The American Power Structure, 2015


In most studies of government, too much attention is paid to process, and too little is paid to power. As Isaiah Berlin notes in his splendid essay The Originality of Machiavelli, Old Nick’s greatest gift to the study of politics was a cold-eyed look at the realities of power as the fundamental factor in observing political life. Institutions and processes have their effects, too, in organizing that power- but fundamentally politics is not about how power is distributed so much as it is about who is in charge. Know who’s in the ruling class, and you’ll know their interests and values, and what they’re most likely to do with that power. As James Burnham notes in The Machiavellians, political study ought to focus, then, on the ruling class. And focusing on class structures and their influence on politics makes politics no longer solely the domain of political “scientists” and theorists or Shakespearian dramatists- it requires one to turn to economics, sociology, and anthropology. One must not only understand man in the abstract and the shape of institutions to understand the politics of any nation. One must also know the values and traditions of the rulers, have a feel for their economic interests, and have a grasp on how power is constructed and maintained in any particular society. Only in the fertile context of man as he actually is- a complex, multifaceted creature- can political choice and political power be truly understood. Politics ought to be, therefore, a holistic study of the ruling class of any nation.

In the context of the United States of 2015, this means looking at a couple different strata of power structures and social groupings. Wherever power is consolidated, there is political influence, and wherever multiple poles of power are balanced against each other, there is tension and usually conflict. The United States is somewhat unique among civilizations (but not among republics) in that the governing elite is formally separate from the cultural and economic elites. But informally, the three sorts of elites are in cahoots with each other, as is natural- the economic and cultural elites form the foundation of the political elites’ power (though the political elites claim the Constitution or the American people as that source) and the political elites augment the influence and forward the interests of the economic and cultural elites. Power centers align into blocs, coalitions of sorts, and compete with each other for influence.

However, the cultural and economic elites do not exist alone- they depend on the favor and interest of broader swathes of non-elite citizens for their power and influence. Aside from the cultural and economic elites, there are economic classes and cultural identities that are in some ways dependent on those elites. In turn, the elites rely on these masses for their legitimacy. Given that America is culturally egalitarian and democratic, the opinions and interests of the masses count far more for influencing the political process than in other countries and societies. This doesn’t mean that the people rule, in any way- it merely means that the Hollywood moguls and Texas oiligarchs are required to be more sensitive to the needs of their corresponding classes and identities than their counterparts in, say, Russia or Saudi Arabia. The same is true of America’s governing elite, which is why modern American politics seems to be so mindlessly driven by opinion polls.

Now that the basic picture has been sketched out, let’s take a look at some of the actual political manifestations. There are at least four governing elites that cycle in and out of power in the various state and national offices. Beneath them, the real power (though not the real decision-making) lies with the economic and cultural elites, in about equal proportion. And those economic and cultural elites tend to various economic classes and cultural identities, whose shifts and evolutions are the study of economists and demographers.

The four governing elites in this country are the Republican Establishment, the Democratic Establishment, the Conservative Insurgency, and the Progressive Insurgency. Mainline Republicans like Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Boehner generally work with the interests of the manufacturing/energy/shipping elite and Wall Street in mind. Republicans like Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump form a sort of populist Conservative Insurgency premised on smaller government, lower taxes, and conservative social policy to degrees the Republican Establishment does not dare tread. The Democratic Establishment includes such figures as Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Al Gore, Chuck Schumer, and Harry Reid, and generally works with the media elite, the federal bureaucracy, Wall Street, and Hollywood. Populist Progressive Insurgents like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders run an ongoing fight against money in politics, climate change, and inequality.

Clearly, the Republican and Democratic Establishments hold significantly more power among the cultural and economic elites than do the populist Conservative and Progressive Insurgencies, but the insurgencies have a kind of popular power that the establishment lacks. This doesn’t translate into true policymaking power, but it does reveal a profound lack of legitimacy and trust between the public, the economic and cultural elites, and the ruling governing elites. This kind of tension can only truly be resolved by shifts in power and the imposition of new institutions.

Under the decadent Republican and Democratic Establishments are a host of other power centers, most located far outside the Beltway. (That’s one of the unique things about American politics- rather than all of the elites being concentrated in the capital, they’re dispersed across the entirety of the American continent.) These are the economic and cultural elites.

The most powerful of the economic elites is, and has been for decades, Wall Street. The financial power of the American banking and banking service industry is overwhelming, and forms the core of the Democratic and Republican Parties’ power. Wall Street is split- it doesn’t uniformly support either party- but the massive amounts of capital the banks are able to marshal strongly augment their political power and their attractiveness to the governing elites.

The Democratic Establishment also has the support of the Silicon Valley tech elite, shepherds of a rising sector whose innovations are transforming the American economy. The Silicon Valley elite is not uniformly liberal, however, and their libertarian economic tendencies have led Republican operators to woo them in recent years. More solidly behind the Democrats is the Hollywood cultural elite, for obvious reasons, and generally the federal bureaucracy- what James Burnham might call the “managerial elite”- works with the Democratic Party, too. Finally, the academic cultural elite tends to lean in favor of the Democrats.

