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Royalty, Real and Imagined
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Royalty, Real and Imagined

America’s problem is not that we have elites; it’s that we have the wrong elites.


So there’s an episode of Star Trek called “Spock’s Brain,” in which aliens, shockingly enough, steal Spock’s brain. (It’d be pretty cool if it was about aliens trying to steal Spock’s liver.)

Many believe it’s the worst episode of the entire series, but that’s not important right now. Neither are most of the details. All that matters is the scene where Dr. McCoy puts on a special helmet that fills his cabeza with so much medical knowledge, he can actually put Spock’s brain back in. When his cranial tank is filled to overflowing, McCoy declares, “A child could do it,” the procedure seems so simple. But like the battery in an old laptop, the genius juice starts to leak very quickly, and by the end of the procedure he starts to panic. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t remember … it’s like trying to thread a needle with a sledgehammer.”

Just in case you’re worried, given that Spock was a very bankable piece of intellectual property—spoiler alert—McCoy figures out how to put Spock’s brain back.

Anyway, I bring this up because that’s sort of how I feel right now. I have an idea, but it’s complicated and I’m worried that I’ll lose bits and pieces of it before I have to deliver this “news”letter in a couple hours. So please bear with me as I try to stitch it all together like so many Vulcan synapses.

Elitism, eternal.

Vilfredo Pareto was one of the most influential sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, and economists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If you know economics, he’s the guy who came up with Pareto Efficiency. He was also one of the founders of Elite Theory, along with Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, of “Iron Law of Oligarchy” fame. The basic gist of Elite Theory is that elites are inevitable, always and everywhere. For that reason, Pareto et al. used “elite” as a purely descriptive phrase (though Pareto previously used “aristocracy” and Mosca preferred “ruling class.”).

To get the flavor of the point, put your tongue on it. No, wait. To get the flavor, consider the Pareto Principle—sometimes known as the 80-20 Rule—which holds that lots of things tend to be distributed in an 80 percent-to-20 percent fashion. Pareto found that 80 percent of the land in Italy always ends up being controlled by 20 percent of the people. He also discovered that 80 percent of the peas in his garden were produced by 20 percent of the plants. 

I honestly don’t know how reliable the 80-20 rule is. I suspect it would be better to call it the 80-20 Rule of Thumb. But it is a common observation in business that 20 percent of the salesforce generates about 80 percent of the sales. It’s certainly directionally true that on college campuses, 20 percent of kids account for 80 percent of the political activity. This site offers some other examples (20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of crimes, 80 percent of pollution comes from 20 percent of factories etc.).

Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy holds that all organizations, even those committed to democratic practices (he studied democratic parties in Germany to come up with the ILO), are eventually run by a handful of people. Here’s how I explained it in Suicide of the West:

A small organization—a business, a political party, or even a society like a tribe or band—can make decisions largely by consensus. But as organizations grow in size, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage decision making inclusively (thus the irony of the iron law: It only kicks in when the cause is sufficiently attractive to large numbers of people). A fire team in the U.S. Army can largely work without much hierarchy, but an army cannot.

Members of the group specialize in all sorts of ways, including in the realm of leadership and management. These leaders and managers, i.e., elites, emerge within even the most collaborative or consensual organizations—or the organizations simply fall apart under their own weight. The elites take on more responsibilities and, in the process, gain power and expand their access to special knowledge about how the organization works (what Michels calls “administrative secrets”). They can use these “secrets” to elevate their status and consolidate their power even further by allocating resources to reward allies and punish foes.

I bring all of this up to lend a little heft to a pretty obvious point that a lot of people seem to have forgotten: Elites are inevitable, at least in any large organization, institution, or society. If there is division of labor, there will be elites. It’s sort of like the “1 percent” claptrap. It’s an iron law of plain old math that there will always be a top 1 percent in any economy. If Elizabeth Warren confiscated all of the wealth of every household in the 1 percent, guess what would happen? The households in the next percentile down would move up to the top.

Elite circulation.

Once you accept that elites are here to stay, you can move on to more interesting—and difficult!—questions such as: Who are the elites? What elites should we have? How should we determine them? How do we get rid of them and replace them with better elites?

That last question is the most important, and often the most difficult. Sure, in institutions with formal rules, there are often formal answers to this question. Senators are elites, and we get rid of them by electing other senators.

But Pareto and Co. weren’t primarily interested in that kind of thing. Rather, they were interested in the informal—and more important—realm outside of those institutions. Think of it this way: Senators are elites by their job description, but the people we make senators are themselves typically wealthy, famous, and drawn from elite institutions like Ivy League law schools.

Let’s throw in some punditry to make this more relevant. The populist leaders of the left and right who are railing against “the elite” are themselves part of the elite. They’re just members of a competing faction. Understanding this point is crucial, I think, to understanding our politics (and politics generally). Ted Cruz is a former Harvard Law wunderkind and Texas solicitor general, married to a partner at Goldman Sachs. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it says something good about America that the child of Hispanic immigrants (from Cuba and Canada) could rise so high in our meritocracy. My only point is that when you hear Ted Cruz denouncing “the elite,” he’s not doing it from the gutter below. His attacks are often hurled at eye-level, or even from above.

Similarly, Elizabeth Warren is as elite as they come. But her whole schtick is about fighting the elite, even if she prefers to talk about the 1 percent or the “billionaire class.”

Now, those who follow these politicians may not be elites—though a great many are—but that’s always the case. The serfs, peasants, and workers loyal to the Medicis, Tudors, and Tokugawas weren’t aristocrats, but they aligned with those factions for all manner of reasons.

