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Four elitisms and a proposal

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Four elitisms and a proposal
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Holbrook, James William
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Elite (Social sciences) -- United States ( lcsh )
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Includes bibliographical references (leaves 68-70).
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Department of Political Science
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by James (Yash) William Holbrook.

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Full Text
FOUR ELITISMS AND A PROPOSAL
by
James (Yash) William Holbrook
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1995
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Political Science
2001


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
James (Yash) William Holbrook
has been approved
by
Date


Holbrook, James (Yash) William (M.A., Political Science)
Four Elitisms and a Proposal
Thesis directed by Professor Michael Cummings
ABSTRACT
This paper examines four different notions of elitism: natural aristocracy
theories, elite theory, democratic elite theory, and power elite theory. These concepts
are associated with schools of thought and bodies of writing. A discussion of their
theoretical foundations through a presentation of the writings of selected authors
illuminates what might be meant by the term elitism in todays American
sociopolitical scene.
While all notions of elitism distinguish between a powerful minority grouping
and the mass, the four concepts here argue different things. Natural aristocracy
theories hold that a few individuals are naturally superior to most of the population.
That natural superiority can express itself in any field of human endeavor, and these
theories hold that it is right, indeed important, for those individuals to rule in their
respective fields. Elite theory describes all complex organizations as made up of a
small elite who lead and a mass who are led. In the eyes of elite theorists, complex
organization is a sufficient condition for oligarchy. Elite theory does not place much
emphasis on who should make up that leadership. Democratic elite theory, an
adaptation of elite theory, accepts the inevitability of elite rule. The aim of this strand
of elitism is to reconcile the fact of elite rule with democratic theorya task it does
largely through an analysis of multiple competing elites held accountable to an
electorate. Power elite theory, another extension of elite theory, posits a web of power
111


at the top of society, made up of big business, the military, and political leaders.
Some power elitists show how that web can be more broadly understood through an
analysis of the power of class and/or institutions.
A certain kind of elitism is at the core of American ideals: natural aristocracy
in the form of the idea of equal opportunity. But equal opportunity has limited
everyone to pursuing the same economic goals. Broadening opportunity to include all
contributive human pursuits expands the number of winners. Such an elitism
allows us to reach the very top of our potentials as individuals, while also serving our
nation.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
IV


DEDICATION
I dedicate this work, this degree, and this thesis to Anne, Jennifer and
Madeline.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
My humble gratitude goes to Dr. Michael Cummings, Dr. Anthony Robinson,
and Dr. Lucy McGuffey. Their inspiration, encouragement, advice and friendship
have made my studies and this thesis a real and lasting pleasure. I would also like to
thank my family for their encouragementespecially my father for his merciless
insistence on clarity. Most importantly, my wife Anne deserves this degree more than
I do, for having the patience and strength to see us through it. Naturally, any errors or
theoretical flaws in this paper rest with me.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION...................................................1
2. NATURAL ARISTOCRACY............................................5
Eighteenth-Century Natural Aristocrats......................6
Ancient Natural Aristocrats................................10
Modem Natural Aristocrats..................................13
Jose Ortega y Gassett................................13
Allan Bloom..........................................15
William A. Henry III.................................16
Christopher Lasch....................................17
William Ophuls.......................................20
A Note on Nietzsche..................................22
Natural Aristocracy Summary................................23
3. ELITE THEORY..................................................25
Elite Theory: The Italian School.........................26
Gaetano Mosca........................................26
Vilfredo Pareto......................................29
Robert Michels.......................................31
Modem Elite Theory.........................................33
Walter Lippmann......................................33
vii


Thomas R. Dye......................................35
Elite Theory Summary.....................................37
4. DEMOCRATIC ELITISM..........................................39
Mosca as Intellectual Forefather.........................40
Democratic Theory Meets Elite Reality....................41
Joseph Schumpeter Redefines Democracy....................43
Democratic Elitism Summary...............................46
5. POWER ELITE THEORY..........................................48
Floyd Hunter Breaks the Trail............................48
C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite......................50
G. William Domhoff Confirms But Broadens the Power Elite.52
Power Elitism Summary....................................54
6. SO WHAT?....................................................55
Natural Aristocracy as an American Ideal.................55
Equal Opportunity as Natural Aristocracy.................63
A Democratically Palatable Natural Aristocracy...........64
WORKS CITED.........................................................68
viii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
What is elitism? When we use or hear the word, when we think of the
concept, what do we mean? It is not as easy to answer these questions as one might
suppose. The terms elitism, elite, and elitist can be ambiguous, their meaning
and effect dependent on the politics of the user. As William Henry observes,
Somewhere along Bill Clintons path to the White House it dawned on me
that the term elitist.. .has come to rival if not outstrip racist as the
foremost catchall pejorative of our times (Henry 1994, 2).
The term does indeed have negative connotations. Politically, both the Left
and the Right use elitist as a weapon. Liberals can use the term as a weapon to
target wealthy conservatives or those they deem politically incorrect. Conservatives
can use the term as a codeword to tar a liberal establishment with supposedly
paternalistic, socialistic, bureaucratic traits.
Yet the term elite can also carry a certain appeal, most typically in
associating a select group with excellence and superiority. Although there are
theoretical foundations for this sense of the term (explored in this paper), one need
not be a theoretician to see its everyday acceptance. For example, it is not uncommon


to see companies using elite to portray themselves up as superior in their field. A
look in the phone book reveals nearly a column of such companies: Elite Auto
Glass, Elite Hair and Nails, Elite Garage Doors, and so on.
Dictionary definitions of elite are often ambivalent. The Living Webster
Encyclopedic Dictionary (1973) defines elite as those who are choice or select; the
best, and elitism as the practice of rule by the elite class; the belief that this practice
should prevail; a pride in belonging to an elite class. American Heritage (1978)
defines elite as both a narrow and powerful clique and the best or most skilled
members of a given social group. Merriam Webster (1985) defines elite as both a
socially superior group and, more broadly, a powerful minority group. Elitism it
defines as both leadership or rule by an elite and consciousness of being or
belonging to an elite. These definitions show a number of ways of understanding the
ideas associated with elitism; some have positive sociopolitical connotations, others
are negative, still others neutral.
Regardless of the varied values placed on them, however, some social and
political views of elitism have been accepted into modem scholarly discourse;
schools of thought and bodies of writing have formed around them. This paper
explores four such concepts of elitism in political and social thought. They are known
most commonly as:
2


Natural Aristocracy theories;

Elite Theory;
Democratic Elite Theory; and
Power Elite Theory.
All elitist notions distinguish between a minority grouping and the mass.
But beyond this shared quantitative aspect, the four concepts argue different things.
Briefly, in order of their appearance in this paper:
Natural aristocracy theories hold that a few individuals are naturally superior,
in a qualitative sense, to most of the population. That natural superiority can express
itself in any field of human endeavor, and these theories hold that it is right, indeed
important, for those individuals with superior endowments to rule in their
respective fields.
Elite theory describes all complex organizations, regardless of ideological
orientation, as made up of a small elite who lead and a mass who are led. In the eyes
of elite theorists, complex organization is a sufficient condition for oligarchy. Elite
theory does not place much emphasis on who should make up that leadership.
Democratic elite theory, an adaptation of elite theory, accepts the inevitability
of elite rule and extends it to include multiple competing elites. The aim of this strand
3


of elitism is to reconcile the fact of elite rule with democratic theorya task it
accomplishes largely through an emphasis on democratic process.
Power elite theory, another extension of elite theory, posits a web of power at
the top of American society, made up of big business, the military, and political
leaders. Some power elitists show how that web can be more broadly understood
through an analysis of the power of class and/or institutions.
Natural aristocracy, though a recognized term in political thought, is not a
single, clear theoretical construct. Instead, it is a way of viewing human capacity and
political arrangements. Natural aristocracy theories come from very diverse thinkers
spanning millennia. The other three concepts of elitism examined in this paper exist
as more definable schools of thought in sociology and political science, elaborated
and maintained by more recognizable groups of thinkers. (As both democratic elitism
and power elite theory are subsets of elite theory, the chapters discussing them will
require less space than elite and natural aristocracy theories.)
A discussion of their theoretical foundations, through a presentation of the
writings of selected authors, will present each concept in its strongest light. In this
way, the reader will come to understand what might be meant, depending on the
context and source, by the term elitism in todays American sociopolitical scene.
This understanding will make it possible to interpret current elite-related rhetoric and,
more importantly, recognize that a certain kind of elitism is at the core of American
ideals.
4


