Overcoming the Elites

Richard Reinsch has done us a service in his review and podcast interview on Christopher Caldwell’s astonishing new book The Age of Entitlement. He shows that conservatives, indeed all Americans, need to wrestle with what Caldwell says about the transformation of post-War America, leading to what we see today: political conflicts that we seem unable to resolve and unwilling to give up.

Caldwell offers an historical analysis of both political and non-political events to further his thesis about America as a whole. He shows us America in 1945, like a Greek god trying to remake the world in accordance with its wishes. Then he shows us America in the ‘60s, shaken by conflicts that defied understanding, much less resolution—driven mad and having become self-destructive as punishment for its arrogance. Finally, he shows us America since 1981, united primarily in ignoring its core conflicts.

The Nature of Political Conflict

Caldwell offers a very sophisticated argument in service of a simple point. Despite the fact that we are all Americans, our nation has developed two very different constitutions, with partisans of both the new and the old constitution locked into enmity. Those on the Right want to return to an America defined by equality of citizenship and responsibility. Those on the Left want to establish absolute equality of human rights through the courts and administrative agencies.

Caldwell judges that the defenders of the old constitution have no capacity to restore America because we have no genuine elites. Hence, after a generation of unprecedented conservative political victories, the traditions we’re supposedly conserving are lost, and society revolutionized. Meanwhile, Progressive attempts to change who we the people are have been too limited for them to win, either. We are stuck, but cannot resign ourselves to our current deadlock—our very restlessness and sharply divergent moral convictions continually lead us into one crisis after another. Having failed to get what we want for so long, we must now examine not only what we want and why we desire it, but ask ourselves a deeper question: what is politics?

Our Founders were students of the great political philosophers—they organized government based on the opinion that all societies are divided against themselves—between the few and the many, the elites and the people. Therefore, to achieve any lasting domestic peace is difficult, and to make peace forever is impossible. Corruption, civil war, or anarchy eventually ruin a community, so in order to prevent and forestall catastrophe, we must in each generation learn about men and institutions, so that we may know what problems we’re facing.

Institutions add up to a Constitution, a political regime: in all our dealings with each other we design rules for behavior, so that rewards and punishments end up structuring our understanding of justice and decency. These things are hard, though not impossible, to understand, because they are public and rather theoretical. Men, on the other hand, are particularly hard to understand, since in studying them our own fears and desires are directly involved, and we have very little ethical education to go on when it comes to judging character; men also change more quickly than institutions.

The Power of Shame in Politics

Caldwell believes we need to understand political psychology as much as our regime, so he looks in every chapter to the beliefs and feelings of the Americans who tried hardest or were most influential in effecting the changes that have made our lives what they have been since the 60s. But profiting from his book requires that we grapple with the fact that people really only know their politics when they grasp their society’s pieties—and by extension, come to grips with those things of which we are ashamed.

Fear matters, of course, or else we wouldn’t have policemen. But shame matters more, since the people vastly outnumber policemen. We obey the laws freely or not at all. Further, you can fear an asteroid destroying America, but you’re not going to blush because cosmic events are not our fault—the asteroid doesn’t hate or despise you. Consider the pain of a slap versus the shame of being slapped, a sting less likely to be forgotten! The trouble is that America isn’t a shame-and-honor culture, and in America the only thing guaranteed to shame most of us is being called racist.

But whatever madness elites practice in the name of freedom, they, like the rest of us, only face true shame when they find themselves accused of the ultimate shame—racism.

Our public figures often do contemptible things: legally, we try to rehabilitate murderers far more often than we try to execute them; our elite liberals constantly try to talk the nation into any number of sexual perversions as a matter of principle; even pagan cults and amateur Satanists are a fixture nowadays. But whatever madness elites practice in the name of freedom, they, like the rest of us, only face true shame when they find themselves accused of the ultimate shame—racism.

Monopoly over the sources of shame makes our elites superior to the rest of us, and Caldwell analyzes it in terms of the courts, administrative agencies, and business. This monopoly is why they can do anything and get away with it. No one will ask the Clintons or anyone around them or like them about their relationship to Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein; it’s perfectly okay—because they are elite liberals who demonstrate their virtue by regularly calling the rest of us racist. In doing so, they remind us that it’s their privilege to slap us, the necessary punishment for our lack of enlightenment.

