Elites are having it rough these days – at least in the public conversation. The “one per centers,” as they’ve been labeled, are, we’re informed, arrayed against just about everyone else. They’ve made off with a wildly disproportionate chunk of the total annual income of Americans and command the lion’s share of all personal wealth in our nation. And they generously fund numerous PACs advocating public policies that will keep their vast holdings intact.
Is such behavior all that surprising? Most people, whatever their class status, do tend to pursue their own self-interest. Elites, however, are far better positioned to succeed. Equally disturbing to critics, the elites have retreated into their cushy cocoons and gated communities, have stopped mingling with “ordinary” people, a phenomenon Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has called “the luxury boxification of America”. They’ve hoisted the drawbridge, bolted shut the castle and have rigged the contest for life’s “goodies” in their favor. To reinforce their privileged positions, they’ve arranged matters so that their children receive every advantage and benefit, and thus will be able to fill the ranks of the next generation of elites.
Americans, once they became independent, have never been very comfortable with elites. To embrace such a group would, after all, have been contrary to our national narratives of advancing equality and democracy. Even our Founding Fathers, surely an unapologetic elite, ran into this problem. Men like Washington, Adams, Lee, Madison, Jefferson, Jay, Pinckney, Mason, Dickinson, Morris, Rutledge, Livingston, Wythe, Hancock, Hamilton, etc., acting heroically and effectively, articulated a philosophy of freedom, staged a successful revolution, produced a wondrous constitutional framework and governed effectively during the early years of the Republic. But their very success contributed in a way to their undoing. That’s because the Revolution was not all about them. Ordinary folks had joined in, protested, armed themselves, entered the militias and the Continental Army and achieved ultimate victory. Energized and motivated, especially by the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that “all men are created equal” they were, after the war no longer the same and they began to assert themselves as never before. They were, many insisted, now as good as anyone else. Accordingly they began questioning whether the elite were really the “natural aristocrats” they claimed to be . Or even disinterested patriots in view of how some were too eager to advance and to protect their own economic interests (a prime example being southern slaveholders and Massachusetts creditors whose pressure tactics brought on the Shays Rebellion in 1786.)
But these conditions and frictions would not require yet another revolution because many of the discontented had the right to vote. And increasingly they did, electing more and more people like themselves to local governing bodies and to various state legislatures.
Thus the political climate began to change. While Washington created a presidential image not unlike the English monarchs, Jefferson abandoned all such pretense and brought the office closer to the people (abandoning the wig, for example). More significantly, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party, because they were more closely attuned to popular sentiments, replaced their aristocratic opposition both at the national and state levels to the point that the Federalists gradually disappeared as a party. All this presaged a general retreat from office holding and politics on the part of these older elite groups.
This transformation of the political landscape to one more congenial to popular impulse culminated in the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828,. Unlike his predecessor, he was no aristocrat; indeed, regarded himself as a man of the people (who, after his inauguration, invited everyone into the White House and later spoke favorably about electing Presidents by popular majority).
So maybe there’s a lesson to be had in this brief historical excursion. If the revolutionary generation managed in the name of the people, to replace the elites who formerly had led the independence movement, maybe we can today muster the means to bring our current elites down a peg or two. Back then it was undertaken in the name of the People. Cannot the People once again assert their rightful influence and guide our government along a path that benefits more than the upper crust?