What I Mean by “Elite Failure”

I talk a lot about elites failure here, that a good portion of the reason we in the liberal West are seeing the rise of illiberalism is because our elites have failed — they can no longer think straight about themselves, the societies they govern, or the world.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really explained what I meant by elite failure, however.

This bit by Walter Russel Mead from Foreign Affairs on the rise of “Jacksonianism” as evident in the election of Donald J. Trump, however, does a pretty good of describing one portion of elite failure:

Over the past quarter century, Western policymakers became infatuated with some dangerously oversimplified ideas. They believed capitalism had been tamed and would no longer generate economic, social, or political upheavals. They felt that illiberal ideologies and political emotions had been left in the historical dustbin and were believed only by “bitter” losers—people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations,” as Barack Obama famously put it in 2008. Time and the normal processes of history would solve the problem; constructing a liberal world order was simply a matter of working out the details.

Given such views, many recent developments—from the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism to the financial crisis to the recent surge of angry nationalist populism on both sides of the Atlantic—came as a rude surprise. It is increasingly clear that globalization and automation have helped break up the socioeconomic model that undergirded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace, and that the next stage of capitalist development will challenge the very foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.

While the liberal West has been relatively well-governed before — I’m thinking of the generation after the Second World War — It has not been true since the mid-1990s. In part, Western elites became enamored of their own victory and success in the Cold War. Thinking history was the struggle of ideas, as opposed to struggle of personality and passions, they were convinced history was over and all that remained was the working out of technocratic details.

That made it possible from them to ignore the damage that much of neoliberalism was doing in the West to the working classes that had done so well materially and morally up until the mid-1970s. “What alternative do you have?” asked neoliberalism as it privatized and financialized and globalized. Because the alternatives do, in fact, seem deeply discredited. Especially if history is viewed solely or primarily as a contest between competing ideologies over social organization. The working classes of the West, especially the non-immigrant working classes, were supposed simply to accept their slow-motion destruction in the name of progress and evolution.

But what the last decade or so is telling us that compelling people to endorse and vote for their own obsolescence, marginalization, and even extinction is a losing strategy politically. The “retrograde” plurality or majority will look at the promises of democratic governance — majority rule, and not rightly guided or enlightened rule — and wonder, if government is in our name, if our will is what makes government legitimate, why is it working against us, our interests, and most importantly, our dignity?

A society or community will always be governed by an elite. There is no way around that. That elite must always be cognizant of its connections, responsibilities, obligations to the people it governs. Elites must always remember people and place and appreciate their limits. The elites of the West have become disconnected, and feel little responsibility or obligation to the people they govern anymore. (More government programs are not it, since the people who design them, implement them, and administer them are almost never “served” by those programs, are never the objects of state care, and thus have no idea how degrading such attention and care really is.) The elites of the West have become enamored of a global humanity that really is an abstraction, and have forgotten the very concrete women and men they actually rule. That is what I mean by elite failure, and it is, sadly, probably an inevitable outcome of liberal democratic governance.

Because no form of government is permanent. There are just people, groping blindly, for meaning, purpose, and some way to organize themselves. Some are better than others, but all fall short of perfection — even liberal democracy — and all reflect certain central human ways of organizing ourselves, mobilizing resources, and holding each other accountable. All succeed to one extent or another, and all eventually fail.

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