That is why Hollywood and academia can enjoy and squander obscene wealth and then humiliate the rest of us about our privilege. It’s why even vice pays off for them, while virtue is often insufficient for the rest of us to prosper. The supremely wealthy white liberals and Progressives in Silicon Valley and elsewhere look at you and me and say: White supremacy is the cause of our pain. If we are not equal with them in all the ways they scream about—income inequality—that’s because we don’t deserve what they have. Their class superiority as elites is justified by the accusation that the rest of us are racist.

From Plato and Aristotle to our Founders, the teaching is always the same: The conflict between the few and the many threatens to destroy the community. Our elites are doing just that.

Founding Fathers and Baby Boomers

Race is what our elites use to take control of our lives, our children, our homes, whatever they wish to change. But class is the power by which they act institutionally, the source of their identity sociologically, and the basis of the differences—of intellect and of taste—that separate us. Caldwell explains all this in a series of chapters that detail the rise of a cohort of Baby Boomers to take over so much of America and explain why they’ve never been stopped.

It’s not an accident that his book should come out now, when the domination of those Baby Boomers is over. America will have to deal with the consequences of this generational shift. But to do so, Caldwell implies, we must understand ourselves as defenders of our 1788 Constitution against that of 1964, when modern civil rights legislation, adjudication, and regulation emerged whereby everything elite liberals want is forced on the rest of us—trans-gender issues now, racial issues then.

But when it comes to our Founding, Caldwell is less surefooted. He never assesses whether our Founding was more like real democracy or what he calls sham democracy—the South before 1964. Well, slavery and other forms of discrimination were more important in 1788 than 1964! He hints that the key is the Founders’ liberalism, which distinguishes private and public. We want to restore public authority to the laws and to citizenship and our rights. Our elite liberalism is instead all about invading private life in every conceivable way.

Since these modern changes cannot be undone, how could we restore the Founders’ Constitution? We would have to defend unequivocally its original greatness and its justice, despite our shame about racism. Caldwell is so serious on this point that, as Reinsch indicates, he even judges Reagan an enemy of the Founders’ Constitution! His shocking judgment is that America’s Cold War victory and economic growth were less important than saving the Constitution and that Reagan’s priorities were misguided—he should have focused on restoring the freedoms that Progressives were hard at work to undermine, criminalize, or simply scare people out of exercising. Reagan’s peace and prosperity just ended up paying for more liberalism—for Clinton, Obama, and whatever’s next.

That we lack seriousness about the need for better elites is hard enough. For Caldwell then to criticize Reagan, however popular this has become on the Right, is harder still to bear. The only saving grace is that Caldwell’s intransigence leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the generational effort conservatives have to mount, lest they resign themselves to permanent defeat after the Boomers shuffle off the mortal coils, rendered infamous like all the other dead white males.

Political Morality

Caldwell also offers this hope. The single most neglected fact about our Founding is that our Founders wisely refused to allow elites to change the Constitution, but rested that most awesome power on the people, in the expectation that they would veto changes. This has been grossly vitiated, but perhaps not fundamentally. We are therefore not left at the tender mercies of elites who think we’re hardly human.

Further, the second most neglected concern about the Founding is what we may call political morality—what gives ideas their force? Why should people care? Our speeches, our opinions aren’t enough to change the world—only when our opinions are so dear to us that we organize and act on their basis do they really attain their importance. Ideas about rights and about justice are forgotten if we lose belief, and we lose belief if we lose our habits. The book’s focus on civil rights is impressive because it reveals the power of Progress—its democratic appeal, its elite appeal, its capacity to make and enforce rules, and how weak it makes its adversaries. Only by reversing all these things could we overcome Progress—only by making rich white liberals as ashamed of themselves as they have made us. Only by firmly tying anger to the violation of citizens’ rights can we stop the onslaught of undemocratic, elite decisions.

This, it seems to me, is how we can harmonize Reinsch’s forward-looking exhortation with Caldwell’s depressing history. Reinsch is stirring, but cannot give examples of great victories won by our great principles. Caldwell gives several examples of terrible defeats suffered, but cannot stir us to act on our own behalf. To put our moral outrage together with the ideas of rights we inherit from the Founding is to assert our dignity practically—not merely with speeches, but with deeds that follow from those speeches.

Political morality concerns public things. It is the public shame of being called racists when we all know privately we are not racists. Indeed, all who fear the Progressives, who want to exile us from the political mainstream because of white privilege, have to put up with Trump; many have even convinced themselves they love him, though they couldn’t bother with him before he had reached three score and ten. We are beginning to feel the importance of politics without quite understanding it.

