Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Election Reflections: The Power Elite in America

Note: This is cross-posted at my personal blog page over at the Bellman.

I've been reading through the book A World of Ideas: A Dictionary of Important Theories, Concepts, Beliefs, and Thinkers by Chris Rohmann.

Rohmann's entry on elitism is provocative, so I thought I'd share it with you.

Given our last election with two scions of wealthy families both using ideological wedge issues like gay marriage, abortion, taxes, the environment, the economy, social security, and fear of terrorism to motivate their constituents to vote for them, I think elitism is worth discussing.


elite theory
Theory holding that domination of social and political systems by powerful minorities is inevitable. The belief that only a select few, specially endowed or belonging to a particular group or CLASS, are fit to govern society is called elitism. The word "elite" has the same root as "elect" and implies both senses of that term -- those designated by ballot or appointment, or elevated from the multitude by God, chance, history, or natural gifts.

Elite theory, developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Italian sociologists Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, arose largely as a response to the MARXIST faith in popular rule.

They argued that all political and social systems, including DEMOCRACIES, are controlled by elites, be they aristocrats or clergy, generals or politicians, bureaucrats or captains of industry.

Elites perpetuate themselves through force, manipulation and legitimating IDEOLOGIES shared by the populace (which, in a democracy, include the promise that anyone may aspire to join the elite).

Revolution, usually resulting from stagnation among the ruling elite, merely raises another elite in its place. In Pareto's view, a regular circulation of elites -- typically alternation between CONSERVATIVE "lions" preserving the status quo and resourceful "foxes" responding to changing conditions -- is necessary to renew executive vigor and renew the public trust.

According to the iron rule of oligarchy, a corollary theory formulated by German political scientist Robert Michels, control of any political organization will unavoidably devolve to a small group because of factors such as the need for efficient action, the leaders' love of power, and apathy of their followers.

Classical elite theory became a justification for FASCISM, with which Pareto and Michels ultimately sympahized.

Modern ellite theorists often take a more PLURALISTIC approach, seeing modern democracies as characterized not by centralized power but by competition among political, economic, and institutional elites representing a variety of interests. However, sociologist C. Wright Mills contended that the upper echelons of political, military, and industrial leadership in the United States constitute an interlocking power elite who protect and promote their common interests.*


Now, elitism can be merely descriptive or prescriptive.

But what do you think of Rohmann's sketch of elitism? Is that descriptive of our current political culture in this country? Does elistism necessarily collapse into fascism? Could elitism be beneficial for creating vigor in the executive branch (or class)?

Should we try to destroy the power elite? Should we install another elite in its place? Is a truly egalitarian system of government possible? What would it look like?

Should we labor endlessly for some democratic old-money blue-blood in the hope that he will be better than the republican-backed figurehead at killing brown people and guaranteeing a good-paying job for every dumbass in America?

Or should we resign ourselves to the dominance of the elites (regardless of political label) and go back to watching TV, drinking whiskey, smoking dope , playing video games, driving our SUVs to the mall to buy more crap for the holidays and otherwise being good little consumers of government propaganda?

The last election reminds of a song by They Might be Giants:

I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage
Called the blood of the exploited working class
But they've overcome their shyness
Now they're calling me Your Highness
And a world screams, "Kiss me, Son of God"

I destroyed a bond of friendship and respect
Between the only people left who'd even look me in the eye
Now I laugh and make a fortune
Off the same ones that I tortured
And a world screams, "Kiss me, Son of God"


* (Terms in all caps are further defined within the book)

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