In the 1990’s, it was popular for conservatives to excuse their impotence by throwing around the line, “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve”, which they attributed to Tocqueville. So-called conservatives like Newt Gingrich were supposed to be idea men, brimming with technocratic solutions to every problem, while Clinton was a windy degenerate from a bygone era. The fact that the voters sided with Clinton over conservatives reflected poorly on the people.
The quote, of course, was not from Tocqueville. It was actually Joseph de Maistre, who coined that phrase. It was oddly symbolic of the state of conservatism. They had turned their back on everything that defined Western conservatism by that point, so forgetting seminal figures in the intellectual tradition of the Right was appropriate. In retrospect, the fact that the so-called conservatives did not understand the word “people” in the context of the quote was the most poignant error.
Putting that aside, the quote itself is a nice shorthand for the actual truth that lies behind those words. The people get the ruling elite they can produce and that ruling elite will then create a government that reflects its nature. The condition of the people is reflected in the morality of its ruling class. At the same time, the ruling class is responsible for the people. Its duty is to advance their interests. In this way, the pivot point of a people is its ruling class. It is what they make of it.
The founding generation of America were men of civic virtue. The saw the willingness to put the interests of the community ahead of private interests, as the threshold item for a leader. As a result, they rejected the monarchical system of government they inherited from England and created a republic. The constitutional system they created was based on the assumption that, in general, the sort of men who would rise to prominence were men who prized civic virtue. The Constitution reflected this.
That turned out to be the fatal flaw of the constitutional order created in Philadelphia two centuries ago. While the system of checks and balances worked to prevent the ambitious and unscrupulous from gaining politician power, it was not built for the ruling elite that would evolve in the 19th century. When the North conquered the country, America became a nascent empire. It still reflected the founding order, but its elite was now changing to reflect the changing nature of America.
The ruling elite the evolved after the Civil War and into the Industrial Revolution did not place civic virtue at the top of its moral order. Instead, it was the desire for and the love of honor that motivated the ruling classes. They quickly reorganized the government to reflect this reality. Rank and status were now the coin of the realm. Whether it was dominating some area of the economy or conquering foreign lands, the path to attaining rank and status was though government and politcs.
You can see this in the type of men who occupied high office. Before the Civil War, the leadership of the country were men who either got rich before entering government, or they were born rich. This was the result of a natural ruling class that reflected the human capital of the people. After the war, there emerged men who made their names in government. Their path to high status was not as natural leaders of their community, but as shrewd operators in the political system.
The obvious example is Abraham Lincoln, who is treated as the Moses of the second founding by the previous ruling class. This was not a man who prized civic virtue or was a natural community leader. Instead, he craved status and power. He attained those through the skillful maneuvering through politics and then through the brutal use of force to create a political order that reflected this new ruling class. For those who wonder when America will have its Sulla, look no further than Lincoln.
Every phase of an elite runs its course and this one is no different. The ruling class that evolved after the Civil War through the Cold War was built for a different age. It was industrial and it was geared to a world of industrial competition. What kept it going long after its peak was the Cold War. The stand-off with communism not only locked the New Deal political order in place, it locked in place the status system of the ruling elite. That system, thirty years after the Cold War, is now giving way to something new.
The technological age, like the industrial age, is the accelerant for a long overdue transformation of the American ruling elite. This new class is no longer created and housed within the political class. It exists outside of it, within its own power centers inside and outside of government. The intelligence services, for example, are now an independent power center, beyond the reach of Congress. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are now more powerful than Washington.
This new ruling class has a unique motivation. The elite of the republic was defined by civic virtue. The elite of the empire was defined by status and rank. This new ruling elite will be defined by the fear it instills in the public. In the technological age, fear of the oligarchs will be the supreme public virtue. Fear will be ruthlessly and creatively inculcated by a ruling elite that is wholly disconnected from the people over whom it rules. This stage of America will be the age of technological despotism.
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