Principalities & Powers

Who Rules America?

Is there a ruling class in the United States, or are we, as David Brooks suggests in his December 2001 Atlantic Monthly article (discussed in my column las month), more like a high-school cafeteria in which separate-but-equal cliques of “jocks,” “nerds,” and others munch meatloaf together amicably, with no one clique telling the others what to do?  Mr. Brooks’ memories of his high school are, to say the least, rather different from mine, but be that as it may, his analogy really doesn’t apply to the United States on the eve of its absorption into the global stewpot.  His view is reminiscent of (and, I think, descended from) the so-called “pluralist” or “consensus” school of sociology that prevailed in academic circles in the 1950’s.  According to that view, espoused chiefly by a lady named Suzanne Keller, elites do indeed exist, but in modern and especially American society, they are what she called “strategic elites,” competing with and balancing each other, so that none unites with the others and none predominates.  Sometimes, one elite or a temporary coalition of elites is more powerful than the rest, but that doesn’t last long; as a result, political freedom is preserved from the overwhelming domination of a single, monolithic power.  Modern society, Miss Keller argues, is just too complex for a single, unified elite to monopolize...

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