CHAPTER 2
NATURAL ARISTOCRACY
Natural aristocracy is best approached as a collection of perspectives rather
than as a formal school. Despite such a manifold nature, however, these perspectives
share a discernible core and continuity.
Aristocracy means rule by the best. The historical record, however, shows
that the label best has often been of dubious validity. The label often served as a de
facto value judgment justifying an existing power structure. As Robert Dahl writes,
many regimes have tried to legitimize their rule by claiming that the leaders possess
superior knowledge of the general good and are genuinely dedicated to bringing it
about (Dahl 1989, 63). The best were simply those who held the power.
It is an axiom of power that those who have it generally seek to maintain and
augment it. Indulgence of the dynastic urge gives rise to a hereditary system of
political power. But, as Plato suggested, successive generations can negate any
excellence that may truly have existed at the outset. If the basis for aristocratic power
becomes a closed, hereditary system, it matters little if the first aristocrats were
indeed the best to rule.
Chateaubriands aphorism points to the outcome: Aristocracy has three
successive ages: the age of superiorities, that of privileges, and that of vanities.
5


Having passed out of the first, it degenerates in the second, and dies away in the
third. Or, as Dahl notes, It is all very well to start off with a wise and virtuous
aristocracy; the problem is to keep it from becoming a cunning and voracious
oligarchy (Dahl 1990, 28).
Eighteenth-Century Natural Aristocrats
In contrast with hereditary aristocracy, the idea of a natural aristocracy can be
seen as an attempt to distinguish between true aristocracy in its original sense and
the corrupted sense of a hereditary (i.e., artificial) political aristocracy. In a letter,
John Adams draws the distinction between the two:
By natural aristocracy.. .may be understood those superiorities of influence in
society which grow out of the constitution of human nature. By artificial
aristocracy, those inequalities of right and superiorities of influence which are
created and established by civil laws (Adams, in Kirk 1974, 315).
Thomas Jefferson also believed in a natural aristocracy. By 1779 Jefferson
had found that for the promotion of the common good, those persons whom nature
hath endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy
to receive and to guard the public trust, the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties
of their fellow citizens; and that they should be called to that charge without regard to
wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance (Jefferson, in Alison
6


1997, 351). It is not peoples accidental attributes, in other words, but rather their
natural abilities that qualify them for public responsibility. Later in Jeffersons life, he
summarized in a now-famous letter to John Adams the characteristics of natural
aristocracy theories: There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this
are virtue and talents. He goes on to stress the important public role played by such
individuals:
The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the
instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And, indeed, it would have
been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state and not to
have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the
society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which
provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into
the offices of government (ibid.)?
Not only does Jefferson observe that there are some who are naturally better
than others in diverse fieldsin this case, the field of public responsibilitybut he
also recognizes the duty of those individuals to take a leading role in those fields.
Jefferson is not the only prominent Founder to have written about natural
aristocracy. The authors of the Federalist, for example, share natural aristocratic
views about human nature and good government. Though not using the term, James
Madison, for instance, writes in a way that evokes natural aristocracy. In Federalist
10, he writes that one of the virtues of a republican system is that it can refine and
enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of
7


citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country (Madison
1937, 59).
Furthermore, that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention included a
Senatea small body of specially selected statesmen with the power to dowse the
populist flames of the peoples direct representativesin the legislative branch is also
an expression of the natural aristocratic tone of the Founders.
The fact that Jefferson and Madison represented two philosophical poles of
early American political thoughtthe former more democratic, the latter more
federalist and republicanwhile still both convinced of the reality of something
like natural aristocracy, serves to illustrate that it was a view common to many
Americans of their time. And not only Americans. An English contemporary of the
American Founders, the great parliamentarian and thinker Edmund Burke, also spoke
of a natural aristocracy. Russell Kirk, the most prominent Burke spokesman of
modem times, summarizes Burkes thinking in tones not far removed from
Jeffersons:
[NJature has furnished society with the materials for an aristocracy which the
wisely-conducted state will recognize and honor.... Just as it is a fact of nature
that the mass of men are ill qualified for the exercise of political power, so it
is written in the eternal constitution of things that a few men, from various
causes, are mentally and physically and spiritually suited for social leadership.
The state which rejects their services is doomed to stagnation or destruction....
[It is] not the accident of birth, but nature, [that] has made these men
aristocrats. A tme natural aristocracy is not a separate interest in the state, or
separable from it. It is an essential integrant part of any large body rightly
8


constituted. It is formed out of a class of legitimate presumption... (Kirk
1973, 61-62).1
Burkes and Jeffersons thoughts are summarized here at such length because
they highlight the essential assumptions of natural aristocracy theories:
It is a fact of nature that the mass of men are unfit to exercise political
power.
It is also a fact of nature that an elite few are for various reasons better
equipped than the mass for social leadership.
Neither descent nor wealth is a necessary indicator of or criterion for such
worthiness.
A just society (or government) will seek out and promote these few natural
aristoi
1 The insistence on men is not necessarily a feature of the logic of natural aristocracy, although in the
past it has most often been a given that only men would constitute this elite.
9


If a society (or government) fails to make use of this elite few, it dooms
itself to stagnation and decline.
Because this situation is ordained by Nature, it is wise and just that these
few should wield greater influence in society than the mass of men; they
may legitimately presume to take the reins of society.2
Ancient Natural Aristocrats
Natural aristocracy theories have a lineage going back to the Ancients. In their
works it is evident the degree to which they accepted that certain people were
considered naturally superior to others.
Plato is the most obvious of many ancient proponents of the idea that in-bom
superiority resides in a select few individuals. The keystone supporting his entire
edifice in The Republic is an initial assumption of vital importance: being born with
different natural capacities, people necessarily have different activities to which they
are best suited. To begin with, one man is naturally fitted for one task, and another
for another (Plato 1996, 616). From this observation flows society; men naturally
come together to have their insufficiencies compensated for by others, each
performing the social task best in accordance with his nature (ibid, 616, 618). Plato
2
What is not expressed in this assumption is that those who may legitimately presume to guide the
10


spins this assumption into famous system we know today as rule by philosopher-
kings or philosopher-rulers.
Plato was not alone in working from the basic assumption of natural
superiorities. Aristotle, a philosopher credited with early democratic or republican
insights, nonetheless recognized that only persons of merit should occupy the
positions of authority in a republic. Robert Dahl has written that republicanism is
well grounded in Aristotle:
In [Aristotles] aristocratic republican view, even though the people, the
many, ought to have an important role in government, because they are more
to be feared than trusted their role ought to be a limited one.... The proper
function of the people is not to rule, as they did in Athens, but rather to choose
leaders competent to perform the demanding function of governing over the
entire polity (Dahl 1989, 29).
Aristotle writes of a polity or republic that if the citizens of a state are to
judge and to distribute offices according to merit, then they must know each others
characters; where they do not possess this knowledge...the election to offices...will go
wrong (Aristotle VII:4, 182, my emphasis). A fine republican sentiment, this
statement also shows the importance Aristotle attaches to getting the right person into
elective office. It will not do to have just anyone at the helm of society. Instead,
nature has equipped some more than others with the necessary capacities to govern:
course of society may also legitimately expect corresponding privileges as the deserts of their service.


[T]he good ruler is a good and wise man, and...he who would be a statesman must
be a wise man {ibid., 111:4, 64, Aristotles emphasis). Elsewhere in the Politics, he
contrasts the nobler sort of natures with the lower {ibid., 11:7, 41). Perhaps
Aristotle best expresses his belief in true nobility and natural aristocracy when he
writes:
Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere
companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a
greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or
nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who
exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue {ibid., 111:9, 73).
The emphasis in these statements is on natural qualifications; neither the accident of
birth nor wealth is a sufficient condition for political virtue.
Plato and Aristotle were contemporaries. But the distinction between artificial
and natural aristocracy appears even earlier: in Heraclitus, for instance (second half of
the 6th century BC). This philosopher rejects the basis on which democracy is
founded and proclaims himself to be an aristocrat in the true sense. He does not
esteem people for descent from powerful families, but values those who are truly
best through personal attainments (Heraclitus, in McKirahan 1994,127, my
emphasis). In his surviving fragments are clear signs of his naturally aristocratic
elitism: The many are bad, the good are few; One person is ten thousand to me if
he is best {ibid., 148).
12


