In his article, ‘America’s ruling class – and the perils of revolution’, Angelo Codevilla suggests that Democrat and Republican office-holders in recent governments in the United States ‘show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits and opinions ... than between both and the rest of the community’. He claims: ‘They think, look, and act like a class’ (‘The American Spectator, July-August 2010).
I think the article provides a good explanation of why Americans who normally support the Republican Party are currently so disenchanted with it. Perhaps Australians should be thinking about possible implications for politics in this country.
Characteristics of this class identified by Codevilla include the following:
• ‘Its first tenet is that “we” are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained’.
• Its only standard of truth is consensus among its members. It does not take seriously the views of anyone - irrespective of professional competence, academic achievement, wealth or office held – unless they are members of the class. Like a fraternity, the ruling class requires its members to share the manners and tastes of the class.
• It views the common people’s words as ‘like grunts, mere signs of pain, pleasure and frustration’.
• It stakes its claim to power through intellectual-moral pretence but holds power through patronage – increasing the power of government to increase its own power and reward its supporters.
• It includes among its number people who have been chosen by government to be the true representatives of various sectors of society and who have been empowered to represent those sectors in elaborating laws and administrative rules.
• It seeks to make itself the arbiter of wealth and poverty by making economic rules dependent on the discretion of office holders who are members of the ruling class.
• It redirects the people’s energies away from satisfying their own desires – toward living more densely and closer to work, driving smaller cars, using less energy, improving their diet etc.
• It assumes that what it mandates with regard to education and welfare of children must be correct ipso facto, while what parents do is potentially abusive.
• ‘Its principal article of faith, its claim to the right to decide for others, is precisely that it knows things and operates by standards beyond others’ comprehension’.
• It identifies science and reason with itself and pronounces definitive scientific judgment on whatever it chooses. Aggressive, intolerant secularism is the moral basis of its claim to rule.
• It interferes in the affairs of foreign governments that are not the enemies of America.
• It favours ever higher taxes and expanding government.
Before I go further, I think a confession may be in order. Some of those points describe attitudes I held 40 years ago. I’m not proud of that, but at the time I thought that Commonwealth public servants were the best and the brightest in the land and that they should have more power.
Another point I should make is that it is important to distinguish between opposition to ruling class attitudes and support for populist attitudes. In my view the words of non-experts on complex economic issues do have little more value than a grunt. Whether we are talking about economic policy, brain surgery or plumbing, I think it should be self-evident that the views of experts count for more than those of non-experts. The problem with the ruling class is not its lack of regard for the views of non-experts, but its lack of regard for the views of experts who do not accept that it has a right to interfere in the way citizens live their lives.
Coming to the question I posed at the beginning, it is obvious from what I have already written that I think Australia does have a self-appointed ruling class as described above. This ruling class is identified most closely with the public service and the political left, including the Greens as well as the Labor Party.
However, I don’t think the conservative side of Australian politics is as closely identified with the ruling class as in the US. When he came to office, John Howard was viewed as an outsider by the ruling class. This antipathy remained until his government was voted out of office, even though his policies were by then virtually indistinguishable from those of the ruling class. Tony Abbott, the current leader of opposition, seems to want to maintain distance himself from the ruling class rather than to disempower it. His recent book, discussed here, is a strange mixture of support for traditional family values, classical liberalism and espousal of ruling class attitudes toward centralization of power in Canberra.