Intellectual Elites against Democracy

James Madison’s reference to the “confusion and intemperance” of the multitude used to be the rationale of a government by the elite. How does elitism practically and culturally perpetuate itself today in the U.S.?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

“Elitism might be defined as the political principle which assumes that the existence of unequal abilities is an irrefutable fact,” says Sheldon Wolin. Though the existence of unequal human abilities may look like a mere fact of life, it needs to be correctly understood.

Because they had not developed a written culture and a science-based technology as much as Europeans had, native Americans or people from Africa were once considered savages incapable of theoretical thinking. This gross misinterpretation was made possible by conveniently forgetting two things. One is that different cultures grow their particular genius in different ways. Whether as a group or as an individual, consequently, different abilities are “unequal” only in the perspective of a specific result to achieve. The other is that regardless of which particular abilities one has been endowed with at birth, those pertaining to human nature as such also need to be nurtured and practiced to deliver their potential. There is a reason why enslaved Black people were forbidden from learning how to read and write in the United States; their owners did not want to see them edging over the official status of three-fifth of a person.

If racism can hardly be a formal reason to enforce the power of a ruling class anymore, the self-serving system of fake elites will always be a threat to democracy. “Today in the United States there is a circular system whereby elites are produced and the institutions producing them are confirmed as “elite institutions,” thereby attracting a fresh supply of promising material that further confirms the institutions’ special status. . . . Elitism functions as a self-sustaining enterprise. The key is to produce not only successful alumni but rich ones to feed the virtually insatiable appetite of elite institutions, where fund-raisers are as prolific as scholars and university financial officers are millionaires. While still in school those chosen as future elites are encouraged to “network” with each other for later reference and assistance.”

People coopted as part of the elite are no more or no less able than the rest of the population, but they definitely take advantage of privileged conditions in growing their careers. Moreover, the circular system they belong to is a system of power that extends its rings further than alumni associations: “Bright prospects are passed along to think tanks, institutes, and centers. There they learn the arts of developing “policy proposals” and demolishing the arguments of their enemies. . . . Flanking these are the foundations that support think tanks, supply grants to select recipients, and promote projects to their liking.” All in all, “The existence of elites doesn’t just happen; it is systematized, premeditated, refined to a practice assuring that those who are selected as ‘promising leadership material’ will prove to have the right stuff, thus validating the methods of selection and, in the process, perpetuating the system that has made them possible.” Himself a scholar, Sheldon Wolin had the leisure to witness the system’s workings from the inside.

Affluent people in the United States can make donations to academia. Not so surprisingly, the benefactors are in most cases politically hell-bent against a public system of education. Their liberalities have consequently little to do with the furtherment of academic endeavors and a lot with keeping power in the right hands. To corporate moguls, it is a crucial investment. The last thing they want is power rising from the bottom up, notably through decent access to education. They will not say they are against it, as former slave owners would have, but will ensure with a sincere heart that rich kids do not have to compete with poor ones. However, it is not just corporate moguls who are prolonging a state of modern slavery this way. We are all invited to reflect on our motivations when refusing our tax money to go to poorer neighborhoods.

Eventually, the destined corporate and political elites will derive their feeling of legitimacy from the fact that they know better than the vulgum pecus. And one area where the best and the brightest can be sure to stand among themselves is war, the acme of power and secrecy. “Elitism, says Sheldon Wolin, is perhaps most pronounced in the areas of politics relating to international relations and foreign policy. . . . Foreign affairs, like military affairs, were about power politics, unpredictable dangers—including threats to the very existence of the nation—complex strategies, and ‘the’ national interest, subjects about which average citizens lacked the experience and competence to judge.”

In this regard, academia’s utter absence of reaction to the Iraq war, and U.S. wars in general, shows that the elite power scheme has won. “One of the reasons why ‘the sixties’ continues to be a favorite punching bag of neocons and neoliberals is that it represented a decade of prolonged popular political education unique in recent American history. The most frequent topics were racism, foreign policy, corporate power, higher education, and threats to ecology—each in one form or another a domain of elitism. Public universities, such as those at Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison, played a leading role in the organization of antiwar activities. That none of those institutions was ruffled by antiwar agitation at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 testifies to the effective integration of universities into the corporate state.”


If the victory of elitism inside academia is that of influential and well-financed networks, it also has a genuine intellectual background that Sheldon Wolin examines at length in this chapter. There again, the topic being discussed is not that of meritocracy—through which an elite emerges by its own talents and efforts exclusively—but that of an auto-proclaimed elite whose power over the majority of people is assumed to be the sign of a well-ordered society. According to Sheldon Wolin, “The academic genealogy of today’s elitism, consists primarily of two branches, one deriving from the émigré political philosopher Leo Strauss, the other from a native son, Samuel Huntington.”

Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

“Like Superpower itself, Straussism is based upon a fantasy about power—in this case, the power to be found in a most unlikely form, philosophy. Unlike most of the fantasts of scientific and technological power, who are rapturous about the material benefits for humankind that such powers can bring, Strauss was a fantast who warned of the harm to the “masses” that the true philosophy would wreak should the Many ever gain even a glimpse of its meaning and implications. . . . What form does the awesome power of the true philosophy take? The true philosophy knows a great and dangerous truth, that society is founded on and held together by myths, that is, untruths. By nature the masses are credulous; their credulity is necessary to the existence and preservation of society and, not least, of philosophers. So the ‘Few,’ ‘wishing neither to be destroyed nor to bring destruction upon the multitude,’ must not expose to the Many, or publicly ridicule, the insubstantial basis of mass beliefs”1

Straussian ideology, therefore, does not assign to those at the helm of power the crafting of specific policies. Instead, their vocation is in the realization of grandiose ambitions. Sheldon Wolin refers in this regard to Harvey Mansfield, Jr, who has acknowledged the work of Leo Strauss as the key modern influence on his own political philosophy2 “Mansfield has sought to demonstrate, not so much how, but why power and virtue should be combined so that politics can again be a great stage for heroic action and noble deeds. In a dazzling and subtle account Mansfield depicts an ideal political world where the ‘executive’ dominates the political system, not a political system understood in terms of checks and balances or responsibility to the citizenry, but one inspired in almost equal parts by an ideal of monarchy, a patriot king, and a dismissive contempt for democracy.”3 . . . Mansfield’s prince governs in the broad sense; he ‘rules’ with a kind of Gaullist grandeur, testing the constitutional limits of office, while pursuing a politics of ‘daring, sacrifice,’ and ‘nobility.’4 Above all, ideally the executive stands not for programs but for ‘virtue.’ That means, among other things, he is prepared to act in defiance of the popular will. Virtue, or the love of the highest things, is something only the Few can aspire to and the Many never appreciate.”

“Clearly, adds Sheldon Wolin, George II [George W. Bush]—with his expansive conception of presidential power, as represented by his practice of appending “signing statements” to legislation, proclamations that place his understanding of statutes above that of Congress and his understanding of the proper treatment of prisoners above that of the rule of law—would have no difficulty qualifying as a ‘prince.'” It is true that unlike the infamous 45th president of the United States who took the same kind of liberties with the Constitution, Georges II (as the author likes to nickname him) was doing it in the name of virtue and as governing the “greatest power in the world.”

Harvey Claflin Mansfield Jr. (born March 21, 1932)
Harvey Claflin Mansfield Jr. (born March 21, 1932)

And yet: “There is a remarkable, although not uncharacteristic, passage where Mansfield refers to a famous incident in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and offers it as a telling example of the politics of risk and glory. It reads especially poignantly in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. ‘Not even Alcibiades,’ Mansfield lamented, ‘could convince a modern democracy to launch the Sicilian expedition that he persuaded the Athenians to undertake.’5 Mansfield fails to round out the picture: Alcibiades happened to have first betrayed his native Athens and then sided with its deadly enemy, Sparta, only to betray it in turn; upon his return to Athens, his demagogic talents enabled him to regain power and persuade the Athenians to risk a new expedition against Sicily. It resulted in a disastrous defeat, hastening the eventual surrender of Athens and the beginning of its demise. But it was undeniably daring . . .”

What about the competing theoretical branch of elitism, Samuel Phillips Huntington? “While Straussians project elitist ideals of heroism and a disdain for the ordinary, Huntington confronts the complexity of a world of large collectivities, of conflicting ‘civilizations.’ While Straussians are in principle antidemocratic, Huntington wavers.” As with Leo Strauss, Sheldon Wolin refers to one of Huntington’s prominent disciples who gave a contemporary insight of the master’s thought. Fareed Zakaria, “a protégé of Huntington,” published in 2003 The Future of Freedom. “Zakaria’s argument, says Wolin, is exactly the opposite of the analysis I have been advancing. Instead of a beleaguered democracy growing ever more powerless, he portrays democracy as all-powerful, total in its influence. At the same time, he contends that while elites actually rule in the United States, they are hesitant to admit it. . . . In contrast to my claims about the grooming system and its emphasis upon producing professionals, Zakaria contends that we have become enveloped by a totally democratic society, a reflection of the fact that power has shifted ‘downward.'”

