American Culture

Democracy & Elitism: an introduction to the American false consciousness

Democracy+ElitismPart 1 in a series.

Is there a more radioactive word in American politics today than elitist?

Admit it – you saw the word and had an instinctive negative reaction, didn’t you? If not, then count yourself among the rarest minority in our culture, the fraction of a percent that has not yet had its consciousness colonized by the “evil elitist” meme. If not, you’re one of a handful of people not yet victimized by a cynical public relations frame that poses perhaps the greatest danger to the health of our republic in American history.

Pretty dire language there, huh? Perhaps we’ve ventured a little too deeply into the land of hyperbole? It might seem so at a glance, but in truth the success of any society is largely a function of the things it believes and how those beliefs shape its actions and policies. A nation driven by ideologies that work to undercut its strengths is doomed, and the United States has become an abusive consumer of a complex, toxic cocktail of self-defeating dogmas and the resulting public behaviors.

American society has its share of elites, elitism and elitists, but unfortunately it badly misunderstands who’s who, what’s what and how it all affects our nation. These misunderstandings arise, in part, because we have been lied to so ubiquitously and so effectively by powerful, wealthy interests – interests that stand to gain a great deal by keeping the public as misinformed and confused as possible. Interests with the resources required for broad mass media propagation of the toxic meme. Interests with a deep comprehension of how the mass culture thinks and acts. Interests that are extremely adept at playing on the weaknesses of the public mind and shepherding it toward a desired end.

I rarely resort to Marxist terminology, but in this case Friedrich Engels* offers up an important concept: false consciousness. In a nutshell, this theory argues that a society’s economic elites use their resources to foster among the lower classes – in contemporary America, this would be the rapidly dwindling middle class and the working classes – an erroneous belief about how the culture is structured. This would include false beliefs about the distribution of wealth, about opportunity and one’s prospects for success, about the relationship between the wealthy and the poor, about the actual causes of poverty and inequality, and so on.

In all cases, the failure of the lower classes to accurately perceive the true nature of the society’s economic and political reality works in favor of the powerful and against the members of the underclasses.

A couple of relatively recent cases from American presidential politics illustrate the point. In 1992 Bill Clinton was the Democratic challenger to Republican incumbent George HW Bush. Clinton had been born into a poor, broken, Southern Baptist family in Arkansas. He was, in every sense imaginable, an American Everyman – a living-and-breathing Horatio Alger story. He’d worked hard and fought his way up the ladder, against all odds. He earned enough in the way of academic scholarships to put himself through Georgetown, one of the nation’s finest universities. He did so well there that he earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Now bad for a simple country boy from a trailer park in Arkansas.

Bush’s story was the polar opposite of Clinton’s. His father was a wealthy banker and a US Senator. His grandfather was a wealthy industrialist. He attended elite schools as a boy (Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Academy), and whatever he may have accomplished in life, it’s uncontroversial to say that he’d been working with as many advantages as his opponent had disadvantages.

Fine – a wealthy man representing the GOP, a “man of the people” representing the “party of the people” – all was apparently running to form. Except that Clinton got mauled in the South. He got mauled with poor voters. He got mauled by Christian voters. The problem was that somehow a blueblood from Kennebunkport was perceived as being “more like” the common underclass voter than the man who was legitimately one of their own.

Clinton went on to alienate Americans on “both” ends of the political spectrum, and the point here certainly isn’t to lobby him a place on Rushmore. Rather, we should simply take note of the massive gap between who these men were and how they were perceived with respect to class, economic identity and the question of elitism.

A few years later, the next generation of the Bush lineage produced a president, George W Bush. In 2004 this Bush, who was even more deeply soaked in the rich juices of dynasty, stood for reelection in a contest where elitism again became an issue. He attended the Kinkaid School in Houston, then Phillips. Then Yale, then Harvard Business. (Please understand – if you attended Phillips, Yale and Harvard, you have trodden the most economically and politically elite pathway available in the United States, period.) While at Yale he was a member of arguably the most elite society of its sort in America, Skull & Bones.

His opponent, John Kerry, also came from a certain measure of privilege. His parents were upper-middle class and his mother was a member of the Forbes family. He attended Yale, like his opponent, and also was invited to join Skull & Bones. and In 1995 he married Teresa Heinz, whose estimated worth was in the $750B range.

A rational assessment of the 2004 election, then, would have cast it (policy positions notwithstanding) as a contest between two competing elites. Neither faced much in the way of want or class struggle growing up, both attended the finest schools money could buy, they were fraternity brothers in the nation’s most influential and privileged secret society, and so on. In the 100-meter dash of life, we might safely observe that Kerry began with a 90-meter head start, while Dubya had only to lean forward a bit to break the tape. (12 years earlier, the supposed elitist candidate had actually begun the race in a deep hole 20 meters behind the starting line.)

But if you’ll recall, that isn’t how the media-fueled campaign was framed at all. Bush, like his father, was painted as the regular joe and Kerry as the effete Yankee elitist. Amazingly – or perhaps predictably – the electorate swallowed the lie, hook and sinker.

Perhaps you can’t fool all the people all the time, but by November of 2004 we had clearly reached the point in our history when you could fool an electoral majority all the time.

* Eagleton, Terry (1991). Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso.


Next: What do we mean by “elitism”?

Image Credit: Le Nouvel Ordre Mondial

11 replies »

  1. Tippecanoe and Tyler too!

    America is what America is. If William Henry Harrison (“log cabins and hard cider”) and John Tyler, the worst sorts of FFV aristocracy, could present themselves as common people in 1840, it stands to reason that it can be done now, too. America really hasn’t changed a bit.

  2. Only in America (ok, maybe not only…) would being smart, educated and capable be seen as a negative. Worse, this is a nation that elevates “Joe Six Pack” to ideological heights at the same time it beats old Joe down by killing the unions that gave Joe a decent, middle class existence; by off shoring Joe’s job opportunities; and by convincing Joe that the path to happiness is a bunch of debt to buy a shit-ton of crap he doesn’t need made by low-wage Chinese laborers who replaced Joe in the manufacturing food chain.

    Long live ignorance, the American ideal that’s slowly killing poor Joe.

  3. The public seems perfectly willing to forgo any expertise elites afford it simply because of hearsay about elites’ attitudes spread by right-wing media. Quite a sacrifice. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  4. Russ, my sense is that it goes deeper than that. The right wing media simply exploits what is. I don’t think it had to create it. Much of the US was settled by impoverished immigrants who had great fear of, and disdain for, anyone educated or who thought they were the immigrants’ “betters.” Those once consisted only of those born wealthy. And, of course, the elitist attitudes were very real. Even today, I have heard the word “breeding” used in the context of how mannered/educated/wealthy a person is.

    Once upon a time, a man really could better himself in the US just by working harder than others. If you were willing to spend sunup to sundown every day chopping down trees, you could earn good money and do a lot better than you did in the old country. If you earned enough by farming to buy really cheap land farther west, you could become quite wealthy without really knowing much of anything. You could strike gold, or lead, or some other mineral resource.

    That dream is mostly lost to those of average or worse intelligence in the US these days, and the old resentments are still there. But let’s see where Sam takes this. I’m looking forward to it.

  5. Perhaps the Breeding is merely proof that Galton was right. Look at the difference between the people at the bowling alley and the country club, and tell me I’m wrong.