Elites — Not the "Ignorant Masses" — Pose the Greatest Threat to Global Society

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Elites — Not the "Ignorant Masses" — Pose the Greatest Threat to Global Society

An anti-austerity demonstration in central London in April 2016 drew thousands. But what, the elites wonder, are they all so angry about? (Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

In January, at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — largely a meeting of corporate elites and political leaders — the billionaire CEO Steve Schwarzman courteously granted an interview to Bloomberg Television.

When asked about the American political scene, Schwarzman responded just as many of his colleagues have: With utter bewilderment.

"I find the whole thing sort of astonishing, and what's remarkable is the amount of anger, whether it's on the Republican side or the Democratic side," he said, in a slow cadence that served to highlight his confusion. "Bernie Sanders, to me, is almost more stunning than some of the stuff going on on the Republican side. How is that happening? Why is that happening? What is the vein in America that is being tapped into, across parties, that's made people so unhappy?"

"Now," he concluded, smiling, "that's something you should spend some time on."

After Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and after citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, commentators and elites alike have taken Schwarzman's recommendation to heart. They have ventured to find out precisely what's going on.

Following a combination of backward-looking and introspection, the view that has come out on the other end has often been striking: Europe and the United States, many suggest, are in fact suffering from a surplus of democracy. The people, the masses, driven by irrational fears and overblown anxieties, are exercising their reactionary impulses and using their influence to take a sledgehammer to the system.

Historically, conclusions of this kind are nothing new. In response to populist upheaval and democratic movements from below, elites always attempt to muster a response to at once explain the discontent and quash the resulting backlash.

This year, however, has been unique in many ways, one of them being the boldness with which elites have asserted not just their right to rule, but their sense of moral obligation. And this boldness, as Bloomberg's interview with Steve Schwarzman makes clear, has come tinted with a profound disregard for the circumstances experienced by working men and women across the globe.

"It's time," declared James Traub in Foreign Policy, in perhaps the most brazen assertion of the assumed duty of the ruling class, "for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses."

Reviving the contempt for the public famously expressed by such figures as John Adams ("the mob") and his son, John Quincy Adams ("the rabble") — as well as the reverence for elites expressed by influential characters from Plato to Walter Lippmann — Traub insists that it "is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them."

But while it is cloaked in the garb of objectivity, Traub's insistence that elites "rise up" is little more than the latest edition of, in the words of conservative commentator Ross Douthat, "A powerful caste's self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world."

Traub urges us to recognize the growing gulf between those who acknowledge reality and those who don't, those who care about facts and those who toss them aside in the name of political gain.

But what Traub doesn't seem to recognize is that elites, by selling the public false goods for decades, helped spark the rise of racist demagogues like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and others. It is elites, not the masses, who have fallen into self-serving delusions that have resulted in unspeakable damage to the globe and its citizens.

It is elites — including Traub himself — who have for decades cloaked devastating wars in the soaring rhetoric of "humanitarian intervention." It is elites who have forced upon crumbling economies austerity that has served to prolong and worsen already dire circumstances. It is elites who have peddled the fantasy of neoliberalism, which has created a system that lavishly rewards the wealthiest while leaving everyone else to compete for the rest. It is elites, political and corporate, who have devastated the environment in the name of profit. It is elites who have crashed the global economy.

The masses, for their part, are always there to pick up the costs.

And they're sick of it.

Traub and others are correct to deplore the anti-immigrant sentiment preyed upon by loud-mouthed bullies, and they are justified in their fears that populist anger could result in the election of charlatans like Donald Trump, both in the United States and throughout Europe.

They cannot be forgiven, however, for the key roles they played in creating the disasters — economic, political, and military — to which the masses are now responding. And they cannot be forgiven for ignoring the consequences of their actions by blaming an excess of democracy, rather than a lack of it, for global upheaval.

"Voters in America not only aren't over-empowered, they've for decades now been almost totally disenfranchised, subjects of one of the more brilliant change-suppressing systems ever invented," writes Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, in an assessment that could equally apply to Europe.

"People have no other source of influence," Taibbi continues. "Unions have been crushed. Nobody has any job security. Main Street institutions that once allowed people to walk down the road to sort things out with other human beings have been phased out. In their place now rest distant, unfeeling global bureaucracies."

Elites, by forcefully eliminating avenues for democratic progress, have cultivated the environment in which anti-establishment sentiment now thrives.

And the major political parties of the wealthiest nations on earth, in order to curry favor from big business, have pushed aside the needs of the working class, often disregarding workers as racists unworthy of attention. And the punditry has dutifully followed suit.

For example, in an appearance on Slate's Political Gabfest, NPR's Adam Davidson casually floated his contempt for working people while simultaneously lavishing praise upon Hillary Clinton's economic advisers.

"I know Hillary Clinton's economic team fairly well, and I'm very impressed by them," Davidson gushed. "They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don't have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them."

This flippant dismissal of a significant portion of the labor force — particularly those without a college degree — is characteristic of elite disdain for "the rabble," those who would dare think they deserve a dignified existence in a globalized, technologically advanced economy.

Thus the view of Pennsylvania Republican Michael Korns has become commonplace.

"Many voters feel that the Democratic Party, which they had supported for generations, has largely abandoned blue-collar workers," he said. "There's also increasingly a feeling that the Republican Party has abandoned them as well, that neither party has much interest in the day-to-day economics of working people. And then when Trump came in, he spoke to them, he grabbed them."

Out of this dilemma, elitists like Traub have created a false dichotomy: On one side, there's Trump and a gang of nationalists thriving amidst the combination of economic anxiety and anti-immigrant sentiment; on the other, there's the "rational" coalition of business and political leaders, ready to set the world right again after a period of upheaval.

Ignored, of course, is the agenda of social democracy put forward by figures like Bernie Sanders, whose policies, in many cases, terrify elites more than the explicit racism and unpredictability of Trump.

So elites have framed the picture as one portraying a stark choice: The phony populism of Trump or the stuffy technocracy pushed by self-interested elites, elites who have been explicit about their contempt for the very people they are now trying to "un-delude."

It is no wonder, then, that many are siding with the former — people recognize that it is elites who have designed the system that has been so devastating for so many.

"Both Republican and Democratic administrations entered trade agreements designed to put downward pressure on the wages of domestic manufacturing workers," writes Eric Levitz.

This is, as Josh Bivens has documented, true of the economic system as a whole: It was designed to fail — at least for the majority.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest have thrived, particularly in the United States, where they have seen their incomes grow by over 300 percent while everyone else's have stagnated — "workers as a group," notes political scientist Thomas Ferguson, "haven't had a raise in a generation."

This has fed the perception among Americans and Europeans that their influence on the direction of their nations — both economically and politically — has dwindled, and perhaps disappeared entirely.

The problem for elites attempting to counter this perception is, of course, that it's accurate: As the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have shown, "the average citizens' influence on policy making...is near zero."

The result is mass disaffection, sometimes resulting in anger, and sometimes, apathy. 

"Increasing numbers of average Americans can no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests," notes Thomas Ferguson.

Who can blame them? And who can blame those who long to thwart the political and corporate leaders who continue to peddle politics and economics as usual?

Until elites come to recognize the fact that the system they have cultivated — the system that has allowed them to thrive at the expense of everyone else — has helped to foster the kind of resentment they are now desperately attempting to suppress, they will continue to be the target of those whose material circumstances have become unbearable, in large part due to the global economic order.

But in all likelihood, they will not recognize this fact. As Upton Sinclair used to say, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

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