Publicizing all the injustices created by courts, administrative agencies, and regulations—that is the path forward. Recruiting and rewarding elites who will attack liberal elites—that offers another path forward. We need not grifters or hysterical celebrities, but people dedicated to public concerns who will defend our rights to our private lives. The public-private distinction we have inherited as our birthright we should not sell now to liberal elites who hate us. It’s not enough to fight back; it’s necessary to fight the strength of Progress and to restore the strength of our original politics.

Practicing Politics

Caldwell has done us the great service of explaining why we cannot have peace with Progressives after more than 50 years of their rise to power—why is it never enough, however many victories they win? Why must they attack families and even our identities? How dare elites talk about being white or being a man as the most contemptible or wicked thing possible? Yet they do, all the time, because they do not respect the original constitutional rights of citizens.

The Republican Party is not without its victories—remember 2016, when the people gave them victory in all elections throughout the land? But Republicans almost never follow through by using their electoral victories to practice politics. They refuse to cripple the power of Progressives to ruin decent citizens’ private lives. Every year, conservatives become more scared about even voicing their opinions on college campuses or at work or on social media, living in fear of Progressives and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid—and you may imagine how they feel about the elites who don’t even seem to want to protect them. We will get Progressives to stop when more citizens act to stop them with support from their own institutions and their own elites. We will get citizens to act when we make them angry at the humiliations Progressives inflict on them, and we will generate that anger only if we force our own elites to act on our behalf with the wealth, offices, and honors that we have given to them.

This, then, is the first step—encouraging and compelling our own elites to act politically and publicly for our sake. That takes gradual replacement of elites, but urgent replacement of their beliefs: if they are more ashamed of Progressives than of us, they will never help us. If we are not ashamed to be disloyal to one other, we will not stand together. Evidence of that loyalty and common action, step by step, is what we now need to give each other.

Reader Discussion

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on April 02, 2020 at 09:54:38 am

Interesting take on my generation, 'boomers'. Although I am at the tail end of that generation, I am part of it none the less. Many complaints about boomers are sadly, deserved. But an understanding of how the early versions of my generation came to be is important. It is not an excuse. It is simply one explanation. I loved reading Stephen Ambrose books, particularly the 2-part series "D-Day" and "Citizen Soldier". I attended an Ambrose talk about 'Citizen Solder'. He talked about what shaped the 25 years after 1945. He explained how inevitable (his term) the culture clash of the 1960's was. When WWII ended, the generation(s) that won a world war - the 2nd in a 20 years span - with a severe depression in between. Not the relatively small downturns we have. It was a depression. Coming out of WWII, an entire generation unconsciously wanted to be sure their children were spared the crap they grew up with. So they tended to coddle and spoil their children - boomers. The WWII generation as a whole, but particularly the men grew up at the age of 18, 19, 20 & 21 because they had to. They had no choice. Fast-forward 20-25 years to the late 1960's, these parents could not understand, much less relate to what they were seeing from their 20 year olds. Because the WWII generation was determined to shower their children with luxuries they never had, they unknowingly created a generation of self-absorbed brats. Then my generation sadly, went out of its way to doubled down. What we've seen from subsequent generations is a continuous decay kicked off by the boomer generation.

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Image of Robert
on April 06, 2020 at 18:28:22 pm

I saw an interview with Caldwell a week or so ago. He said his original idea was to explore the thought that we Boomers dominated the culture and politics for the last 60 years in three phases.

The first phase, ~1960-80, was all about sex and the 14th Amendment; the second phase, ~1980-2000, was all about professionalism and the necessary credentials that go with professionalism; and the third phase, the present phase, is all about the rent seeking associated with retirement.

All that struck me as exactly right.

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Image of EK
on April 02, 2020 at 11:14:08 am

The project of replacing conservative elites runs smack aground when they get to D.C. Whatever impetus they had peters out in the face of the social opprobrium they face for being 'on the wrong side of history.' It is not a joke to say that conservatives yield their principles in order to remain on the invitation list to the tony cocktail parties. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to shrug off constant vilification. Eventually, most men--the social animals that we are--will take the path of least resistance. I doubt that we will ever build a conservative elite without smashing the cultural paradigms that produce elites in the first place. Breitbart was right: politics is downstream of culture. The common man cannot wait on the gradual replacement of feckless conservative elites. There will be nothing left to win. Instead, the common man must develop his own antidote to the progressive disease. And that begins with ridicule and moves on into widespread social disobedience. Progressive elites may be driving the train, but it is the common man who must shovel the fuel into the engine. We can decide to stop giving them power. It is coming.

