Notes on the American Elite
by Clyde Wilson
Recently by Clyde Wilson: Two More Good Books on Lincolnís†War
American politics today is quite literally mindless. Think about it. Things have been tending that way for a long time, but in the last three decades a state of perfect mindlessness has prevailed. Of course, there has always been demagoguery, and at least since Martin Van Buren the predominant political parties have tended to avoid and obfuscate serious issues and stick to a vague and comfortable middle. But we have surely now reached a further stage in the collapse of meaningful self-government.
When was the last time there was any serious debate, any presentation of genuine competitive alternatives to the voters, in any presidential or congressional election? When is the last time there was a presidential candidate who could be said to be a person of real knowledge and understanding and of substantial and admirable accomplishment? We the voters, the people, who supposedly rule, decide nothing except which celebrity will be raised to office. No significant issue is ever presented to us for our opinion. In fact, there is nothing in the national debate and proceedings that constitutes any genuine politics in the true sense of that word. Since at least World War II, hardly any major government action has been decided by the will of the people. Or even by their elected representatives after serious debate rather than herd stampede.
The top political figures in our "democratic system" are creatures of telephone calls and briefings, without any significant knowledge of the world except what is presented to them in capsule form by dubious "experts." They are marketed like toothpaste and beholden to make-up men and ghost writers. In plain fact, political power is today entirely unrelated to knowledge, intelligence, or ability to lead and govern rather than to "manage." (Of course, George Bush did confess to reading one book, an egregiously bad and un-American one.) While European leaders are not exactly exemplars of great statesmanship, at least they are literate, have realistic experience in dealing with other countries, and do not suffer from adolescent delusions that they are all powerful and ever benevolent.
Managers juggle what is presented to them. They lack the knowledge or incentive to consider any significant alternatives. Thus the end of the Cold War resulted not in a peace dividend but merely the continuance of the military-corporate regime under new pretexts. Thus the catastrophic national debt cannot be addressed except by short-term subterfuges. Thus the proletarianization of the middle and worker classes and the replacement of the American population by immigrants are long-term issues that cannot even be noted, much less addressed, because the status quo is profitable to the actual rulers of our country. As C. Wright Mills observed more than a half century ago, the American regime is one of "organized irresponsibility."
One is tempted to suspect that the real brains and power of the country rests in little-known people who merely co-opt the less intelligent of their ruling class associates to represent them in politics. What else can possibly explain George W. Bush holding the top political position in the world for eight years? Or such mental giants as Nelson Rockefeller, Danny Quayle, and Al Gore being a heartbeat away from the White House? A few years back, one of the elite, Averill Harriman, caught off guard when he first heard of Jimmy Carter, blurted out: "He canít be President. I donít even know him."
The rise of Obama indicates that the minority elite has been admitted into at least the second level of the establishment. Despite all its radical rhetoric, the minority elite is patronage-oriented and offers no threat to elite power. Indeed the minority elite has always actually supported and comforted the rulers and would not exist without their support. The same is true of the "mainstream" media, invariably the obedient servants of power despite their claims of independence. Utterly dependable in relentlessly marginalizing any public voice that questions the regime.. It seems, however, that our rulers are afraid of "rightwing extremists," i.e., Americans with a traditional sense of freedom and justice. We can expect the campaign to spread fear and hatred of such to increase and measures for their suppression to be presented.
The elite usually stick together. No member of the ruling class is ever punished for failure. George W. Bush and his accomplices lied to justify an unwise and illegal foreign invasion which they then badly managed. Yet none of them seem to have suffered any serious loss of public position because of it. The Supreme Court, extremely unrepresentative in its personnel, hands down one unconstitutional ukase after another and there is no challenge but rather mindless submission.
Caught up in the hurly burly of phony contests, we have failed to note the unprecedented strangeness of the basic situation. The old folklore that we have a government of, by, and for the people, and that the two parties offer a real competition, dies very hard. We should note that the ruling elite of our country today are interchangeable. They move from the corporate world to the international banks to the military to political office (usually appointive) and back again. Who has selected them to rule? What accomplishments can they exhibit other than a resumeí and having been silently co-opted into the elite without ever being submitted to the people for vetting.? Why do they, as far as we can tell, all think alike, accept the current regime as the only possible one, and collude to prevent any real issues from debate?
Yet these are the people who exercise by their own will the greatest national power the world has ever seen.
March 16, 2013
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