The proof is in the “democratic” character of capitalism whereby “hundreds of millions” have been “enriched.”6 Thanks to money-market funds “suddenly a steelworker . . . could own shares in blue-chip companies.”7 In news that should cheer the homeless, Chase Manhattan Bank is declared guilty of “catering to the great unwashed.’8 . . . At the same time, the state has been weakened, and its authority “sapped” by “capital markets, private businesses, local governments, [and] nongovernmental organizations.” Even more bad news: democracy has been displaced by “a simple-minded populism that makes popularity and openness the key measures of legitimacy.”9

Fareed Rafiq Zakaria (born January 20, 1964)

For Zakaria, democracy is concentrated in the single institution of elections; that makes it potentially dangerous and fundamentally “illiberal.” “To defend that narrow conception, he simply decrees that ‘the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property’ have ‘nothing intrinsically to do with democracy.’ In the past, ‘free elections’ produced Hitler, and now they might bring ‘Islamic theocracy or something like it.’10 Throughout the world he sees ‘illiberal democracies’ that violate rights and override constitutional limitations.’ . . . Zakaria favors’ liberalizing autocracies’ and ‘dictatorships [that] opened the economy’ and ‘made the government more and more liberal.’ His model is the East Asian autocracy, which, he notes, is superior to the American South of the 1950s.11 In the United States slavery and segregation were ‘entrenched’ by virtue of ‘the democratic system.’ Jim Crow was destroyed, Zakaria opines, not by democracy ‘but despite it.’ He attributes no significance to the civil rights movement except as part of the sixties’ ‘assault’ on ‘the basic legitimacy of the American system.'”12

To Fareed Zakaria, obviously, a government of the people, by the people, for the people has no practical reality. Democracy is nothing substantial but only a populist electoral gimmick used to subvert the legitimate authority of what was once a genuine elite: “As regards the United States Zakaria prefers the early republic when political candidates were chosen by ‘tightly controlled hierarchies’ and legislatures were hierarchical and ‘closed’—in contrast to today when politicians ‘do scarcely anything else but listen to the American people.'”13 ‘Special interests now run Washington,’ and the major responsibility, predictably, is attributed to the attacks on authority launched during the sixties and to the political reforms that followed. Once the floodgates were opened, ‘minorities, lobbyists, celebrities, and the rich began to dominate.’14 The new elites that now control the political parties are inferior to ‘the old party elites’: the arrivistes consist of Washington professionals, activists, ideologues, pollsters, and fund-raisers. Zakaria’s list does not include corporate donors and sponsors.”15

“The main problem, as he sees it, is that those who operate the present system fail to ‘enact policies for the long run.’ Instead of ‘real reform,’ such as trimming welfare benefits, there is ‘pandering.’ His solution is antidemocratic as well as antipolitical: ‘the economic realm’ should be sealed off from politics and ‘the impartial judge’ adopted as our political model.16 The best examples of that model are institutions protected from political pressures such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Federal Reserve Bank.17 We need to ‘insulate some decision-makers from the intense pressures of interest groups, lobbies, and political campaigns—that is to say, from the intense pressures of democracy. . . . What we need in politics today is not more democracy but less.’18 As examples of regimes able to enact farsighted policies, Zakaria points to Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Indonesia, or even China.”19

“When Zakaria enters the most damning indictment of the current elites, that they lack true public spirit or the fundamental virtue of disinterestedness, his elites surrender any ethical claim to legitimacy they might have had. ‘By declaring war on elitism, we [sic] have produced politics by a hidden elite, unaccountable, unresponsive, and often unconcerned with any larger public interest. The decline of America’s traditional elites and institutions—not just political but cultural, economic and religious—is at the heart of the transformation of American society.'”20

Sheldon Wolin additionally notes about The Future of Freedom that “Zakaria’s ideal of ‘constitutional liberalism’ is inspired by nineteenth-century liberalism, with its priorities of ‘individual economic, political, and religious liberty’ and its rejection of all forms of ‘coercion.’ Far from recognizing the power of capital, Zakaria defends nineteenth-century laissez-faire and argues for freeing economic activity from government regulations—as though by reducing governmental power one reduced the political power of capital. At the same time he fails to recognize that what he chooses to label as ‘democratization’ has in reality been a feature of capitalism since long before modern political democracy and its electoral systems even existed.”

Samuel Phillips Huntington (1927-2008)
Samuel Phillips Huntington (1927-2008)

The idea suggested by Fareed Rafiq Zakaria that the elites betrayed America was echoed in 2004 by his mentor: “The despair over the condition of elites has recently been expressed in a surprising formulation by Huntington himself. In an essay entitled Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite, Huntington in effect signaled that the American experiment of combining democracy with elitism was over—and the causes of the failure lay squarely with the elites. . . . The American establishment, he asserts, has become divorced from the American people.21 In contrast the people have remained steadfast, loyal, and devoted to the homeland and its values. For Huntington the consequence is a crisis of loyalty produced by the opposing perceptions of ‘national identity’ held by ‘the more cosmopolitan elites,’ on the one hand, and the general citizenry, on the other.”