These ancient thinkers show that natural aristocracy theories are not an
invention of 18th-century Europeans. Indeed, such views have continued down to our
day.
Modem Natural Aristocrats
Neatly classifiable neither as Right-wing nor Left, modem natural aristocracy
theories come from all over the map. On the Right, for example, Allan Bloom, and
William A. Henry III make clear arguments from a natural aristocracy bias. From the
Left, such writers as Christopher Lasch and William Ophuls also make arguments in a
natural aristocracy context. And from somewhere between Left and Right, natural
aristocrat Jose Ortega y Gassett shares much with the other writers.
Jose Ortega y Gassett
Ortega y Gassett pulls no punches in his 1930 essay, The Revolt of the
Masses? After warning that the masses have come to complete social power, he
declares why this is such an important event. The masses, he writes, by definition,
neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less mle society in
general (Ortega y Gassett 1993, 11). Moreover, their power is not exclusively or
even primarily political, as public life is not solely political, but equally, and even
13


primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious {ibid.). In other words, mass
culture, mass taste, and mass agendas have overtaken the civilization of Europea
patently aristocratic sentiment. But does it relate to natural aristocracy? Ortega y
Gassett shows it does, drawing a clear picture of what he means. The select men,
the elite, are not those petulant people who think themselves superior to the rest,
but instead, those who demand more of themselves than do the rest.
[T]he most radical division that is possible to make of humanity is that which
splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on
themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing
special of themselves {ibid., 15, my emphasis).
The natural aristocrat, what he calls the noble man, is someone who lives life
as a discipline. Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on usby obligations,
not by rights {ibid., 63). A noble life is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on
excelling oneself, on passing beyond what is to what one sets up as a duty and an
obligation {ibid., 65). The duties Ortega y Gassett has in mind include such things as
true leadership, stewardship, self-sacrifice, and service.
These passages, like those from Burke and Jefferson, are a manifesto of
natural aristocracy. Never mind that the tone may sound hopelessly romantic to
modem ears. 3
3 While this book was written in a European context, aimed at a primarily European readership, it is a
valid indictment of much of the modem social condition of Ortega y Gassetts time.
14


It is an elitist, truly aristocratic ideal. Indeed, Ortega y Gassett acknowledges
it as such when he says the excellent man may not live up to the duties he places on
himself. The important point is that he deliberately accepts them.
Allan Bloom
Further to the right, Allan Blooms famous 1987 polemic, The Closing of the
American Mind, is an extended argument for natural aristocracy in the Platonic mold.
By inculcating an insidious openness in the youth of America, he laments,
educators have produced empty minds. Reflecting on the students entering college, he
notes that they lack substantive opinions, they are unable to defend or even follow the
reasoning of the received opinions they may possess, and they are horrified and
astonished at the proposition that truth may not be relative (Bloom 1987, 25). Against
this backdrop, Bloom makes a plea for excellence, achievement, and responsibility.
Guided by a modem version of philosopher-rulers (the philosophy departments of
certain prestigious universities), Bloom believes American education can reassert its
role of teaching the truths and virtues necessary for life in the American republic.
Bloom writes that democratic society cannot tolerate any principle of
achievement other than merit (ibid., 96). This assertion signals, as Sheldon Wolin
puts it, that what Bloom means by democracy is equality of opportunity in a
society ruled by a meritocratic elite (Wolin 1989, 52). Blooms desire for a
15


meritocratic elite is a type of natural aristocracy theory that this paper will take up
again later. In Blooms case, the natural aristocrats will be those who rise to the
teachings of his understanding of Platonic philosophy and show thereby their
excellence and worthiness to lead society.
William A. Henry III
William A. Henry III also argues for natural aristocracy in a similar vein as
Ortega y Gassett and Bloom, though in even blunter tones. In his book In Defense of
Elitism, he decries the damage to American society caused by a misguided
egalitarianism, an ideal wrenched far beyond what the founding fathers took it to
mean (Henry 1994, 14). Showing how far beyond that concept we have taken it, he
writes that Americans have
foolishly embraced the unexamined notions that everyone is pretty much
alike.. .that self-fulfillment is more important than objective achievement, that
the common man is always right, that he needs no interpreters or
intermediaries to guide his thinking, that a good and just society should be far
more concerned with succoring its losers than with honoring and encouraging
its winners to achieve more and thereby benefit everyone {ibid., 12).
Four things jump out of this passage as central tenets of natural aristocracy: 1)
natural inequalities (and, implicitly, natural superiorities); 2) the value of
achievement; 3) the need for selected guides for the common man in his thought; and
16


4) honor due to those who achieve.
Henry is anxious to show that his elites, like Ortega y Gassetts true nobles,
are not the stereotypically bigoted snobs of popular conception. In his (self-) defense
of elitism, Henry dismisses outright those who consider themselves superior by
virtue of birth or theology [or race]such a belief is morally repellent when
something other than learning and achievement serves as the basis for elite status.
Belief in rule by an elite is no better than bigotry when ability is not the sole basis
for admission to the circle of the elect (ibid., 18-19).
If Henry is often pompous and bombastic, he is also within the path taken
earlier by the likes of Plato and Jefferson. The implication that Henry, Plato, and
Jefferson belong to the same tradition may appear to stretch the point. But it should
be clear from the preceding that the commonalities between them and other natural
aristocrats suggest a linkage of Right and Left in the assertion that the best should
rule. That linkage is visible in the writings of the next two (radically Left) natural
aristocrats.
Christopher Lasch
An adamant critic of modem capitalism, Lasch defies classification on the
spectrum. As a leftist-radical-conservative, he is as strange as Dr. Doolittles Pushme-
Pullyou. Laschs differences with William Henry (they are many and significant) do
17


not conceal their agreement on certain fundamental issues both in their diagnosis of
the problems of American society and in their prescriptions for treating them.
Although Lasch, in his Revolt of the Elites, pointedly calls meritocracy a
parody of democracy and an aristocracy of talent...a contradiction in terms
(Lasch 1996,41,44), his critique is aimed at a different elite from Henrys. Lasch
uses the term elite to describe those who currently
control the international flow of money and information, preside over
philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the
instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate
(ibid., 25-26).
Lasch calls these elements today the new elitesa class of technocratic and
paternalistic managers, symbolic analysts (Robert Reichs term), abstract thinkers.
They are the members of the aristocracy of brains, of the thinking class.4
If one takes his critique at face value, then, it is difficult to see Lasch arguing
for a kind of elitism. Ambiguously, his use of the term elite is purely descriptive.
But in criticizing the current technocratic and paternalistic elite, he reveals a deeper
belief in natural aristocracy. Consider, for example, this signal statement: It is a
mistake to base the defense of democracy on the sentimental fiction that people are all
alike. In fact, people are not alike in their capacities {ibid., 88). In his works he
4 For a detailed discussion of Laschs critique of the new elites, see my Elitism v. Egalitarianism:
18


indicts the culture of therapy and victimhood that absolves individuals of personal
responsibilities. He decries the ethos of multiculturalism, group-identity politics, and
the fake radicalism of those whose contempt for excellence leads them to propose
bland solutions to Americas problems through the leveling of standards.5 That
precious social commodity, respect, is the reward for personal achievement, not for
group identity. Achievement is the result of applying ones natural skills or
superiorities, while group identity is often accidental to the individual. In our
multicultural daze,
we are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has
to be earned.... Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable
achievements, admirably formed characters, natural gifts put to good use. It
entails the use of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance
{ibid., 89, my emphasis).
In places Lasch comes across sounding not only like William Henry, but also
like Allan Bloom. Lasch criticizes the refusal to judge, to make demands of ourselves
and our compatriots. He decries the moral paralysis of those who value openness
above the need to demand great things of oneself and ones neighbors {ibid., 91).
Moral Ambiguities, paper for a graduate course in American Political Thought, University of
Colorado at Denver, 1996.
5 See, in addition to The Revolt of the Elites, his discussion on the trivialization of excellence in sports
in The Culture of Narcissism (1979,1903).
19


