Steve Fraser & Gary Gerstel: Ignoring Elites, Historians Are Missing a Major Factor in Politics and History

Roundup: Talking About History

Steve Fraser & Gary Gerstel, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (4-1-05):

[Steve Fraser is a writer and historian living in New York. Gary Gerstle is a professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park. This essay is adapted from the book they edited, Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, published this month by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.]

... Over the last quarter-century, historians have by and large ceased writing about the role of ruling elites in the country's evolution. Or if they have taken up the subject, they have done so to argue against its salience for grasping the essentials of American political history. Yet there is something peculiar about this recent intellectual aversion, even if we accept as true the beliefs that democracy, social mobility, and economic dynamism have long inhibited the congealing of a ruling stratum. This aversion has coincided, after all, with one of the largest and fastest-growing disparities in the division of income and wealth in American history....

Neglecting the powerful had not been characteristic of historical work before World War II. To the contrary, the story of the ruling elites had preoccupied historians for a very long time. Moreover, to talk about classes and the struggles between them was common parlance. Indeed, for the first 150 years of the nation's life, the language of ruling and subordinate social groups defined the contours of one of the grand narratives of American history. Measured by the long sweep of that history, stretching back into the colonial era, it is the recent muting of those concerns about the concentration and exercise of power that seems odd. That does not mean that those who once stressed such matters were right. But it does mean that a whole set of historical metaphors and categories of analysis once taken for granted have lost much of their legitimacy.

Beginning sometime after World War II, and with increasing force in the wake of the Reagan "revolution," a gathering consensus concluded that events, "History," the impersonal forces of the market, or some other analogous abstractions rule, not classes or elites. Certainly the cultural cold war helped stigmatize notions of "class struggle" and "ruling classes" as so much communist verbiage, a purely propagandist rhetoric that failed to capture the more centerless, polymorphous, and pluralist makeup of American politics and social organization.

Yet precisely the opposite conviction runs likes a red thread through much of the nation's past. It is virtually impossible to make sense of any of the great epochs in American political history or of the grander chronicle of democracy in America without coming face to face with "Tories," "moneycrats," "the Monster Bank," "the slaveocracy," "robber barons," "plutocrats," "the money trust," "economic royalists," "the Establishment," the "power elite," or the "military-industrial complex." All those colorful variations echo a single theme: that, the fluid and anarchic character of the American experience notwithstanding, organized political and social groupings have arisen at key junctures in the country's history and have succeeded for more or less extended periods of time in exercising broad dominion over the nation's political economy and even its cultural and social life.

One might view that rich imagery of the pursuit of power either as a reproach or as a vindication of the pursuit of happiness -- a reproach insofar as it suggests that the American promise of freedom and equality has been a sham and a delusion, a vindication inasmuch as it implies that democracy has been a permanent revolution, forever embattled against those who have tried to abrogate that promise. Either way, America is depicted as densely populated with an assortment of social groups that all seem to behave suspiciously like ruling classes or elites.

Survey the landmarks of the national drama. Every president of enduring reputation up to John F. Kennedy is remembered for some vital crusade against a usurping or entrenched elite. Washington and Jefferson overthrew the minions of the British monarchy and then fended off attempts at aristocratic counterrevolution by homegrown Tories. Andrew Jackson waged war against a "Monster Bank" that presumed to monopolize the credit resources of a fledgling nation and turn enterprising citizens into its vassals. Lincoln purged the nation of its mortal sin by extirpating the "slaveocracy." Teddy Roosevelt unleashed rhetorical thunderbolts against those "malefactors of great wealth" whose gargantuan corporate combines showed no regard for the public welfare and bought and sold senators and congressmen like so many pigs at a market. Woodrow Wilson promised, if swept into office, to take on the "money trust," that financial octopus whose tentacles were strangling to death the economic opportunity and democratic independence that were every citizen's birthright. In the midst of the greatest calamity since the Civil War, FDR chased the "money changers from the temple" and declared that his New Deal would henceforth police and punish the "economic royalists" who had brought on the Great Depression. Even the mild-mannered Dwight Eisenhower left office cautioning the country against the overweening power of the "military-industrial complex."

In the wake of the conservative intellectual ascendancy that accompanied the rise of Ronald Reagan, however, what had once been a main current of the country's historiography became little more than a tributary. It is true that plenty of books have appeared over the last decade or so revisiting the lives of legendary business titans such as Jay Gould, Edward H. Harriman, J. Pierpont Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. But nearly without exception, they steer clear of treating those figures as emblematic of some ruling elite. Nowadays it may seem old-fashioned, against the American grain, or even subversive (pace President George W. Bush's warning that to criticize his tax cuts for the wealthy was to indulge in "class warfare") to talk about classes, about the struggles between them, about something as exotic and alien as a ruling elite. But it is not. The corpus of thinking about hierarchy and democracy that extends all the way back to the first days of the Republic has left behind a series of questions still worth pondering.

We need to focus on the variety of economic elites that have ruled, or attempted to rule, the nation. ...

... Whatever the outcome, the life and death of ruling elites is one of the enduring themes that run through the long literature of wealth and political power in America. It remains so today as the country witnesses the tribulations of its latest ruling group, born at the dawn of Reagan's "morning in America" and now struggling to master what may be either the high noon or the twilight of the new American Century.

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