The Outstater

April 25, 2024

Let’s Hear it for Aristocracy

I’M GOING TO TRY to make a case for aristocracy. Wish me luck.

I will back into it by applying Thomas Sowell’s famous test, “Compared with what?” American democracy has taken a nasty turn toward identity-driven politics. At the same time, it is increasingly captured by grasping private interests, mainly corporate ones, but also by bureaucratic powers and public-sector unions. 

The French philosopher Ernest Renan was surely right that elections can be triumphs of mediocrity “putting knaves and quacks upon the throne.” And the quip of a British critic stings: “If you didn’t like taxation without representation, how do you like it with representation?”

Most of Indiana’s large and mid-sized cities are now in the hands of what the political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls “clientism,” that is, bread-and-circus economic development, race-based politics and favor-swapping between special classes of citizens. It is not reassuring that this clientelism is distinguishable from patronage only by its link to voter solicitation (machine democracy).

Christopher Caldwell, a reviewer of Fukuyama’s recent “Political Order and Political Decay,” expands on the point. Let me quote at length to preserve the import:

“While ‘diversity’ can be a source of strength, it is more often a source of dissension and weakness. The tribal cast that U.S. clientelism has taken on in the age of affirmative action is a subject few academic political scientists will touch with a stick. This includes the generally bold Fukuyama, who will say only that ‘ethnicity serves as a credible indication that a particular political boss will deliver the goods to a targeted audience.’ But Kenya, for instance, is far enough away to permit him to be much more specific: ‘Today, one of the main functions of ethnic identity is to act as a signaling device in the clientelistic division of state resources,” he writes. ‘If you are a Kikuyu and can elect a Kikuyu president, you are much more likely to be favored with government jobs, public works projects and the like.’” 

Please know that none of this was imposed on us. Rather it was chosen, quite democratically by the way. The thought here is that our situation could be improved by a measured dose of aristocratic thinking — with a small a, no heraldry, thrones or such, but a nod to some sort of generation-spanning interest. We’ve tried the Obamas of Chicago, now let’s try the Crowleys of Downton Abby.

Such a nod was the practice before 1913 of selecting U.S. senators by the state legislatures. The idea was that senators thus chosen would represent the established political order in each state. As such, they would be more likely to take the longer view, that they would be a check on the rushed demands of envious populism in the House.

Another such nod was the mid-century Rotarian impulse of Main Street America. The families owning local commerce and industry until the 1960s were expected to shoulder the duties of community leadership. The assumption, largely born out, was that regardless of personal character they would have an incentive to help their neighbors prosper long-term. They had an interest in passing on their businesses to sons and daughters living in a vibrant community as well as an interest in securing the well-being of a productive local workforce.

Corporate managers on five-year business plans — “occupiers,” a friend calls them — do not seem able to manage that.

Certainly all of that is gone, never to return. Still, if we better understand what has been lost we will  be better prepared to reform a democratic process under stress, perhaps merely in more discerning choices at the ballot box. I’ll leave you with the thoughts of the historian Will Durant (a tip of the hat to Jash Dholani, “the Old Books Guy”):

Or for you Francophiles out there, Le roi est mort, vive le roi! — tcl


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