Laschs implicit approval of Ortega y Gassetts man of excellence is clear.
He writes: From Ortegas point of view, one that was widely shared at the time, the
value of cultural elites lay in their willingness to assume responsibility for the
exacting standards without which civilization is impossible. They lived in the service
of demanding ideals (ibid., 26). We can infer from Laschs own indictment of the
malaise of Western civilization that he shares Ortega y Gassetts naturally aristocratic
point of view at a fundamental level.
William Ophuls
As with Bloom, Ophuls appreciation of natural aristocracy is evident in his
discussion of education. He writes, in his 1997 Requiem for Modern Politics, that the
egalitarian urge, translated into educational policy, ensures that true learning will fail
because the concepts of excellence and virtue are systematically disabled. There is
simply no escaping the damage: By the very nature of things, the more equal, the
more mediocre (Ophuls 1997,140). Not everyone, according to Ophuls (and other
natural aristocrats), is able to learn well and appropriately for leadership in a field.
Some few possess the vital internal predispositions, the cultivation and exercise of
which validate their worthiness. But others may either lack or fail to exercise, for
instance, self-discipline, ambition and energy, judgment and probity, stamina, and a
20


dedication to ideals beyond their person. Real learning is always an excellence
attained by the gifted and dedicated fewby a genuine elite, whose absence creates
an intellectual and moral void at the heart of a culture {ibid., 203-204).
By failing to truly educate, encourage and promote the cultivation of
excellence among those who possess the predispositions for it in a given field, Liberal
society denies itself the best that humanity has to offer. Furthermore, it results in
positive harm. Combining the descriptive insights of elite theorists on the inevitability
of elite rule (see next section) with the more prescriptive tone of the natural
aristocrats, Ophuls writes that the question is
not whether we will be ruled by a political elite but which kind it will be:
aristocratic or oligarchic? That is, one that at least aspires to rule in
accordance with some broad ideal or one that rules only in accordance with its
own narrow interests? Unfortunately, in a political culture that strongly
distrusts elites as narrow and powerful cliques, the aristocratic option is
largely foreclosed, so we are governed by an oligarchy of manipulators,
demagogues, and dissemblers. In other words, because Americans shirk the
political task of elevating a genuine elite, they get precisely the kind that is
dangerous... {ibid., 254).
Ophuls book is more than a call for a valuation of natural aristocracy. But the
foregoing discussion makes clear thatlike Lasch, Henry, Bloom, Ortega y Gassett,
and other thinkers not mentionedOphuls plainly includes a natural aristocratic
theory in his diagnosis and prescription for treatment of the American polity.
21


A Note on Nietzsche
This paper does not include all or even most of the important representatives
of the various theories under consideration. But no discussion of natural aristocrats
should conclude without at least some mention of Friedrich Nietzsche, who falls
somewhere between the Ancients and the modem natural aristocratic theorists
discussed above.6 His Ubermensch hypothesis is that there are indeed only a few
strong men able to actually lead through their own independence, excellence, and
opposition to herd mentality. In Will to Power, Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good
and Evil, and other works, Nietzsche draws countless comparisons between
excellence and mediocrity. The herd animal, he writes, wages general war on all
that is rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the
higher responsibility, and the abundance of creative power and masterfulness
(Nietzsche 1989, 139).
He castigates the herds inability to acknowledge its own mediocrity in the
face of the few highest and strongest spirits, which break out passionately and
drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience {ibid.,
113). Despite the many complex distinctions between Nietzsches ideas and the
natural aristocracy theories examined above, his philosophy unquestionably asserts
6 While his writings have certainly been misappropriated for use in political ideologies, mostly of the
Right, Nietzsche properly fits on neither end of the political spectrum. It is not that he is both Left and
22


that some few, noble, excellent, naturally superior individuals are the necessary
engines of progress of the species. As a consequence, the need for such superior
leaders and the frightening danger that they might fail to appear or that they might
turn out badly or degeneratethese are our real worries and gloom (ibid., 117-118,
my emphasis).7 Such assertions fall well within natural aristocracy theories.
Natural Aristocracy Summary
In summary, the perspectives on human nature and social organization
contained in the writings of the above thinkers share a number of central tenets,
including the convictions that:
some few are naturally superior to others in any given field;
such superiority is independent of conditions of birth, wealth, or any other
arbitrary or artificial discriminator; and
those superior individuals should lead in their respective fields.
Rightsuch as might be argued of Lasch or Ophulsbut that he is something altogether different.
23


Elite theory has surfaced twice already in this discussion. In the first instance,
it was in noting Christopher Laschs charges against the new elite. In the second,
William Ophuls asserted the inevitability of elite rule. The next section explores elite
theory in detail.
7
Hitler would fit this nightmare scenario of a singular, powerful person turning out badly.
24


CHAPTER 3
ELITE THEORY
The essence of elite theory is that complex organizations will always be
divided into two parts: the minority that makes all important decisions affecting the
organization, and the majority that lives with those decisions. Whether discussing an
informal association, a political party, a religion, or society as a wholeelite theory
argues that the fact of minority dominance is incontestable. Indeed, it is so inevitable
that even the most egalitarian or democratic organization, if it be of any significant
complexity, will be run by a select minority.
Adherents to this brand of elitism are interested in studying and publicizing
the fact of minority rule. As an essentially explanatory tool, elite theory is concerned
less with who makes up the elite class than it is with using the fact of minority rule as
a model for describing political and social organization. Elite theory seeks to explain
the fundamentals of social and political organization as they exist in reality, not as
things should be.
25


Elite Theory: The Italian School
Although some variant of it has no doubt long been held, elite theory really
came into its own in the opening decades of the 20 century, thanks to the writings
of three scholars who became known collectively as the Italian school. Writing
each within a generation of the next, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert
Michels are responsible for building the framework of modem elite theory (Albertoni
1987, 118).8 9
Gaetano Mosca
First in 1896, Gaetano Mosca proposed what was essentially a new scheme
for classifying political systems, one which was based on realistic empirical insight.
In a much-quoted passage, he observed that in all societies,
two classes of people appeara class that rules and a class that is ruled. The
first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions,
monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the
second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first....
(Mosca 1939, 50).
8 Cf. Dahl 1989, 266.
9 Albertoni writes of German-bom sociologist Robert Michels that he was Italian by choice if not by
birth, referring to the affinities his writings shared with Mosca and Michels.
26


Moscas central point is his conviction of the permanent existence of an
organized minority which imposes its will on the disorganized majority (Albertoni
1987,114).
Though elite rule may be a permanent feature of political organization,
Moscas ruling class is not static. A slow infusion of new and a gradual sloughing off
of old elements of the ruling class are necessary to maintain the stability of social and
political order. Indeed, the consequences of ruling class impermeability are dire for
the nation in its charge: Nations die when their ruling classes are incapable of
reorganizing in such a way as to meet the needs of changing times (Mosca 1939,
460). The struggle between those who are at the top and those who are born at the
bottom but aspire to climb, he writes, has always been the ferment of forces
providing for civilizations advance (ibid., 415-416). Elite circulation is primarily the
result of the ruling class recognizing gradually changing social forces and needs.
Controlled social change is ultimately good for the human race, providing it with
even greater raw materials of progress. Mosca explains that,
as soon as there is a shift in the balance of political forces...then the manner in
which the ruling class is constituted changes also. If a new source of wealth
develops in a society, if the practical importance of knowledge grows, if an
old religion declines or a new one is bom, if a new current of ideas spreads,
then, simultaneously, far-reaching dislocations occur in the ruling class (ibid.,
65).
27


If Moscas theory of ruling class renewal strikes a familiar chord with the
reader, it is because of the superficial resemblance to natural aristocratic notions
discussed in the first section of this paper. The question arises: Why not label Mosca
a natural aristocrat?
The answer comes from observing three aspects of Moscas class renewal.
First, there is a primary emphasis on such change being gradual, and in response to a
ruling-class recognized change in societys needs. Second, change (entry into or
expulsion from the ruling class) is controlled by the ruling class itself. As a result of
these two aspects, change cannot be forced upon the regime from outside, as would
be the case, say, of a talented individuals breaking into ruling circles based on merit
(natural aristocracy).
The third consideration is that Mosca does not indicate in his writings that
there are certain people who should by right lead in their fields, whether they in fact
lead or not. Instead, he makes only the empirical observation of the existence of elite
rule, and describes the means of its stability through the process of gradual, controlled
renewal.
In the 1896 edition of The Ruling Class, Moscas thinking was strongly anti-
democratic, in line with the long tradition that equated democracy with mob rule.
But in the decades between the first and the third editions (1939), he gradually came
to see the stabilizing benefits of representative government under an elite system
(Bachrach 1980,11). The mechanism to ensure a properly functioning elite system
28


