The Disintegration of the American Elite

The Disintegration of the American Elite May 20, 2011

I’m preparing a post on the conditions afflicting the American elite class.  A couple days ago I pointed to a few pieces from Paul Krugman and Walter Russell Mead.  I’m especially pondering these words:

We have had financial scandals before and we have had waves of corporate crime.  We have had pirates and robber barons.  But we have never seen a collapse of ordinary morality in the corporate suites on the scale of the last twenty years.  We have never seen naked money grubbing among our politicians akin to the way some recent figures in both parties have cashed in.  Human nature hasn’t changed, but a kind of moral grade inflation has set in and key segments of the American Establishment are increasingly accepting the unacceptable as OK.  Investment banks betray their clients; robo-signers essentially forge mortgage documents day after day and month after month; insider traders are lionized.   Free markets actually require a certain basic level of honesty to work; if we can’t be more honest than this neither our markets nor we ourselves will remain free for very long.  

Many problems troubling America today are rooted in the poor performance of our elite educational institutions, the moral and social collapse of our ‘best’ families and the culture of narcissism and entitlement that has transformed the American elite into a flabby minded, strategically inept and morally confused parody of itself.  Probably the best depiction of our elite in popular culture is the petulantly narcissistic Prince Charming in Shrek 2; our educational institutions are like the Fairy Godmother, weaving shoddy, cheap, feel-good illusions into a gossamer tissue of flattering lies.

Because the idea of an elite makes Americans nervous, and because American culture likes to blur class and power realities rather than highlight them, we don’t have much of a national conversation about the state of our elite and about how to improve it.  That’s a mistake — and it is one of the reasons our elites are performing so poorly.  The United States actually needs a healthy and far-sighted elite, and that means we need to look at the subject head on…


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  • Chris B. Behrens

    The fruits of post-modernism. What else is there to say, really? On the other hand, I’m skeptical that our blackguards are substantially worse than the dastards of old…were folks really better in the Gilded Age?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Better or worse is hard to say. “Different qualities” is probably a better conversation.


  • Larry

    Not sure that I even agree with the premise of Elites enjoying such a role. I rather think that the decline in our culture is a consequence of an effort to radically reorient American thought to a new set of values premised on humanist ideals. Ideals which were at once hostile toward any narrative but its own and resentful of any claims to authority which did not reflect their own values and beliefs or enure to their grasping claim on power. They took a wrecking ball to the Ethos which had largely guided our Nation and undertook to discredit and bury it. Every major institution fell to their onslaught .. education, church, government and entertainment. Now decades later as the fruits of their great experiment yield dystopic chaos …they can only suggest that the effect of their efforts rather than their efforts themselves (and the philosophy which guided them)are to blame. Reminds me of a certain Proverb … “How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?

  • John Haas

    If you have any temptation to compare today’s “elites” (yes, in quotes, ’cause they barely deserve the name) with those of days of yore, get a good biography of J. Pierpont Morgan and see if anyone today (at least in finance) even compares.

    One problem in any such discussion is that yesterday’s elites (ie, families that made their piles between the 1600s and the 1870s) and today’s are not at all the same. The old families held on till the 1950s or so, but then it all unravelled.

    They weren’t perfect: they were anti-semitic, clubbish, not always very bright, deaf to civil rights, generally prejudiced, usually eugenicists, and they gave us the Vietnam War–which, by a nice ironic turn, drove a stake through their hearts.

    But they did have standards, and they enforced them and disseminated them, and that was good.

    As they fell apart, two new elite groups sprang up to fill the vacuum: the academics, who sought to take over their role in promulgating moral standards, but who have very little power (and aren’t any better at really formulating sensible standards anyway); and the wealthy, who’s status as elites is conceded entirely because of their wealth, and who, far from having standards, actually have near to none.

    You should look–if you haven’t already–at two authors: E. Digby Baltzell (see his PROTESTANT ESTABLISHMENT REVISITIED) and Christopher Lasch, THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES AND THE END OF DEMOCRACY. Each are essays, and easy to get into what will interest you. EDB was an old elite himself, and wrote about those families and their fate; Lasch critiques the new “elites.”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      An interesting take, John. Thanks for the references.

  • We’re in a case of “who guards the guards” aren’t we? One’s anthropology reflects one’s theology. I’m not sure if it has ever been any different other than the use of technology, social media and widespread awareness of the most unnecessary of facts. The blast of such trivia in soundbite proportions helps to weaken critical reporting. We are overexposed to data, most of which hinders our ability to sort … I’ve found this to be true when I seek to do a media fast … no Internet, TV, Phone, computer … withdrawals are severe. Thus, my anthropology is showing! In need of repair of redemptive proportions.

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  • Kubrick’s Rube

    I fear all this talk of elites is a red herring. The difference now is one of degree, not kind. The world economy is interconnected to an extent undreamed of by the pirates, robber barons, politicians and plain old crooks of yesteryear.

    Technology has allowed large scale movements of money to take place very rapidly, with little oversight, and the modern world financial structure makes it impossible for any of us, whether we are direct investors or not, to avoid the inevitable ups and downs of the market.

    Just as a bomb is more likely to kill than a gun, and a gun than a knife and a knife than a stick, the modern technologically driven economy- wielded by people much like those in generations past- has far greater capacity for great gain and great loss than the economies of the past.

    An analogous point comes from warfare. I often hear people speak of the 20th Century as the bloodiest in history (and try to blame secularism for that too). I can’t help but wonder what Napolean or Genghis Khan or the Crusaders would have done with tanks, planes and machine guns, let alone A-bombs and biological weaponry.

    The world has changed more than people have.