Elites and the “Omnipotence of the Majority”

10 February 2018

In the midst of our series on elites and democracy in France, I thought I’d take a slight détour américain by way of Tocqueville. A recent column about American elites in the Trump era by the Financial Times’s Edward Luce brought to mind the chapter in Democracy in America “On the Omnipotence of the Majority.” A few lines before Tocqueville introduces his famous notion of the “tyranny of the majority,” he makes an interesting comparison between aristocratic and democratic notions of political legitimacy:


Les Français, sous l’ancienne monarchie, tenaient pour constant que le roi ne pouvait jamais faillir ; et quand il lui arrivait de faire mal, ils pensaient que la faut en était à ses conseillers. Ceci facilitait merveilleusement l’obéissance. On pouvait murmurer contre la loi, sans cesser d’aimer et de respecter le législateur. Les Américains ont la même opinion de la majorité.


In other words, democracy transfers the notion of royal infallibility onto the majority of citizens: whatever gains the support of more than 50% of those eligible to choose—whether at the ballot or in public opinion—is by definition correct. This is part of the reason that Tocqueville believed that artistic or intellectual “excellence” and”freedom of thought” would be difficult to cultivate in America. The majority is sometimes, often wrong, but in a democratic society there is significant pressure not to point this out.


Luce’s column, entitled “The Discreet Terror of the American Bourgeoisie,” suggests a rather different dynamic in today’s United States. He describes a contemporary American economic elite that has “stored more wealth than they can consume,” and as a result, invests its wealth in over-priced Ivy League degrees that represent the surest way of maintaining advantages for its children. In other words, today’s elite chooses to distinguish itself not so much through material consumption, but rather through education and “cultural capital,” which also includes conspicuous charity and other forms of progressive “virtue signaling.” This character of the well-t0-do, for Luce, has produced a “ghastly symbiosis” between it and Donald Trump, whose “antics are a comfort blanket to the cognitive elite [and who] validates our moral superiority.”


Luce’s psychology of elite anti-Trumpism is no doubt largely correct. Though it was a minority of voters that actually delivered the president his 2016 victory, his illiteracy and crassness is a sign of the unfitness of the majority of Americans to make political decisions. This is a key component of the elite Democrats’ fixation on Trump’s personality, which I’ve written about elsewhere. But there are some problems with his diagnosis. He gives too much credit to the pro-Trump view that the president’s opponents are the country’s true elite, and that this elite is defined in purely cultural terms. The Financial Times columnist probably overestimates the cultural snootiness of much of America’s one percent (or, say, the top five percent), whose children may pursue degrees in engineering and computer science rather than in English and philosophy at their Ivy League colleges. So not only does he thereby underestimate the persistance of the good old-fashioned desire for conspicuous wealth, but he also exaggerates the radical break between Trumpism and the classes of people who hold elite degrees.


Perhaps 21st century American inequality has undone the democratic belief in the “omnipotence of the majority.” Or rather, if Tocqueville could observe an “absolute monarchy” of the majority, the social divisions of America today may lend themselves to a more complex distribution of power. Contemporary elites, which are hard to fit into the America of Tocqueville’s time, occupy a political space somewhere in between “the people” and the royal “conseillers” in his analogy. Some elites, by virtue of their exclusive education, have turned against the majority that they identify, falsely, with Trump. But others have put aside their distaste for the president’s lowbrowishness and have flocked to the centers of power like they would under any other administration. Trump claims to have set the people against the elites, but we should not follow his own understanding of these categories


There’s been some more interesting writing on the idea of elites in both the English- and French-speaking press. In The Guardian, Liza Featherstone examines the focus group as an instrument for corporate elites to appear interested in the opinions of the people, and in Le Monde, Isabelle Dautresme questions whether the concours for France’s grandes écoles are really as meritocratic as they are made out to be. We’ll have more on this next week in our guest post by Aurore Lambert on the cultural capital of the French political elite.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Donald Trump, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.


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1 Comment

  • Marta Varela says:

    Dear Mr. Hamburger:
    When I was growing up, the United States had an elite that came out of Ivy League schools, and was largely male, and of German-English-Scotch-Irish descent, with a smattering of German and Ashkenazi Jews thrown in. There was “highbrow” “middlebrow” and “lowbrow” culture, but the governing elite was firmly associated with the “highbrow” pleasures of classical music, Old Masters, novels by Nobel Prize winners and non-tabloid newspapers. Today’s elites include men and women in positions of power, but the seeding of the classes of the most influential schools in the country is far more diverse, and membership in the elite does not implicitly require shedding badges of origin that fifty years ago would have excluded the new elite from membership in it.
    So it’s hard to generalize about elites in the United States along the same lines as in the past. The country’s best schools produce diverse individuals with heterogeneous allegiances that don’t fit Donald Trump’s stereotype of privileged people “tuned out” to people without their advantages. Ironically, the people who best fit the stereotype are people in Trump’s orbit: real estate developers, hedge fund managers, investment bankers. Some Kennedy School graduate working as a bureaucrat earning $100,000 a year at the EPA or the Bureau of Land Management may hold up a businessman’s project for being perhaps non-compliant with a bureau regulation, but that government employee hardly poses the risk to democracy plutocrats do, or fits any reasonable definition of what the member of an “elite” is. (In contrast, one could speak seriously of the “French elite” that governs the country, the graduates of Sciences Po and ENA.) Until Trump’s opponents on the right and the left get better at exposing what the FT’s Martin Wolf called Trump’s “plutopopulism”, Trump will continue to pull the wool over the eyes of his voters, and foment false divisions.

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