was one in which the elite class was open to slow and continuous modification.
(Mosca 1939, 462). Representative democracy, Mosca came to believe, was an
acceptable and empirically feasible system of effecting the necessary, gradual
modification.
Vilfredo Pareto
While Moscas anti-democratic views gradually mellowed with age, Vilfredo
Pareto never seemed to moderate his attack on democratic ideas such as majority rule
and equality (Bachrach 1980, 11). Pareto wrote in 1915 that, under democracy, just as
under any other system, the primary instrument of government remains the
manipulation of the masses at the hands of the political elite (Pareto 1966, 271).
Pareto largely agrees with Mosca: cohesion in a small, active group is often
sufficient for that group to be able to roll over a diverse, unfocused majority. As
Mosca puts it, a hundred men, acting uniformly in concert, with a common
understanding, will triumph over a thousand men who are not in accord and can
therefore be dealt with one by one (Mosca 1939, 53). This is an axiom of elite
theory.
For Pareto, however, the elite is a broader concept than Moscas ruling class.
Paretos elite are simply those who excel in any of the many human endeavors that
catch the imagination of mankind. Those who have the highest indices in their
29


branch of activity are the elite (Prewitt and Stone 1973,160-161). The elite, says
Pareto, are the superior persons of their respective fields; it is possible to speak of a
chess-playing elite, a criminal elite and, of course, apolitical elite (Pareto 1966, 248).
Such an assertion is akin to saying that some few, excellent individuals will
naturally lead the mass in any given pursuita tenet of natural aristocracy. As with
Mosca, the question arises: Why is Pareto not a natural aristocrat?
Pareto, in contrast with natural aristocrats, does not say that those who excel
should lead. Instead, he observes who the leaders are in fact, and names them the
excellent and talented. He merely describes what he sees, a hallmark of elite theory.
While it could be argued that there is a basis for naming the leaders in a field the
excellent (as in chess, where one cannot lead without being excellent), history has
given frequent enough examples of social and political leadership by people unfit to
lead. In Paretos politics, it is the position of power that confers the mantle of
excellence, whereas a natural aristocrat believes that excellence confers (or should
confer) the mantle of leadership.
Despite this fait accompli approach, Pareto agrees with Mosca that elite
change is necessary for stability and, therefore, for the health of the nation.
Circulation of elites (a term he coined) occurs similarly as with Mosca: in a gradual
and controlled manner. But there is a difference that will become important in
discussing democratic elitism later. Moscas elite circulation seems to imply a type of
30


social justice, while Pareto appears concerned exclusively with stability, with social
equilibrium, a crucial element of his sociological system.
Robert Michels
Robert Michels rounds out the trio of elite theorists dubbed the Italian
school. In later years he was at least sympathetic with Italian fascism, but his
intellectual and ideological origins lay in Left- and democratic-leaning, directions.10
Based upon his observations of the inner workings of the German Left, he came to a
conclusion that appears counter-intuitive, given his socialist milieu.11 It is this very
milieu that gives his insight such force. Summed up in the concept of the Iron Law
of Oligarchy as presented in his 1915 study Political Parties, Michels argument can
be approached through three points, concerning:
the universal incompetence of the mass;
the consequence of (1) for who will hold power; and
10 See Field and Higley 1980, 1; and Albertoni 1987, 117-118. Albertoni gives a picture of Paretos
fascist leanings, speaking of his active participation in the Fascist movement.
11 Michels is not the only elitist coming from leftist origins. Among the notable leftist elitists must be
included Lenin, for instance, whose concept of the Party as the vanguard of the revolution is pure elite
theory.
31


the self-perpetuation (through indispensability) of the power holders as a
group.
For Michels, there is no legitimate place in political decision-making to be
claimed by the majority of citizens or of members of a complex organization. The
majority are simply unable to decide effectively. The incompetence of the masses is
almost universal throughout the domains of political life, he says (Michels 1959,
86). What is more, the inevitable increase of specialization that is a necessary
consequence of the modem-era division of labor, renders the mass even less capable
of responsible politics at the same time as it makes leaders even more indispensable
because of their knowledge and experience. The gulf between leaderseven those
chosen democratically from among the rank and fileand the rank and file itself,
only grows, as it becomes increasingly necessary for one who would understand
politics to possess wider experience and more extensive knowledge (ibid., 82).
Befitting his position as third torch-bearer of the Italian elitists, Michels
summarizes well the commonality in the thinking of all three:
Society cannot exist without a dominant or political class, and that ruling
class, whilst its elements are subject to a frequent, partial renewal,
nevertheless constitutes the only factor of sufficiently durable efficacy in the
history of human development. According to this view, the government [or
state] cannot be anything other than the organization of a minority (ibid., 390).
32


Modem Elite Theory
Elite theory does not stop with the classical theorists, the Italian school, but
continues in a less visible way. Modem elite theorists include such thinkers as Walter
Lippmann and Thomas R. Dye.
Walter Lippmann
To call Walter Lippmann an elite theorist is perhaps inaccurate, for the great
harvest of his writings shows clearly he is a Classical Liberal defender of republican
democracy (Rossiter and Lare 1963, xii). Yet his republicanism incorporates
important perspectives laid out by the Italian elitists. For one thing, he believes the
democratic ideal of the omnicompetent and sovereign democratic citizen is
impossible. Moreover, he opposes majority rule as it has come to be conceived. Most
tellingly, his views on hierarchy provide a clear basis for including Lippmann among
the elite theorists.
Lippmann argues that citizens in a modem society ought not to try (and
radical democrats ought not to force them into trying) to do what is impossible.
Democratic theory needs an informed, rational, engaged citizen who is able to
actively shape and render judgment on the range of issues important to the
governance of democratic society. Lippmann quite rightly points out that such a
33


creature does not exist. The individual man does not have opinions on all public
affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is
happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen (Lippmann 1925, 39). The
private citizen has been saddled with an impossible task...he is asked to practice an
unattainable ideal {ibid., 20).12
If the general populace is incapable of adequately informing itself and acting
upon that information in ways required by a modem society and is, furthermore,
uninterested in doing so, then there is no basis for presuming the principle of majority
rule is a wise and fruitful approach to governance. In numerous places he highlights
the inherent absurdity of making virtue and wisdom dependent on fifty-one per cent
of any collection of men {ibid., 58). But majority rale is worse than an absurdity, it is
a form of political violence, if only potentially. At its core, majority rale is the rale of
force, nothing more: Constitutional democrats, in the intervals when they were not
idealizing the majority, have acknowledged that a ballot was a civilized substitute for
a bullet {ibid., 59).
In places he sounds very much like the Italian school: for instance, his
statement that although in many institutions the hierarchy of rank is vague or
concealed, yet in every institution that requires the cooperation of many persons,
some such hierarchy exists (Lippmann 1922, 225). In a footnote to this declaration,
12
This argument is in many ways essentially similar to that of a Michels.
34


he approvingly cites, among others, Michels. Lippmann calls this inevitable hierarchy
the machine, but we already know it as the ruling minority of elite theory.
Elite rule is a commonplace of group life, a quite prosaic reality (to which
democrats have never adjusted) (ibid). Not only does Lippmann agree with Mosca et
al on its inevitability, he also makes the necessary corollary assertions regarding the
impossibility of collective or joint governance. The limit of direct action is for all
practical purposes to say Yes or No on an issue presented to the mass.... The essential
fact remains that a small number of heads present a choice to a large group (ibid.,
230, 232).
Thus we see that, for all his sincere Classical Liberalism, Lippmann accepts
fundamental assumptions about the nature and possibilities of political organization
that make him a member, if only as an observer, of the group of elite theorists.
Thomas R. Dye
While Walter Lippmanns elitism may be subject to question or varying
interpretations within the larger body of his political thinking, that of Thomas Dye is
fairly straightforward. He is one of the most prominent modem exponents of elite
theory. In The Irony of Democracy, a provocative and uncommon introduction to
American politics, Dye maintains the Italian schools position: [Ojnly a tiny
35


handful of people make decisions that shape the lives of all of us and, despite the
elaborate rituals of parties, elections, and interest group activity, we have little direct
influence over these decisions (Dye and Zeigler 2000, v).
Further accentuating their adherence to the elite theory line, Dye and co-
author Harmon Zeigler write: This book challenges the prevailing pluralistic view of
democracy in the United States, but it neither condemns nor endorses American
political life {ibid.). That is, natural aristocracys normative judgments are absent.
Elite theory, they write, is employed as an analytical model for
understanding and explaining American politics; it is not presented as a...prescription
for America {ibid., vi).
Agreeing with Michels Iron Law of Oligarchy, Dye writes that elitism is so
central a trait of organization that, regardless of an organizations foundation, ideals,
or agenda, a minority will eventually dominate {ibid., 417).
In his introduction to another book, Dye expands on the inevitability of elites.
He writes that elitism cannot be blamed, as many critics try to do, on inadequate
education of the masses, poverty, the military-industrial complex, capitalist control of
the media, or on any special problem in society. All societies are elitist. There cannot
be large institutions without great power being concentrated within the hands of the
few at the top of these institutions (Dye 1986, 3-4).13 It is a telling commentary that
13 The crucial point in such a sweeping statement is the emphasis on large, complex societies. Whether
hunter-gatherer or other smaller cultures were elitist or not is not truly relevant to the present
discussion.
36


despite the increased harshness of Dye and Zeiglers most recent, 2000-edition
criticisms of US elite behavior, they remain steadfastly committed to the theory itself:
The Millennial Edition is more critical of Americas elite, [but] we continue in the
elitist tradition to be skeptical of mass governance (Dye and Zeigler 2000, xiv).
Elite Theory Summary
In summary, several key observations and conclusions underpin elite theory:
any complex organization will always be divided between the elite who rule
and the mass who follow;
consequently, prospects for democratic rule and/or egalitarian society are
nonexistent; and
those in power are ipso facto recognized to be the elites.
There is very little in elite theory that says how political and social
organization should be, other than in the context of saying it is pointless to seek a
non-elitist arrangement. Elite theorists all agree on the inevitability of minority rule.
37