“Huntington is in no doubt as to the crux of American national identity: ‘America is different and that difference is defined in large part by its religious commitment and Anglo-Protestant culture.’ “At the heart’ of that culture ‘have been Protestantism’ and the ‘political and social institutions and practices inherited from England, including most notably the English language.’22 Elites, in contrast, tend to be ‘liberal’ and irreligious. That formulation is intended not as a contribution to dispassionate analysis but as a polemic against the multiple identities favored by multiculturalists and ethnic preservationists; against the demotion of English as the sole language of instruction in the public schools; against the lax enforcement of border controls; and against the ideal of inclusiveness. The really patriotic Americans tend to be native born and white.”23 Finally, “Huntington’s xenophobic and nativist tendencies should be understood as defensive, a circling of the wagons, stemming from his longstanding belief that the hegemonic power of ‘the West’ and of the United States is in decline.”24

It is then easy for Sheldon Wolin to underline Huntington’s basic contradiction: “From what quarter does he draw the evidence for his view that the citizenry, long ridiculed by conservative critics, should now represent the last best hope for the survival of the nation? And, crucially, what are the virtues possessed by the demos that recommend it as political saviors? . . . The peculiarity of Huntington’s eulogy of the people is that he supports it by relying exclusively on polling data. ‘The patriotic public’ emerges in response to questions such as ‘How proud are you to be an American?’ Huntington’s ‘public’ is thus a construction of the pollsters.” As a matter of fact, he remains deeply loyal to his elitist take on the fate of society: “Huntington makes no reference to participatory actions or political involvements as characteristics or concerns of his citizenry. The people appear more as a mass with patriotic sentiments, as the stuff of a governable populace, as more ready-made for inverted totalitarianism than for the project of self-government. And while Huntington deplores the tendencies current among the elites, he never disavows the principle of elitism, nor does he encourage rule by the masses.”

Taking a step back, the overall conclusion about elitism can be drawn from its very failure in history: “Elites are supposed to withstand the gales of popular passions, stand firm for what is right against what the Founding Father Madison described as ‘the confusion and intemperance of a multitude.’25 And yet the most disastrous wars in American history have been instigated, not by rabid majorities but by elites: the ‘Southern aristocracy’ provoked the Civil War; ‘the best and the brightest’ led the country into the quagmire of Vietnam; and Bush’s advisory ‘Vulcans’ and the neocon products of elite universities have made of Iraq a national and international nightmare.” Morally questionable and politically fantasized, elitism is unsurprisingly bound to govern against the common good.

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Book Club discussion: What is the main idea in this chapter? What are its logical and/or real-world implications? Can you think of an objection?

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  1. Shadia Drury, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (New York: St. Martin’s, 1988), 7. This is a very useful analysis and account of its subject.
  2. See, for example, Josh Harlan and Christopher Kagay, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.: The Question of Conservatism, interview, Harvard Review of Philosophy 3 (1993)
  3. “Executive power . . . has a natural basis in monarchy.” Taming the Prince, 295. One of Mansfield’s earlier books was a highly suggestive study of Viscount Bolingbroke, who was the author of The Idea of a Patriot King (1738). See as well Sheldon Wolin’s review, “Executive Liberation,” and Mansfield’s spirited rejoinder, “Executive Power and the Passion for Virtue,” in Studies in American Political Development 6 (Spring 1992): 211–16.
  4. Taming the Prince, 271
  5. Ibid., 294
  6. Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, 14, 15
  7. Ibid., 203
  8. Ibid., 200
  9. Ibid., 162
  10. Ibid., 17, 18. Zakaria makes no mention of the role that conservative elites, including a military, led by an aristocratic, antidemocratic class (the Junkers)—which Huntington should have loved—played in conniving to elect Hitler and, more important, manipulating the Reichstag (parliament) to give him extraordinary powers. Also the “free” election of 1933 was marked by considerable violence. See Bracher, The German Dictatorship, 178 ff. and Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, 266 ff.
  11. Ibid., 56
  12. Ibid., 21, 169. Except for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all progress on emancipation, Zakaria claims, was due to the “executive” and the courts. The “executive,” one might have thought, was popularly elected.
  13. Ibid., 165-66, 167-68
  14. Ibid., 169-73, 181
  15. Ibid., 183-84.
  16. Ibid., 20.
  17. Ibid., 242.
  18. Ibid., 242-43, 246.
  19. Ibid., 251.
  20. Ibid., 198.
  21. Huntington, “Dead Souls,” 8.
  22. Ibid., 14
  23. Ibid., 8
  24. See The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 90, 306–7, 310. At that writing Huntington feared an intercivilizational war, most likely from Muslims or the Chinese (311–14). It should also be noted that in The Clash, 306–7, he declares that in the looming apocalypse the United States should stick to “the Western family” because if that family should go under, it would also mean the “end” of the United States as we know it.
  25. The Federalist, No. 55, p. 374.
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