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The Ruling Class

Scenes from the class struggle on the American right

Jesse Walker
September 2, 2010

Few essays attracted as much attention from right-wing readers this summer as "America's Ruling Class—and the Perils of Revolution," an extended argument that an incestuous social set "rules uneasily over the majority of Americans." Written by Angelo Codevilla of the Claremont Institute and first published in The American Spectator, this very long article has now been expanded into a very brief book, called The Ruling Class. If you're interested in the state of the American right, it's an instructive document—a book that strives mightily to marry conservative cultural complaints to the libertarian case against an intrusive central government.

The book argues that most of America can be split into two categories, a ruling class and a country class. The ruling class is everyone, "whether in government power directly or as officers in companies," whose "careers and fortunes depend on government." The second category consists of civil society: all those businesses, families, and community groups that don't subsist on subsidies and privileges. Codevilla believes the rulers' power is expanding at the expense of the country class, and he warns of a world where crony capitalism replaces free markets, unaccountable administrative agencies replace self-government, and the rule of professionals replaces popular participation. He hits the last point particularly hard, at times sounding more like a decentralist radical in the mold of Ivan Illich or Christopher Lasch than a conventional conservative Republican. Indeed, Codevilla says the GOP is part of the problem, arguing that the party "has zero claim to the Country Class' trust because it does not live to represent the Country Class." He has more enthusiasm for homeschoolers than for any political party.

So far, so good. But odd ideas periodically slip into the story. There are dubious digs at Darwinism, glib legal arguments, and sweeping statements that do more to flatter right-wing resentment than to describe the world as it is. ("Every December," the author announces at one point, we "are reminded that the Ruling Class deems the very word 'Christmas' to be offensive.") Codevilla acknowledges that the country class is "heterogeneous" and "speaks with many voices, which are often inharmonious," but his portrait of it feels more uniform than those words imply. He conveys his comradely solidarity for traditional parents whose rights have been restricted but not gay couples who want to adopt kids of their own, for the fellow who wants to use a high pressure shower head but not the fellow who wants to use a bong, for Middle Americans who prefer Branson to Hollywood but not Middle Americans who prefer the local underground music scene (not to mention the many Middle Americans who are quite happy with Hollywood and keep the stars well-fed). He doesn't attack those other people, mind you. He just leaves them out, as though the set of citizens who make up the country class is indistinguishable from the set of citizens whose lives reflect the author's cultural preferences.

That much is forgivable. Unfortunately, the book's portrait of the ruling class is overly narrow as well, with Codevilla contriving to exclude even a president from the ranks of the rulers. (The absent executive is Ronald Reagan, apparently on the grounds that he was mocked in the media and in a private comment attributed to his vice president. With such standards, you might as well subtract Bill Clinton from the ruling class too.) "Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust," Codevilla writes, with educational institutions imposing a "remarkably uniform...social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints." It's not clear how he reconciles this statement with his critique of crony capitalists. Does the average beneficiary of the bank bailout fit that description? How about the heavies at Halliburton, or at the company formerly known as Blackwater? Enron's execs were fluent in eco-speak, but did the managers there really think in terms of "sins" against "the environment"? Given their ability to build coal plants in the Third World while pushing for stricter regulations on their coal-based competitors at home, I'd say Enron was playing the greenwashing game on its own terms.

I don't usually seek wisdom from David Brooks columns, but Mr. National Greatness had a point when he wrote this:

Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.'s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.'s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.'s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.'s.

Brooks is no foe of elite rule, and his aim was to discredit populism of any kind. But you don't have to agree with his larger intent to recognize that his sketch of the ruling classes, oversimplified as it is, still has more nuance than the model in this book. There isn't much room for those MBAs in Codevilla's caricature of the upper crust.

When you describe your political foes as though they're a single stock type and in effect do the same thing to your allies, you run the risk of reducing a broad-based cause to identity politics, with cultural solidarity supplanting serious challenges to the nature and distribution of power. George W. Bush (MBA, Harvard Business School) sent all the right signals to Codevilla's target audience to tell them he was one of them, and more than one liberal figure inadvertently assisted the president with complaints about his "cowboy" ways. In the meantime the man's administration was, in Codevilla's words, different from Obama's "in degree, not kind." Lesson: People with Bush's background—or Dick Cheney's, or John McCain's—can be members of the ruling elite too.

When you confuse culture war with class war (are we allowed to call this "class war"?), it's easier to mistake a symbolic battle for a meaningful revolt of the oppressed. It's the mirror image of those folks on the left who'd rather scold someone for being politically incorrect than advance the interests of the underclass. Already we've seen Spectator editor-in-theory R. Emmett Tyrrell dragging Codevilla's thesis into the most inane culture-war controversy of the year: the outrage over Park51, a proposed Muslim community center near the site of the old World Trade Center.

Now, you could certainly use Codevilla's arguments to illuminate this debate. His book decries the reign of administrative bureaucracies, objects to the abuse of eminent domain, and worries that religious expression is being suppressed. With Park51, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate has called for the Public Service Commission to keep a prayer space from being built—and his rival for the nomination only disagrees to the extent that he'd use eminent domain to stop the project instead. The two of them are a Codevillan nightmare come to life.

But that isn't Tyrrell's concern. "The Country Class," he wrote in an August editorial, "has come down against the mosque," while "the Ruling Class wants to place a mosque at the site of September 11." So much for defending the voluntary sector; on with the ginned-up outrage of the month. That's where the culture war will get you.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Jesse Walker is Senior Editor


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