Two important subsets of elite theory attempt to refine the theory through
different interpretive perspectives. While these variants share the preceding central
tenets of elite theory, they add coloring to the outline in view of their own empirical
observations. The first of these offshoots is the theory of democratic elitism.
38


CHAPTER 4
DEMOCRATIC ELITISM
Elite theorists publicize Hoe fact of inevitable elite rule. Democratic elitism
accepts that fact, but also has the task of democratizing it. Democratic elitism seeks,
in Oessence, to reconcile the inevitability of minority rule with democratic theory,
because elitism flies in the face of classical notions of democracy. As avowedly elitist
writers Field and Higley describe it,
advocates of the so-called democratic theory of elitism are mainly
concerned to make the comfortable argument that while elites play a role in
the governance of modern societies this role is neither unpleasant nor
irremediably opposed to a substantial degree of democracy (Field and Higley
1980, 3).
In other words, democratic elitists do not deny the reality of undemocratic
elite rule. Instead, they seek to somehow pass it off as essentially compatible with
modem democracy. They try this largely through a reexamination and redefinition of
democracy or by pointing to the substantial differences between elitism in a
democracy and, say, feudal elitism. In either case the goal is to make democracy
appear consistent with modem elitist insights into the dynamics of power.
39


Mosca as Intellectual Forefather
It would be inappropriate to call Mosca a democratic elitist, but there are
features of his elitism that can be interpreted as providing a foundation for, or the
incipient traces of, democratic elitism. The reader will recall three minor features of
Moscas thinking. His elite theory has room for:
competing social forces;
change in the composition of the ruling class, reflecting societys evolving
needs; and
an elite-based representative democracy.
These features are crucial to democratic elitism, although slightly renamed:
respectively, (1) competing elites, (2) an open elite system, and (3) representative
democracy as process. It is therefore reasonable to name Gaetano Mosca as the
intellectual godfather of democratic elite theory, however much democratic elitists
might cringe at the association.
40


Democratic Theory Meets Elite Reality
As political scientist Jack Walker puts it, the classical view of American
democracy is the familiar doctrine of popular rule... which asserts that public policy
should result from extensive, informed discussion and debate. Broad public
participation in decision-making is viewed as a way of increasing the citizens
awareness of his moral and social responsibilities, reducing the danger of tyranny,
(the self-developmental model) and getting better government (Walker, in Bachrach
1971, 69).
In contrast, elite theory rests on the empirical observation that broad
participation in decision-making is not possible in a complex organization. That same
observation is one that many scholars of democracy, including prominent American
social scientists, have also been forced to make. As Robert Dahl notes: It is
difficultnay impossibleto see how it could be otherwise in large political
systems (Dahl, in Bachrach 1980, 8). But the fact of minority rule does not sit well
with democratic theory.
How can theorists accept the observations of elitists yet maintain that elite and
democratic theories are compatible? First, an honest appraisal of how well the
classical formulation of democracy has held up is essential. Most leading theorists,
according to Peter Bachrach, regard the self-developmental approach to democracy
as an anachronism (Bachrach 1980, 8). For one thing, modem theorists recognize
41


that human nature does not measure up to the ideal. Bernard Berelson extends this
theme in an empirical study comparing democratic theory with democratic practice,
learning that certain major characteristics of the fully democratic citizen are, on the
whole, conspicuous by their absence among the mass of people. Experienced
observers have long known...that the individual voter was not all that the theory of
democracy requires of him (Berelson et al, in Bachrach 1971, 29).
Unable to change human nature, democratic theorists turned to their own field
to see what they could do with it. Political thinkers like Harold Lasswell, Robert
Dahl, James Burnham, James Meisel, E. E. Schattschneider, and others began to offer
a more realistic, less emotion-laden view of the workings of democracy. They offered
a vision of modem Machiavellians, according to Burnhams terminology, who do
not waste time discussing the merits and shortcomings of the myth of democracy,
seen in terms of self-government. Reconciling democratic and elite theories
involved a major change in the whole idea of democracy. Peter Bachrach writes that
before Moscas thinking could fit successfully into the modem theoretical context of
democracy, democratic theory itself had to undergo a radical revision:
one which would transform it from a theory based on ideals which are a part
of the dignity and value of human beings into a political method independent
of particular ideals or fundamental values (Bachrach 1971, 128).
42


Joseph Schumpeter Redefines Democracy
As a result of the necessary transformation of democratic theory, thinkers
began to distance themselves from the normative implications of democracy as both a
means and an end. Instead, democracy was refashioned in theory as solely a means
a way of providing for the efficient, stable functioning of government.
The writer most often associated with this transformation is Austrian-
American economist Joseph Schumpeter. It is his important emphasis on democracy
as a means or process that paves the way for reconciliation of elite and democratic
theories. In his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter defines
democracy as process:
The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at
political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means
of a competitive struggle for the peoples vote (Schumpeter 1947, 269).
That is, public participation in the democratic process is limited to a choice
between self-selected elites and counter-elites. The role of the people is to produce a
government; the democratic process itself is reduced to a choice between elites, of
accepting a leader or group of leaders (ibid.). Schumpeters model works as a
43


constant dialectic of competition between ruling groups (elites). They put
themselves forward to the electorate.. .which grants them power according to
the rules of procedure for ensuring that the ruled have a real and constant
opportunity to participate in the selection of their rulers (Albertoni 1987, 121-
122).
Such a model is in line with the Italian school, and yet it is developed in a
work that bridges elite and democratic theories. Schumpeters work, writes Albertoni,
is a reformulation and application of the political elitism of the classic Italian
exponents (ibid., 122). Bachrach cites Schumpeter to sum up the importance of the
reformulation and to show its compatibility with elitist theory: Democracy means
only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to
rule them (Bachrach 1980, 21).
The idea of inevitable minority rule does not undermine the democratic
process, according to democratic elite theorists. Democracy is rescued by the
permanent existence of multiple political elites. It is when the elite is single and
unified that democracy perishes. Multiple political elites compete vigorously among
themselves on issues of public policy and for public office and thereby generate a
basic restraint against the violation of democratic norms and rules by any one elite
(Bachrach 1971, 10). Furthermore, the democratic process makes ruling elites
accountable, thus checking the potential for tyrannical abuse of power. Harold
Lasswell and his colleagues raise this point when they write that the point is not so
much that elites rule (that is, after all, a given). It is rather that they are held
44


accountable. To be accountable is to be influenced (Lasswell et al, in Bachrach
1971, 22). There are broad limits to what the majority will accept from leaders.
Knowledge of this fact causes the elite to exercise self-restraint in public affairs.
Accountability to an electorate is an essential part of the redefinition of democracy to
reconcile it with elite theory.
(That the democratic elitist approach to democracy so closely resembles
James Madisons in Federalist 10 highlights a curious fact: the classical democratic
theory appears less classical than one might suppose. For romantic (Jeffersonian)
notions of democracy as an end in itself did not carry the day at the Constitutional
Convention. The modem bridging of democratic and elite theories has revitalized
among theorists the very notion of democratic republicanism that was enshrined in
Madisons concept of how to organize a young, but complex nation. Robert Dahls
treatment of Madisonianism in A Preface to Democratic Theory is a significant
example.)
There is another factor that keeps the two theories compatible: elite circulation
under democratic elitism. Whereas for most of history, recruitment and circulation of
elites were largely a matter of where on the social ladder you were bom, in a
democratic elite, office holding bears no relation to heredity, as Prewitt and Stone put
it. Democracy, they write, except in certain radical formulations, does not deny an
elite, but it urges that the qualifications for this elite be talent, accomplishment, and
achievement, rather than birth and blood line (Prewitt and Stone 1973, 133).
45