Okay, back to Pareto for a moment. To save time, I’ll just quote Hugo Drochon from this well-done piece:   

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

With all due respect to the social historians and the champions of historically marginalized groups, history is the story of competing elites vying for power and, ultimately, replacing old elites. As Pareto put it, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

Most of American history is the story of foxes fighting each other. Occasionally the lions get involved—the Civil War is the best example. But if you look at the history of political violence in America, you can find examples where the foxes changed the rules to head off the lions. Labor and race riots shocked the foxes into incorporating new elites into their ranks. One could argue that the violence of January 6 was Donald Trump’s effort to play the lion. But he was, heh, outfoxed.

Meghan and the new gods.

In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the “Old Gods” fight a rearguard battle against the “New Gods.” Gaiman’s premise is that you are what you worship, and that worship is what creates and sustains gods. So, Odin, Ganesha, and Kali fight the New Gods of Media, Technology, and the Stock Market.

We don’t need to dwell on all that, but watching excerpts of Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and “Harry” I was reminded of American Gods.

Now, I don’t care much about the soap opera details. But here you have representatives of two powerful aristocracies, or in modern parlance, elites. The old aristocracy of inherited titles and noble bloodlines versus the new aristocracy of celebrity. More about that in a second.

I should get a cut of Yuval Levin’s royalties given how often I invoke his argument in A Time to Build. But just in case you missed all that, Yuval’s central argument is that our understanding of institutions has changed. Institutions were traditionally used to mold and improve citizens by demanding things from them. The slacker who joins the Marines surrenders much of his individuality to the institution and comes out the other side a changed, usually better, person. The Boy Scouts takes undisciplined children and teaches them not just useful wilderness skills, but important values. 

The new view of institutions is that they are “platforms” people exploit for their own purposes and agendas. Trump and the presidency, Colin Kaepernick and the NFL, Matt Gaetz, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Congress, countless actors at the Oscars who literally use the stage to vent and virtue signal about various causes: The list of people who use institutions as cultural ATMs they can draw the cultural currency of attention and celebrity is endless.

Whether or not Markle is sincere and honest in her accounts, she and her pliant husband are using the institution of the monarchy for their own purposes. Again, the point isn’t whether they are “right” or “wrong” about this or that—you can certainly argue that the issues Colin Kaepernick raised by taking a knee are worthwhile. The point is that Markle—who reportedly is thinking about running for president—is an avatar of the New Gods, and she speaks their liturgy perfectly.

The British monarchy—love it or hate it—exists to subordinate the individuality and individual desires of its subjects to the good of itself as an institution. Watch The Crown: It’s one story after another of family members taking one for the team. Reportedly, Markle bristled at the idea that she is supposed to curtsy before the queen, even when the public or the cameras aren’t around. She literally wanted to bend the rules of bending. Here’s how The Economist put it:

Beyond the sniping from both sides, the fundamental problem, with which Princess Diana struggled, is clear. Being a royal is about serving an institution. It does not work for those who crave individual attention. The only way of doing the job properly is through self-effacement, at which the queen, who has not said a single interesting thing in public in her 70 years on the throne, has excelled.

Meanwhile, while talking to Oprah—truly a high priestess of the New Gods, if not one of them herself—Markle ran through the checklist of all the new virtues: racial victimization, bullying, feminism, self-harm, etc. Oprah’s line from the promo for the interview was “Were you silent or were you silenced?” to which Markle responded, “The latter.”

Once again, it certainly sounds like Markle was badly “handled” by the “firm,” but this whole idea of institutions “silencing” noble souls that must speak their truth is quintessential New Gods stuff.

Viewed from this perspective, the differences between our competing elites shrink. Josh Hawley boasts at CPAC that he will not be “silenced.” Every five minutes I get an email or see a tweet from some conservative outlet asking for money or clicks before they get “silenced” or “canceled.” Ted Cruz says, “The Democrats today are the party of the rich and coastal elites, they’re the party of Manhattan and San Francisco.” True. Mrs. Cruz’s office is in Houston, I believe, which is on the coast, just a different one.

My cabeza helmet is running out of juice and this is running long, so I’ll cut to the chase. I’m not saying that there are no differences between the parties or the myriad elite factions contending for power. There are very significant ones. There were significant differences between rival clans in ancient Rome, too.

But nobody ranting about elites is actually trying to get rid of elites. Nor could they get rid of elites if they wanted to, because they are baked into the American social fabric. The question, again, is what kind of elites do we want? And what is striking to me is how the people who find this elite bashing so attractive, on both the left and right, have so much in common. They all want to be “heard.” They don’t want to be constrained by institutions, they want to be elevated and celebrated by them. They want the wrongthinkers silenced or canceled and the righthinkers privileged and honored.

The elites, in turn, hear this stuff from the loudest in their ranks and think it is the authentic voice of the people. Or at least they pretend to think that, because flattering your own crowds is what politicians do to get power.

In a sense, it’s a shame we’re stuck with the word “elite,” and not just because politicians have put so much stink on it. Aristocracy didn’t originally mean rule by those with noble blood, it merely meant rule by the best. Elite is too descriptive, precisely because it doesn’t concern itself with the moral quality of those who wield power. It merely deals with the quantity of power those at the top have. 

If we thought of political and cultural elites the way we think of, say, athletic, scientific, or military elites, then that would be one thing. Calling a surgeon elite suggests that he is among the best in his field. That’s partly because the institutions that produce elite surgeons still demand a great deal from those who navigate them. But when we talk of the political elite, no one immediately thinks of “the best people,” or even “the best politicians.” And they certainly don’t think of the most upstanding, moral, and statesmanlike leaders. They think of the strivers best equipped to play to the emotions and vanities of the masses.

That’s because that’s what our culture demands these days. Everyone is their own priest, their feelings their own North Star. And the elites respond accordingly. We are what we worship, and we worship ourselves.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.