The Republicans, on the other hand, generally command the loyalty of what might be called the Industrial elite- the major corporations dealing in energy, manufacturing, shipping, and other “hard” services. Republicans also have the support of the Christian Right cultural elite, which maintains significant power over the hearts and minds of many Americans (though not quite as many as does Hollywood.) The longevity of the Republican Party is testimony to the sheer mass appeal the Industrial elite and Christian Right have among large segments of the American population.

These elites are not static or uniform- they include many dissidents and politically uninvolved, and none has a formal relationship with either major party. But they do exist, they do generally seek to influence the political process in favor of their particular interests, and they do hold the real power in American political life, setting the agendas and debates that political actors in the governing elites then carry out. The coalitions are not at all entirely stable, and are riven by fissures and conflicts. But generally, those wishing to have influence in American public life must have friends in high places, and those high places tend to be in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the corporate offices of a few dozen major corporations of all sorts. That’s just how power works.

But it is not only conscious elites who hold influence in American politics. The large masses of people, divided into economic and cultural groupings, are the titans whose lumbering shifts alter the actions and mentalities of the economic and cultural elites and elected officeholders. After all, the members of these elites fundamentally came from cultural and economic groupings themselves, and shaped their worldviews and interests. Therefore, it’s important to understand the class and cultural structures of American society to understand its politics.

Economically, there are large proportions of the population that make their living off of jobs stewarded by the various economic elites. White collar business services, blue collar labor, and personal services are among the largest employment sectors in American life, and at the moment, the lower middle class and middle class tend to align with the Republican Party and its elites, while the educated upper middle class and the poor tend to align with the Democratic Party. There are differences, of course, and among the very rich loyalty is much more evenly split. But class politics is nonetheless important to understand to get a sense of how economic distribution affects policymaking.

Perhaps more important are the cultural groupings and differences across American society. Historian David Hackett Fischer identifies four original cultural tendencies- Yankee, Cavalier, Scots-Irish, and Quaker- and three newer ones- American Hispanics, New York Dutch culture, and Inland Western Mormon culture. Colin Woodard argues that these cultures and a few more are distinct enough to be considered separate cultural nations, while Michael Barone traces the migrations of various immigrant groups and original settlers to observe their dispersion across the country. The details of which cultural groups actually exist, and their geographic distribution at the moment, are not important for this essay- what is important is the fact that there are many diverse regional cultures in the United States, oftentimes served by the various economic and cultural elites, and that these cultural groupings will not be reconciled anytime soon.

Generally, at least three tendencies are important for national politics- the highly moralistic and collectivistic Yankee culture, concentrated on the West Coast, on the Northern Tier, and in New England and New York, with additional influence in every major urban area; the highly individualistic and traditionalist Scots-Irish culture, which permeates the American South and West and rural areas in every state; and the temperamentally “moderate” Quaker/Midlander culture, which is more suburban than the Scots-Irish or Yankees and which is concentrated in the middle tier of states from New Jersey to Iowa. There are many more cultural groups and subgroups of political significance- including Latinos, urban Blacks, rural Blacks, the last remnants of the Cavaliers, and more- but generally, the Democrats get the votes of the urban Yankees, the Republicans get the votes of the rural Scots-Irish, and both parties squabble over the moderate Quakers.

The economic and cultural elites have influence over these cultural groupings, too. As is to be expected, the elites favoring Democrats tend to have more influence over urban Yankees, while the elites favoring Republicans influence rural Scots-Irish. But the reality is more complex than this simple dichotomy, and warrants a study beyond the scope of this essay.

Looking forward, what can we expect?

Elite coalitions and political parties evolve over time, as do class structures and regional cultures. It should not be expected that at the end of this current era of instability, something completely new emerges- though it is likely that whatever the reality of the American political situation is in 2030 or 2040, it will be some different combination of the current trends, with some elites gone and some elites arisen.

It appears that if major conflict is to break out again, it will be a populist uprising rather than a true political split- our two political elites in power are too closely aligned to fight each other, and both take money from Wall Street. There is no truly pressing crisis of the union like that of 1820-1865. However, the fact that larger and larger proportions of the American population feel increasingly out of touch with their elites, and that populist movements get more powerful with every passing year, suggests that the next major conflict and realignment will be a populist-vs.-elite conflict, perhaps based in the urban cores or the rural hinterlands. The recent spate of black riots and the Cliven Bundy incident may be harbingers of greater instability to come, as the American political class and cultural and economic elites grow ever further removed from the concerns of the increasingly disenfranchised average American. The continuing rise of Silicon Valley, too, and its apparent conflicts with the federal bureaucracy and some of the legacy sectors of the economy, poses questions for the future of the parties- a West Coast-based tech political machine may well become the dominant class in the coming decades, and such a class replacement would have huge implications for Wall Street, the Industrialists, and other elites.

This is an age when we need reformers among the elite- people who understand power and its ugly realities, yet who earnestly seek a more stable and equitable American republic for all. The threat, at least right now, does not seem to be a country torn apart. Rather, it is a country decayed, digesting itself. Such a reality would be more dangerous to the American way of life than even a civil war, for it bespeaks a loss of the sense of purpose among all Americans.

We need visionaries and reformers, and it does not appear that they are here yet. May they come quickly.

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