Because accession to elite status is open to talented and energetic individuals,
democratic elitism remains consistent with the democratic ideal of individual liberty
and opportunity.14
Democratic Elitism Summary
In summary, democratic elitists emphasize stability through a constitutional
and liberal process of elite pluralism: the competitiveness of political elites; their
accountability to the electorate through periodic elections; and multiple points of
access to elite power (Bachrach 1980, 8). The points democratic elite theorists rely on
in reconciling the sociopolitical fact of elite rule with democratic theory are
summarized here:
Democracy is viewed as a process (best expressed in a representative
system); the process is separate from any objectives or outcomes, which
would necessarily imply a normative approach;
The existence of multiple, competing elites provides: (A) a system of checks
and balances within which all elite groupings obey the rules in competing
14 In fact, this feature recalls natural aristocracy. But while natural aristocracy and this aspect of
democratic elitism do share the idea of open accession to the elite class for those who earn it,
democratic elitism must use this construct to make democratic theory accommodate political reality. In
46


for electoral approval; and (B) a means of popular participation according to
the democratic ideal, although this participation is a much diluted one in
comparison with the classical democratic vision.
Open elite circulation is at work. Because elite status is not automatically
conferred by birth, but instead places value on achievement and
demonstrated talent, democratic elitism is said to be an arrangement of open
elites. This provides a legitimate, if uneven, opportunity to rise from the
ranks, as well as a logical mechanism to weed out non-achievers who may
have acceded to elite status through privilege.
contrast, an open elite class in natural aristocracy is not a construct but, instead, the very essence of the
theory itself.
47


CHAPTER 5
POWER ELITE THEORY
Democratic elitism is an extension of elite theory. A second special variant of
elite theory is power elite theory. This school of thought is most famously associated
with C. Wright Mills. Mills described power in America as being held by a
triumvirate of leaders in big business, the government, and the military. Other power
elitists are less specific when it comes to describing the power elite, focusing on the
institutions which confer power on the elite. Thus more broadly defined, power elite
theory encompasses more than Mills trio of institutions, allowing other theorists into
the genre: Floyd Hunter and G. William Domhoff, for instance.
Floyd Hunter Breaks the Trail
Floyd Hunter is one of the first scholars to conduct research on political and
economic power elites (although he did not use the term). In a 1953 study, he
examined community power structures in a ground-breaking sociological effort,
pioneering the reputational method of research into power holders. He summarizes
his findings:
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The top group of the power hierarchy has been isolated and defined as
comprised of policy-makers. These men are drawn largely from the
businessmans class .... They form cliques, or crowds, as the term is more
often used in the community, which formulate policy.... [0]n community-wide
issues policy is channeled by a fluid committee structure down to institutional,
associational groups through a lower-level bureaucracy which executes policy
(Hunter 1953, 113).
The fluid committee structure is of particular interest to a power elite
theorist, because it describes not a rigid hierarchy, but a more web-like sharing of
power among the overlapping cliques. As Domhoff summarizes it, Hunter found that
the policy makers in the power structure live in the same neighborhood, belong to the
same clubs, sit on each others boards of directors, and know each other well
(Domhoff 1967, 160).
Hunter revisited the question of power structures in 1959. He set out to
determine whether there was evidence of a national power structure decisive enough
to shape the nations policy directions. In this new study, he found that
there is such a power superstructure, generally with a coordination of goals
and a resolution of unavoidable conflicts by the same types of individuals in
roles and status positions similar to those found in communities (Hunter 1959,
160).
Hunter was concerned primarily with the sources of public policy. He
approaches the issue by studying who holds policy making power in communities and
49


at the national level. He determined, like Mills during the same decade, that a power
structure exists, that it is made up of a relatively small number of individuals holding
formal institutional power (and authority), mixing with each other and sharing the
same, class-based goals.
C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite
It is C. Wright Mills who is most closely associated with power elite theory.
The powers of ordinary men, he begins in his The Power Elite, are circumscribed
by the everyday worlds in which they live...they often seem driven by forces they can
neither understand nor govern (Mills 1959, 3). Those shaping the forces which affect
the mass of modem society are the power elite, the leaders of the crucial institutions
of modem society. Mills sees a triangle of power among those who
are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modem society.
They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim
its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. The occupy the
strategic command posts of the social structure (ibid., 3-4).
Mills theory is a direct offshoot of empirical elite theory. Along with other
elite theories, he agrees that complex society must be governed by a minority. Amidst
the complexities of modem technological society,
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the people.. .must, like trusting children, place all the new world of foreign
policy and strategy and executive action in the hands of experts. [EJveryone
knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does.
Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how (ibid.,
294).
He critiques the mythology of American democracy, with its classic
conceptions of public discourse and the peoples decision-making role, as a set of
images out of a fairy tale. Instead of an involved and effective populace, shaping the
course of the nations goals and policies, Mills reiterates the solidly elitist observation
that the
issues that now shape mans fate are neither raised nor decided by the public
at large. The idea of the community of publics is not a description of fact, but
an assertion of an ideal, an assertion of a legitimation masquerading...as fact
(ibid., 300).
Mills clearly assumes some of the central tenets of elite theory. His insight is
to name both specific power institutions in which elite power is concentrated and the
interconnections among them. For him, the power elite are the higher circles of
decision-makers within the several hundred largest corporations, the highest reaches
of national government, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and upper echelons of the
military establishment. Key to this description is the interlocking nature, already
described by Hunters fluid committee structure, of the leadership structures of
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each of these institutions. Mills finds a disturbing trend of power consolidation and
overlap among the institutional triumvirate. There is, he writes, an ever-increasing
interlocking of economic, military, and political structures {ibid., 8).
Another feature of Mills power elite theory concerns the nature of power.
Power is not of a man; it is necessarily institutional. It is positions in great
institutions that confer power: No one can be truly powerful unless he has access to
the command of major institutions {ibid., 9). For Mills, the major institutions in
question are the trio of military, big business, and high government.
G. William Domhoff Confirms
But Broadens the Power Elite
G. William Domhoff has carried the banner for Mills and power elite theory
for the past several decades. He describes himself as a psychologist-sociologist who
starts with the work of Mills and Hunter and finds it useful to think in terms of both
social classes and institutional-organizational elites (Domhoff and Dye 1987, 8).
Domhoff agrees with Mills in defining the power elite as those who have a
superior amount of power due to the institutional hierarchies they command
(Domhoff 1967, 8). But he broadens the definition of who constitutes the power elite.
Where Mills referred to several hundred positions at the top echelons of the military,
government, and big business, Domhoff defines the power elite as the leadership
group or operating arm of the ruling class. It is made up of active, working members
52


of the ruling class and high level employees in institutions controlled by the ruling
class (Domhoff 1979,13). That is, while Mills skirts the issue of the American
upper, or ruling class, Domhoff confronts it head on, placing the power elite squarely
within that privileged class. This point is crucial to Domhoff s brand of power
elitism. It is what has enabled him to provide important missing empirical evidence in
support of the theories of both earlier writers:
Both of these conceptsruling class and power eliteare important in an
examination of how America is ruled, for they bring together the class-rule
and the institutional elite perspectives that are sometimes viewed as separate
or even opposing approaches to the analysis of power (ibid., 14-15).
Domhoff shows that the power elite has a membership very similar to that
only hypothesized by Mills (ibid.). By examining the Social Register and biographies
for information on schools attended, club membership, intermarriages, and business
connections, Domhoff is able to document the upper-class prevalence in the major
positions of institutional power in America.
Domhoff insists on drawing a distinction between the ruling (or upper) class
and the power elite. His power elite is a subset of the ruling class; not all members of
that class are members of the power elite. A ruling class is a privileged social class
which is able to maintain its top position in the social structure (ibid.). Conversely,
not all powerful people are members of the power elite. He does not restrict all power
53


