What Happened to America’s Elite? Part II

By | 2017-07-25T11:00:40+00:00 July 20th, 2017|
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In a previous article at American Greatness, I addressed the history of American higher education from the Founding until our time. This history, I suggested, explains the transformation of America’s elite. As many have noted, it is now the case that the elite largely rejects the American people and a significant portion of the American people rejects the elite right back.

The governing elite had the recent presidential election all planned out. It would be a re-run of Bush versus Clinton, this time with Jeb! representing the Bush family and Hillary representing the Clintons. It would be a kind of intramural competition among better-than-friends. George W. likes to say that Bill Clinton is his “brother by another mother,” and Jeb, as the chairman of the National Constitution Center, awarded Hillary with the prestigious Liberty Medal at a gala ceremony in Philadelphia in 2013.

But the American people upset the elite’s apple cart—and consequently upset the elite. First, Trump did the unthinkable and sent Jeb! down to defeat. Then he did the totally unacceptable and defeated Hillary. The Democrats simply refuse to accept the outcome of the election. We have not seen the Democrats this upset since their refusal to accept Lincoln’s election led to secession and the Civil War. And the Republican elite is not so happy with this outcome either. The voters have disappointed the political elite by rejecting them.

What this all means is that a gulf has opened up between the people and the ruling elite. In the earlier article, I suggested what has happened is the elite has left the people, trained to think in a way at variance with the common sense thinking of the American people.

It was not always this way. Up until about the beginning of the 20th century the elite learned in college the formal philosophy of common sense realism. This training in philosophy aligned the thinking of the elite with the common sense thinking of non-elite Americans. It happens that during this period the federal government was, by and large, the same Constitutional government envisioned and designed by the Founders and consented to by the American people during ratification and in subsequent amendments. This was the period of the classical liberalism of the Founders.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the common-sense realist professors were swept from academia by a political revolution in academia. Common sense realism disappeared from the curriculum. This academic political revolution was swiftly followed by the political revolution which laid the foundation of the ever-expanding Progressive federal leviathan we live under today. In 1910, the government’s revenue looked much like it did in the time of George Washington: about 3 percent of GDP, earned primarily through tariffs. In 1913 the 16th Amendment changed all that. It introduced the Progressive Income Tax, overthrowing the limited government of the Founders by opening the door to the unlimited revenue needed to finance the central government’s unending expansion into every area of American life. Also in 1913 Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, creating a central bank. This opened the door to the complete socialization of the currency. Today, the Federal Reserve can create money without even having to go to the bother of printing it; now all the Fed does is enter a number in a computer. Talk about taking the limits off of government spending!

1913 also gave us the 17th Amendment which changed the way Americans elected United States Senators. Before that, senators were chosen by state legislatures. In recognizing the role of state governments in choosing federal representation, the Constitution offered a fundamental electoral guarantee of the Founders’ vision of a federal government with limited responsibilities. Today, the central government has usurped functions originally belonging to the states and taken on functions which, according to the Founders vision, were reserved to the people. Wilson, FDR, and LBJ rejected the Founders ideas about the role of government being, primarily, the guarantor of our unalienable rights. This was the period of progressive liberalism.  

As you know, academia had yet another political revolution, this time in the 1960s. The professoriate was again swept aside and replaced by a new, highly politicized generation. Today, academic standards have collapsed; it is possible to graduate from elite colleges with a major in English without ever taking a course in Shakespeare. Before the ’60s revolution, virtually everyone who attended college studied Shakespeare, not just the English majors. Under the new politicized regime of today’s academia, students and professors cooperate to suppress free speech on campus and formerly serious disciplines, such as geography, are now politically radicalized—if they are offered at all. What are we to call this period? Perhaps the best label is illiberal progressivism.

Whatever label you prefer, the period in which we now find ourselves—in which the Left obsesses over transgender bathrooms, advocates for a policy of open borders, and champions the supposed “rights” of people in this country illegally—is a far cry from FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society.

It is also a far cry from the common sense of non-elite Americans, the folks who voted for Donald Trump, the candidate who described himself as a “common sense conservative.”

About the Author:

Robert Curry
Robert Curry serves on the board of directors of the Claremont Institute and is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea (Encounter Books). He also serves on the board of distinguished advisors for the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.