With the 2008-presidential-election cycle already in full swing, it seems a good time to revisit a perennial question in our country's political life, namely, "Who really rules America?"
So many of us Americans, for so long now, seem to feel as though we no longer have a government "of and by the people." Some would argue that we've never truly had one.
Then who does in fact have the power?
Is it the corporations, the banks, or ultra-rich individuals? Do America's rulers tend to live in a particular region or share an ethnicity? Is it some combination, such as the "Liberal Media" or Eisenhower's "Military-Industrial Complex?"
And where do the president, Congress and the political parties fit into all this?
This past year I finished a film, The American Ruling Class, with Lewis Lapham, the long-time editor of Harper's Magazine, in which we set out to ask many of these questions. More importantly, we wondered how we should respond to the answers.
To spice things up and have some fun along the way we decided to go beyond the standard documentary format. After long deliberation, my producer, Libby Handros, and I hit upon what we think is an interesting new genre: the "dramatic-documentary-musical."
We gave Lewis charge of two real-life Harvard graduates, slightly changed their trajectories (they play Yale men, for instance), and set the three of them on a journey through the fabled "corridors of wealth and power."
Every now and again there's an opportunity for a song — at a Yale garden party, a series of low-wage workplaces, a "Camp Thoreau" for kids, and even at a Pentagon press conference.
Along their journey our two young heroes meet a sampling of people that seemed to us to fulfill a few essential Ruling Class criteria: They've enjoyed careers that span the highest levels of the public and private sectors, and in most cases they belong to organizations that have long been associated with establishment power, such as the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission.
We were pleased and surprised to secure interviews with a dozen people from our extensive list: former Secretary of State James Baker, now running the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., investment banker and former Sen. Bill Bradley, former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, now a partner and financial analyst at Pincus Warburg, former World Bank Chief Economist and then-Harvard University President Larry Summers, to name a few.
Every one of the men with a "former" in their title now occupies a position in a major law firm, a powerful consulting concern, a private equity bank, or a major university. And some of them regularly travel back to Washington, as James Baker recently did as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group.
Though our list included both those who consider themselves Democrats and those who identify as Republicans, we noticed little real difference in their general outlook on policy matters. And interestingly, they all made the same claim: There is no such thing as a ruling class in America.
The family backgrounds of our interview subjects varied widely. Significant inherited wealth or a famous political lineage was the exception, not the rule. It began to seem to us as if the only true requirement for ruling-class entrance was the ability to serve the status quo well and faithfully.
The two young graduates also run into an interesting assortment of characters from what might best be termed the "other side of the tracks." They meet Barbara Ehrenreich (author of the book Nickel and Dimed) in a chain restaurant, folk singer Pete Seeger on a country road, the late great Kurt Vonnegut on the steps at a New York soirÃƒ©e, the late great Robert Altman outside of a movie theater, and populist historian and activist Howard Zinn on a tour bus that travels back in time to the founding of the country.
Through all these encounters we try to piece together the nature of power in America, how it replenishes itself, and what its ambitions are.
Former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter tells the story of the selection of Jimmy Carter — no relation — by the Eastern Establishment for the post of president of the United States. "But just banging on the door will not get you entrance into these things," he tells one of the young men. "It's .Ã¢â‚¬â€š.Ã¢â‚¬â€š. the brights."
By virtue of their school background, the two young men at the center of our story are well positioned to be tapped for admission. In fact, all of the establishment figures we met had attended an Ivy League college.
So by something resembling a meritocratic process, almost anyone white and male (there were very few women and minorities on our list) who can scrape together the loans for tuition can theoretically achieve not just wealth but real influence in the United States.
The question our graduates then must ask themselves is: "Should they?" Should they join the winning side in what the economist Doug Henwood calls in our film a "one-sided class war?" A war whose object seems to be to concentrate more and more money and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer Americans?
And if that wasn't bad enough, should they participate in a domestic economic war the cover for which is the constant preparation for and execution of foreign wars?
Since President McKinley and the Spanish-American War, overseas adventures have been the oligarchy's response to the public's demand for reform. Whether it was Populists or Progressives, rank-and-file Republicans or Democrats leading the charge for domestic change, the major party bosses and their partners on Wall Street have worked together in "collusive harmony," in the words of political historian Walter Karp, to divert the country from its just demands by embroiling them in deadly foreign entanglements.
Reform movements are an ever-present worry for both parties' bosses, because any successful reform put forward by regular citizens and insurgents in Congress tends to excite the electorate with the possibility of actually controlling their own government. The ruling class well understands that as the engagement of the citizenry waxes, their own power wanes. And it is war and the threat of war that provide the best excuse for not passing social-welfare legislation, and calling anyone who demands it "unpatriotic."
The tactic of imperial expansion as domestic diversion, begun in Cuba and the Philippines a century ago, has achieved its ultimate expression in the "War on Terror" and the over 130 countries where our military presence is felt.
The cost to Americans is not just measured in our thousands of dead and wounded child soldiers, but in the persistent lack of national health care, decent schools, adequate housing, fair wages and a livable environment.
Our dear old republic, the hope of a New World free of aristocracy and injustice, has now fallen so low into the muck of corrupt privilege and imperial pretension that it rivals the excesses of the worst European autocracies. Though we posses powers and riches undreamed of by the Sun King himself, as of the early 21st Century our rulers have done virtually nothing to raise the great mass of Americans out of ignorance and poverty, and much to ensure that they stay there.
In our film, former Secretary of State James Baker tells us that he "doesn't buy this argument that the defense budget takes too large a percentage of our gross national product."
But one might fairly ask: Does the defense budget, 51 percent of discretionary federal spending, take too large a percentage of our national hope and promise?
How will our two young graduates answer this overwhelming question? Will they try to rule the world .Ã¢â‚¬â€š.Ã¢â‚¬â€š. or save it? Can they do it from the inside, as Walter Cronkite urges? Or does there need to be a "revolt of the guards," as Howard Zinn insists?
The answers our heroes and the rest of their generation provide will have the greatest imaginable consequences for us all.
John Kirby is director and editor of The American Ruling Class.
© 2007 The Providence Journal