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Lawrence L
on April 02, 2020 at 11:30:09 am

I read a lot of "cultural/political" stuff. Were I to just now start of revolving list of the "10 Best", this piece by Techera would head and hold the list until an 11th piece comes along and moves it down a spot. I am not a breath-holder.

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Derek Simmons
on April 02, 2020 at 12:21:01 pm

The real problem is not philosophical, but theological. For generations Christianity provided the moral structure to live within a free society. Even though this was sometimes improperly implemented (the anti-Catholicism of the 1800s) and it's challenges (dealing with slavery) it in many ways did provide a basis for individual moral behavior. This still can be seen in American charity, as we remain the most giving nation on earth. This reached an apex when Pope John Paul II delegitimized Marxist/Liberation theology and began moving the Roman Catholic Church towards a Classical Liberalism theology. Now this has been abandoned. Even more so, mainline Protestant supposedly Christian denominations have abandoned Biblical authority and embraced the relativism of modern progressivism supposedly to become more loving and wider embracing organizations. But conservative Christians have not been able and in some cases have been unwilling to mount an organized coordinated riposte (what does the Bible say about taxes, welfare, economics, etc.). Until conservative Biblical scholars can make headway against the progressives on social issues this country will never turn around.

Add to that is the fact that most of our supposedly conservative politicians have been bought off by the Chamber of Commerce, China, and rich libertarians, that have little interest in maintaining our Constitutional order or preserving our national identity. Paul wrote, "The love of money is the root of all evil". Congress has fallen prey to this love of money in that it thinks it can tax, spend, and borrow without restraints.Therefore, Congress has become corrupt.

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Andrew Kohlhofer
on April 03, 2020 at 09:45:39 am

Several of the comments on this essay, Mr. Kohlhofer's offering in particular, are, truly, what's worth reading here. They touch on the religious and moral heart of the reason we the people have become but abject subjects to a ruling haughtiness that is a mere epigone of the political artistry of the Founders. The comments, not the essay, touch on the reason why under our nearly-lost constitution Machiavellian mountebanks have usurped the power, mimicked the words and trampled on the duties of rightful republican authority.

Kohlhofer, especially, offers a religiously-grounded riposte to Christian conservatism's lack of a riposte to the rot at the heart of the beloved country's indentured servitude to an inferior but ruling subculture of oligarchs, plutocrats and kleptocrats masquerading as democrats.

The well-meaning essay, itself, seems lacking to me and not up to the author's previously demonstrated high ability. It consists essentially of rhetorical process: erect a wall (i.e., a straw man) of bad elitism, throw disjointed, commonplace accusations against that wall, see what might stick and conclude with a ringing political peroration.

Kohlhofer's on the right track.

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Image of Paladin
on April 02, 2020 at 16:18:11 pm

1) You may recall that some years back, at First Things, if i recall, we (and others) had a discussion on the role of "humor" in politics. I had suggested that The Trumpster (or whoever the nominee would be) ought to utilize humor, scathing, derisory and otherwise, to highlight the sheer and utter idiocy, not to mention the inefficiency, impracticality and intrusiveness, plus hypocrisy of the elite Progressives.
Here we find you simultaneously exhorting us on the right to battle the elites while criticizing The Trumpster for doing precisely that.
Admittedly, my fellow Queens, NY compatriot is not the most erudite of politicians BUT...
He DOES fight.
People do appreciate this.
Yet, you would minimize the role he is playing in providing some support to those on the right who have over the past 50 years had to swallow their tongues so as not to offend or be perceived as "unenlightened atavistic bigots."

From my perspective, the only thing The Trumpster is guilty of is not having effective comedy writers / satirists on his speech making staff.

2) Correct re: loss of founding / grounding principles and a citizenry capable of both apprehending and appreciating those principles. Another word for those "principles" is "morals."
And morals need not be predicated upon a religious foundation, although they invariably may be traced to that. What has occurred over the past 70 years, and starting in the elite Law Schools is the propagation of a regime of strict legal positivism. Was it Justice Holmes who opined that "morals have no place in law" (paraphrase here)? apparently, almost all legal education since then has reflected this rather constricted and affirmatively false conception of law in that it denies the inherent (up until post WWII) inextricable connection between morals, in Hadley Arkes terms, First Principles, and the Law.
Without such a basic and fundamental understanding that that vital connection, is it any wonder that our elites may suppose to instruct us that biology does not matter, that fundamental differences in individual capacities are not more than a reflection of racism, sexism, homo / transphobia.
You allude to such an understanding without making plain the fact that we, as a People, have lost sight of the moral underpinnings of the Law and of POLITICS (properly understood.)
Anyway, in general a rather fine essay.
take care

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on April 03, 2020 at 15:09:43 pm

It might be better to substitute "ethics" for "morals." Morals is often a taboo word for Progressives, the MSM and their ilk. It makes them worried Porhub might be put behind a pay wall some day

I'm kind of surprised you seem to think Trump remains viable. To my eye, he's been captured by McConnell and I'll never support McConnell.

