This piece is a reply to Christopher DeMuth’s Winter 2018/19 Claremont Review of Books essay “Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism.”
Christopher DeMuth’s magnificent essay captures much of what underlies the West’s political turmoil. His endorsement of David Goodhart’s Anywhere versus Somewhere dichotomy strikes me as especially correct, as is DeMuth’s description of each group’s characteristics and attitudes. I also have little to quarrel with regarding his specific policy proposals for American government.
DeMuth, however, underplays the moral dimension of the struggle between Somewheres and Anywheres. He hints at it when he notes that Anywheres largely work in what they perceive to be meritocracies. For the Anywheres, DeMuth writes, “[m]eritocracy, not democracy, provides the justification for their power and the means of exercising power.”
Meritocracy, then, is simply a new version of an old word: aristocracy. Aristocracy has come to mean rule by hereditary lords, but its Greek roots betray the underlying moral presupposition. “Aristo” comes from aristos, or the best, and “cracy” comes from kratia, which means power, as in rule. Aristocracy, in other words, means “the rule by the best” – and if one is better than others there is no reason to ask for the consent of one’s inferiors. Indeed, there is every reason not to.
This is the underlying cause of our political discontent. One set of citizens has come to believe themselves to be superior to another, and hence seeks to rule without their consent or in their interest. Not surprisingly, this is creating a modern Peasant’s Revolt.
Belief in one’s own moral superiority as a result of learning, experience, comfort, and distance from hard physical labor have always been the hallmarks of the aristocrat’s claim to rule. Today’s Anywheres, graduates of elite institutions or survivors in the rigorous competition of the academy, the marketplace, or the military, equate their backgrounds with innate differences. They think they are simply better than the rest of us, and as such our job is to follow along and keep quiet.
It is this sense of moral superiority that leads them to prefer closed systems of governance such as the rule of judges and bureaucrats. They alone can populate those precincts of power, and they alone can navigate them. The replacement of the debates of the arena with the intrigues of the lobbies is another hallmark of aristocracy. Exposing the internal deal making and quests for power that inevitably arise from the differences between aristocrats to public scrutiny is unacceptable. To flip the Washington Post’s motto on its head, aristocracy thrives in darkness.
This aristocratic morality has peculiar expressions on the Right and the Left. Among the Right it leads to a doctrinaire libertarianism that denies the legitimacy of collective action through direct or representative government. Any such action is merely the attempt of an embittered group of inferiors to unjustly steal power from the true aristoi, the owners and deployers of capital and their aides de camp.This view leads to de facto globalization and the de facto elimination of democracy.
It’s not coincidental that the further one gets into libertarian thought, the closer you get to the idea of a libertarian judicial rule, a Council of the Hayekian Guardians, that enforces private contracts and does nothing more.
The left’s less individualistic take on aristocracy is found in the socialist ethos. The intellectual replaces the capitalist as the best of the best, and her supposedly disinterested and beneficent will should be unconstrained by regressive things like laws and legislative bodies. The unfolding crisis in Venezuela is an example par excellence of this principle in operation—and the dire straits to which it inevitably leads.
The revolt of the Somewheres is really a revolt against aristocratic morality. “We are people, too,” they cry, and accordingly they believe their consent is needed for society to govern itself and for political leaders to govern them.
It has always been the case that the many find succor in the one to combat the few, and so it is that outsized personalities like Trump and Italy’s Matteo Salvini find themselves at the head of these movements. History also teaches us that these developments can lead to tyranny. The desire of the many for equality often causes them to centralize power in a dictator whose rule becomes as or more despotic than the aristocracy he replaces. But so far that has not happened; such majoritarian populist tyranny remains only a canard—a fantasy flung by the aristocratic Anywheres against their adversaries.
This moral dimension is critical to understanding our times, and to shaping them. If the nationalist conservatives and libertarians grasp this, they can rally the popular majority needed to establish the restoration of representative, democratic rule DeMuth envisions. Building and nurturing such a majority will inevitably require compromise: more taxes, welfare, and trade protection than DeMuth might want, for example. But with such a majority conservatives, and even libertarians, can truly renew and reapply the American creed.
Without such a renewal of the American ideal of justice—of human equality and dignity—we shall simply slink into some form of despotism. It could be aristocratic and relatively benign, as the Dukes of Davos would have us believe. Or it could be more brutal and repressive, as fascistic or socialistic populism always and everywhere is. But republicanism can only thrive in the soil of moral equality, and if the soil is barren the plant will wither and die. It will be replaced by something much uglier—but better suited to the hard soil of human tyranny and servitude.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.