Summary of conclusions to my review of comments on this site about reforming America. These are provocative speculation,s nothing more, based on a tiny sample. However, we are in trouble if these are representative of America’s intelligentsia. These comments show a deep alienation from our Republic, going beyond indifference to antipathy. This situation has historical analogs, in which a dissatisfied educated class easily defects from a regime to serve the tyrant replacing it. For example, consider Plato and Aristotle in Athens, and the French “middle class” serving Napoleon.
How can we reform America? This is the fourth in a series about this, perhaps the most important issue for our generation of Americans. My opinion is simple (perhaps simplistic)
- We are in this together. Reality/nature/God enforces collectively responsibility.
- Individually we are weak. Collectively we are strong.
- Our reluctance to take personal responsibility for the Republic is our greatest problem. Ingenuity at producing excuses does not substitute for taking action.
- What are the odds of success at fixing American? It does not matter; nobody cares (not our forefathers, not our descendants).
Judging from the comments, this is a minority view. All of those posting comments disagree, most suggesting that passivity or outright revolt are our only effective options. The first three chapters provide examples. Disturbing examples, for anyone who cares about our political regime.
- The problems
- Our responsibility for both the problems and fixing them
- Possible solutions
The intelligentsia and its discontents
What is the role of the class of intelligent and educated people in their political regime? Unless closely tied in spirit and interest to the political regime, they easily come to regard themselves as having a unique fitness to rule. We see in Plato’s writings how Socrates attempted to reconcile this belief with their proper role in a democracy. Subsequent events, esp. the lives of Alcibiades and Plato, show that he was not successful. Indeed his failures — for which many held him responsible — were a factor in Socrates’ conviction and execution. Alcaibiades’ treason gave Sparta the key to defeating Athens. Plato and Aristotle were more fond of tyrants than of Athenian democracy.
In The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the state of the middle class before the Revolution (a small fraction of the French population, structurally similar in many ways to America’s intelligentsia (“knowledge workers” or “chattering classes”). They became alienated from the Monarchy, the nobility and peasantry — but attached to the growing power and centralization of the government.
“But what you observe especially in all the actions of the middle class is the fear of being confused with the common people and the passionate desire by every means to avoid being controlled by that class.” (Book 2, chapter 9)
We see this today in a thousand different ways. From buying a Prius (greener than the masses) to insistence on maintaining tenure in the schools, universities, and civil service (despite it having outlived its original purpose) .
As for their “passion for offices, this quote could easily come from today’s papers: “Whenever official positions ran short, the imagination of the applicants set to work and soon invented new ones.” (Book 2, chapter 9).
This class became the servants of the Revolutionary bureaucracy — and then Napoleon’s.
“The greatest difference in this respect between the era I am quoting and our own is that, at that time, the government sold official positions whereas today it gives them away. To obtain them a man no longer offers money; he does better than that: he surrenders himself.” (Book 2, chapter 9)
21st century America
The comments posted in the 3 previous chapters are symptomatic, I believe, of a similar dynamic at work in America. On both the left and right, our intellectual elites have become disenchanted (literally) with our political regime. Should the opportunity arise, not only might they not fight to preserve it from internal foes — they might defect.
For more on this see The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch (1995). The political aspect of our ills. A powerful polemic for change. Its hostile reception by both conservatives and liberals suggests that it struck too close to home for their comfortable self-assurance. Such a subtle, complex work defies attempts to summarize it, but this excerpt will do as well as any. Note that he writes about the leftist segment of the intelligentsia, but a similar description could be written about its right wing.
The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it, a nation technologically backwards, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues.
“Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required.
The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.
Does this seem too extreme? Read the three previous chapters in this series, then tell us what you think.
Note: this is a sketch of something deserving more research and exposition than I can provide at this time. I am on the road, without access to my library and having only a slow internet connection.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.