue for national transcendence. Leader and people bond in battle. They endure privation together, face the all-or-nothing together, and sacrifice for each other and the nation together. Moreover, it is the epic narrative that follows war that forever weaves elites and people together.
When that narrative empties–when the people no longer fight for their country and the leaders no longer lead the people into battle–the sacred bond is lost. This is America today. Those who fight are superb legions of praetorians serving the emperor-president. Meanwhile, elites and people never share those bonds that come from mutual commitment in war. Today’s military is a glorified SWAT team, which enables both elites and people to go their separate ways in search of fulfilling their abiding narcissism.
The war bond was not just a metaphor for a union of elites and people—losing it is at the heart of how America also lost the secret of its success.
Elites come to believe they have become the nation
Why the great TV and movie franchises in American lore were eviscerated by a woke elite is a paradox. Why would any production company with the creative rights to Star Trek or Star Wars or Marvel Comics wish to sever the worldwide brand franchises that have delighted and comforted generations of fans? Yet woke entertainment reveals all. Most of all, it reveals the elites’ unbounded sense of entitlement and self-righteousness. We—the other 90 percent—have a wide window into how elites see themselves, their mission, and their authority.
Clearly, their rhetoric is their faith. “Deus Vult!” they would proclaim, if “Deus” was in their vocabulary. Yet even in adamant denunciation of God, they are supercharged with divine agency. Imagine: If you are the occasion of the world’s miracles; if you bring the rain, call down judgment, and have come to rule past, present, and future, then, you are the world.
So what if the people are refusing social justice and critical-theory-approved programming. TV may have dimmed, with the big losers the toney, niche premium channels gone woke: HBO is down 38 percent, Disney is down 33 percent, and people are flocking to classic TV networks. But not to worry: When the time comes, all fun will always pass woke’s justice-litmus test.
Elite “solutions” just makes things worse—sometimes by design
Facing change that threatens their grip on society puts elites in a bind. They are faced, simply, with apparent contradictions between their own interests and needs, on one hand, and maintaining their power and authority on the other.
Elites must be leaders, so they must take care of their charges. Yet elites must take care of themselves first: They are their own “prime directive.” Elites are the civilization—in their mind—so they must move toward their destiny (i.e., yet more status and wealth). Yet elites must accommodate the people, just enough, so that they submit to an elite that subverts their own class interests.
These contradictions translate directly into policies that create contradictory effects. Higher tax rates for the rich are offset by special tax breaks for the rich, like deducting state property taxes. Stalin-like giant programs, such as the “Green New Deal,” are a spoils system for sweetheart blue contracts. Cancelling student debt likewise looks like a payout to the yuppie class.
Meanwhile, handouts to the poor, like the famous Cura Annonae or bread ration of the Roman Empire, are deployed to ensure political acquiescence and loyalty to blue. Yet equally, withholding assistance from “deplorable” communities–and indeed, punishing them by criminalizing gun owners and Christian conservatives—represent policy choices deliberately designed to demonize the red other, so as to create a domestic “extremist” threat to bolster blue elite power.
Elites can never see how their path leads to a fall
Elites like America’s today are in the debased final stage of elite dysfunction. They have lost the spark to lead, nowhere more acutely evident than in their self-serving and self-destructive authoritarian strategy. In effect, they are “milking the contradictions” while hardening and intensifying civil strife. Yet this path is politically irresistible.
The huddling masses, the global other, and the importuning mob plus the growling “basket of deplorables,” thus represent both the virtuous in need and the transgressive in need. Good and Bad, taken altogether, are an irresistible elite opportunity.
The blue other—the Good—and the red other—the Bad—amount to the same thing in the eyes of the elite. As a mass, these populares are just the swarm of parasites nesting around the 9+1 percenters’ prodigious bounty (50 percent or more of national wealth). Yet the people’s very marginality—they are essentially stripped of power and agency—serve their ruling masters in three delicious ways.
First, as an undifferentiated mass, their slide into gig poverty and their civic helplessness becomes a self-justifying and incontestable elite mandate. A dependent mass of citizens clearly legitimates not simply the elite right to rule, but also the moral obligation to rule, noblesse oblige, as guardian and trustee over a citizenry of “children.”
Second, the blue moiety of populares, once they are forever quarantined from any touch of brotherhood with the red other half, can be quickly coopted into cohorts of dependency. Their gig poverty can always be blamed on red greed and perfidy, such as “Jim Crow voter suppression.” Moreover, nearly unchecked immigration will push all American workers into third world status, leashing their dependency as elite beneficium. Thus, as long as elites dole out social perks and welfare, and keep growing loyal electoral cohorts, their lock on power will grow.
Finally, a divide and conquer strategy really works. The shrinking red electorate, painted as the irredeemable domestic enemy of America, should keep the blue populares emotionally mobilized. The more they are alienated from their former fellow citizens, the more they will support elite strategies that criminalize red.
Yet this path yields a bitter harvest. The more blue elites force suppression and submission, the deeper are planted seeds of resistance. Blue’s elegant, third world serfdom will increasingly degrade the very gig-starved victim groups elites pretend to exalt. Suppressing deplorables will only make more redoubtable and relentless enemies.
This is not only a crushingly cruel way to hold power, its 24/7 lies can only amplify commitment to insurgency. Unwilling to change course, and unable to prevent the coming fall, doubling down is the only elite option.
Note: This piece was originally published at The American Conservative.