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Image of EK
on April 05, 2020 at 11:29:55 am

It is truly ironic that, had Trump not been elected, this piece would never have been written. Having said, the prior "conservative" elite is lost to us. They gave up long ago when they just pretended to care about the constitution, freedom, and rights and finally self-declared their recognition that they indeed comprised racist bones.

What is needed is an ascendant class, victims of the progressive culture, who can leverage what Trump inarticulately began and use it to push the progressives back into the mud and slime from which they arose.

In the meantime, Trump should use every remaining fiber of his being to uphold the law and to jail as many of the Obama/Clinton gang as possible into prison. There remains a certain social stigma attached to conviction in a court of law. We MUST proceed down that path as quickly as possible.

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Image of rjones
on April 05, 2020 at 16:02:43 pm

At age 72, I read articles like this with puzzlement. You will call me a liberal, leftist, progressive, socialist, commie, but I own a lot of capital, like my home on two acres free and clear. So, given my "wealth", it's clear you see me as your oppressor. Of the 400,000 or so elected officers, I, like most of my "leftist" peers oppose the majority who are overwhelmingly Republicans. So, it seems to me, conservatives have won politically, and have gained control of "law and order".

So, how am I and my ilk oppressing you? Clearly by producing goods and services virtually everyone wants and will go into debt to buy, paying me and my ilk a lot of money do we get wealthy. If conservatives were both principled and willing to work producing stuff conservatives would go into debt buying, you conservatives would have the power to shape society.

The leftist are concentrated in cities, mostly coastal cities, but the inland cities like Atlanta and Austin become leftist because they cater to everyone who has money to spend, or can borrow money to spend.

Free market capitalism gives lots of undemocratic money power to leftists who work to produce what the people who have, or can borrow, money want. Conservatives lack power because they don't work producing stuff the masses will pay lots of money for, with a few exceptions over time. Conservatives have been good at harming and killing workers and their families in mining, and agriculture since the conservative elites destroyed family farms for corporate profits, eg, Monsanto has more rights than farmers thanks to GOP appointed judges, so corporations pay low wages to farm workers they spray with Monnsanto chemicals, while landowning farmers need government money to break even most years, while paying all profits to Deere in the good years.

Progressives were originally the farmers suffering under corporate power, railroads, etc, when the gop was in total control. They got the Post Office to provide RFD Parcel Post empowering the Amazon of a century ago, Sears. They pushed for better roads in rural areas, electricity, telephone, more and more public schooling. The big leftist universities were progressive Federal land grant institutions by the GOP. Then, conservatives were mostly Democrats fighting against the "oppression" of sitting next to black kids on trains, buses, in public schools. Burning down black owned businesses taking black customers from white owned businesses.

Leftists, liberals, progressives, have power because customers vote for them with their money in free market capitalism mastery.

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Image of Mulp
on September 25, 2020 at 07:34:11 am

[…] restoration, but it must be understood in light of the ultimate purpose. We must make the Court obey the Constitution rather than rewrite it. We must above all fight against the liberal arrogance of creating philosopher-kings who attack our […]

on September 25, 2020 at 08:24:46 am

[…] nevertheless it have to be understood in mild of the last word function. We should make the Court obey the Constitution rather than rewrite it. We should above all combat towards the liberal arrogance of creating philosopher-kings who assault […]

on September 26, 2020 at 06:33:01 am

[…] restoration, but it must be understood in light of the ultimate purpose. We must make the Court obey the Constitution rather than rewrite it. We must above all fight against the liberal arrogance of creating philosopher-kings who attack our […]

on September 26, 2020 at 08:08:52 am

[…] restoration, but it must be understood in light of the ultimate purpose. We must make the Court obey the Constitution rather than rewrite it. We must above all fight against the liberal arrogance of creating philosopher-kings who attack our […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.