to the ruling class power elite, but he does say the balance lies in their favor, for they
are able to impose their will on the power institutions. It is a question of whose
interests are served:
[T]he problem is not to deny that there are leaders from other classes or social
groups, but to demonstrate how the ruling class, through the power elite, is
able to impose its policies and ideologies in opposition to the leaders of the
various strata of the nonpropertied, wage-earning class {ibid., 15-16).
Power Elitism Summary
In summary, power elitists share with classical elitists the view, in some form
or other, that minority or elite rule is inevitable in complex organizations. Focusing
on the organizational and institutional nature of power, power elitists posit a web of
interwoven institutional roles occupied by elites, creating a consolidated and
concentrated grouping of common interests, backgrounds, and social milieux.
Through an expanding redefinition of the term power elite, it is possible to include
analyses combining organizational and class power into power elite theory. Power
elitism differs from democratic elitism significantly. While accountability, elite
competition, and permeability are features of the latter, they are absent in power
elitism. While democratic elite theorists see democracy as something to be
accommodated to the reality of elite rule, power elite theorists see democracy
threatened by the power holders in the elite institutions.
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CHAPTER 6
SO WHAT?
This paper has surveyed the foundations of four major theoretical frameworks
of elitism, each supported by a body of writing and thinking that makes it difficult to
dismiss. Up to this point, the aim has been 1) to lay out as clearly as possible the
central tenets of each, through the writings of selected historical and modern
proponents; and 2) to show how and where each differs from the others sufficiently to
qualify as a recognizable theory.
This concluding section makes the case that some form of elitismnatural
aristocracyhas long been a cherished tenet of the American ideal. Furthermore,
contrary to what might be expected, natural aristocracy can be made compatible with
the spirit of democratic principles.
Natural Aristocracy as an American Ideal
As contrary as it might at first seem to assert, Americansdespite genuine
egalitarian urgesbelieve in the propriety of an aristocracy. This contradiction is
resolvable through a consideration first of the significance of the American
Revolution and second of the meaning of natural superiority.
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The American Revolution was hardly a textbook revolution, resulting in major
change in the structure of society. It was not a rebellion against order, but rather
against the existing, absentee order under George III. Louis Hartz decisively shows
that, in the absence of a repressive feudal order on American soil, talk of a liberal or
democratic revolution makes little sense (Hartz 1955). Tocqueville wrote that the
great advantage of the Americans is that they have arrived at a state of democracy
without having to endure a democratic revolution (de Tocqueville 1997,11:108).
What occurred, instead of revolution, was a changing of the guard, an alteration of
governing mechanisms better suited to the American people. Calling the Revolution
more an attack on the ruling class than on the structure of rule, Prewitt and Stone
write that
for Jefferson and his colleagues it was not the ruling class in the abstract
which was the villain, it was simply those obnoxious Englishmen...who would
not play by the rules of the game. It was not necessary to change these rules,
only to change the rulers (Prewitt and Stone 1973, 14-15).
Having wiped from the Colonies the old order of titles and hereditary
privilege, the Founders still had an interest in order itself. In the rising bourgeois
context, a new sort of aristocrat was deemed appropriate: the natural aristocrat. The
relatively new doctrine of political equality and liberty melded with the emerging
context of economic freedom. This new Liberal paradigm combined, in the United
56


States, with apparently boundless natural resources to create The American: the
sturdy and self-sufficient individual who makes himself and his fortune of his own
will, work, probity, and good luck. This was the raw material of the new aristocracy.
As Prewitt and Stone point out, the new class would be an elite of talent,
accomplishment, and achievement, rather than birth and blood line. This is not to
imply that the achieving, Liberal individual appeared, in all its glory, in the
imaginations of the Founders. The changes that Liberalism ushered in did not occur
overnight. But the leading minds of that generation certainly were alive to the
momentous intellectual and material changes under way. Consider the following
anecdote, as told by Morton Frisch. In a correspondence to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson
writes that upon some matter of state, Hamilton dined at Jeffersons house, at which
occasion
Hamilton asked Jefferson the names of the men in the three portraits on his
wall. Jefferson replied that they were his trinity of the greatest men the world
had ever producedBacon, Newton, and Locke (Frisch 1985, 10).
The anecdote shows that the Liberal context of individual achievement was
already well-understood. Bacon, Newton, and Locke were progenitors of the
paradigm. When the Founding generation sought a legitimizing principle for a new
ruling class, the doctrine of individual achievement and self-sufficiency was ready at
hand.
57


Liberalism stepped in to fill the gap created by the elimination of hereditary
aristocracy. But the idea of a class of individuals who could be known as the best
still held sway. A new aristocracy was needed to provide the continuity of social
structure. Legitimacy needed to be transferred from the defunct idea of hereditary
aristocracy to a vital, new idea. Liberalism provided that idea: individual,
demonstrated merit. As John Dickinson, a delegate to the Convention for the state of
Delaware, put it, the new republic in the making was to be one where merit [is]
understood to form the great title to public trust, honors and rewards (Dickinson, in
Madisons Notes 1987, 374, my emphasis). Another expression of the role played by
merit in the new nation comes from Federalist 57. In an argument for there being no
Old World qualifications set on eligibility for representative office, Madison writes:
Who are to be the objects of popular [electoral] choice? Every citizen whose
merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No
qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is
permitted to fetter the judgment or disappoint the inclination of the people
(Madison 1937, 371, my emphasis).15
What was new, however, was not the idea of merit per se; after all, Europes
artificial aristocracy claimed its privilege on the basis of supposed merit. Instead,
the innovation is evident in what constitutes merit. The criteria of excellence in the
15 Despite the relatively restricted sense of the idea of every citizen, the principle of a wide inclusion
of citizens based upon merit is thus set out.
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new republic were to be those of the natural aristocracy. The best government, says
Jefferson, will do all that is possible for the natural aristocrat to accede to the offices
of government.
Thus, the American Revolution resulted in a different type of aristocracy from
that which held the Old World in its decadent grasp. The natural aristocrats were
those whose natural superiority was evidence of a claim to lead the new country.
But just what do natural aristocracy theorists mean by natural superiority? How is
one by nature better equipped than others to lead? Many writers have gotten good
mileage out of the concept without really revealing what they mean by it.
At first pass, one is tempted to say these writers understand natural superiority
as a completed package of excellence inherent in an individual, which puts him
automatically in the elite group...some kind of superiority gene, or bundle of talents,
ready made and apparent. But such an interpretation is just another formulation of
Platos noble lie, according to which individuals are bom with an immutable
quality determining where they belong in the social order.16 This is a simplistic
interpretation of natural superiority, one which moves toward the realm of those non-
defensible elitist theories (e.g., racism), rightly dismissed at the outset of this paper.
16 Plato writes that in order for the people to accept the tripartite division of society he proposes in the
Republicwith the laboring majority at the bottom; a smaller, auxiliary army class above it; and a
guardian philosopher-ruler or rulers at the top of the pyramid to keep the whole in harmonythey
must be given a national myth. This noble lie or fiction justifies such a structure by explaining that
each individuals soul has a metal mixed into its composition: the laboring class has iron and brass; the
auxiliaries silver; and the guardians gold. See Plato, The Republic, 415a-b, p. 659.
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Eighteenth-century descriptions of natural aristocracy show a deeper
understanding of what it means to say a certain few are by nature equipped to lead.
Thomas Jefferson noted the natural aristoi were distinguished by virtue and talents
(not talent alone). Russell Kirk, in talking of Edmund Burke, wrote of the inevitability
that only a few men, from various causes, are mentally and physically and spiritually
suited for social leadership (from various causes, not One Cause of immutable
nature). Furthermore, one is not suited to leadership merely because of excellence of
the mind, or of the body, or of the spirit, but from an excellence in all three. When
Heraclitus says One person is ten thousand to me if he is best, he does not mean
that one is automatically best because of some arbitrary feature.
These are crucial ideas: virtue, various causes, a marriage of various
excellences, and best. They give insight into what natural aristocrats mean by natural
superiority:
The classical sense of virtue, which Jefferson probably had in mind in his
rhetorical style, is of properly fulfilling ones function. A knife, for instance,
can be virtuous if it cuts well; cutting is its function, and for it to cut well
would be to perform with virtue.
Various causes can be internal predispositions, fortitude, talents, habits of
mind and heart, self-discipline, education, energy, ambition, and so on.
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The conjuncture of diverse excellences in one person, and the benefit
derived from the virtuous application of various internal causes, combine to
make someone best at what he does. This holds for any pursuit, not just
governing.
A person might be bom with a predisposition for self-discipline and learning,
ambition and energy, judgment and integrity, stamina, and a dedication to the welfare
of othersto the common good. But as internal causes, these are latent
excellences. Without the proper (virtuous) cultivation and application, they lie
dormant, or worse, are corrupted to wrong ends. Once a person possessing them has
cultivated these inner resources, made them manifest by his achievements, he may be
said to be naturally equipped to lead in his field of excellence.
The key insight is that for natural aristocracy to be distinct from artificial
aristocracy, there must be some constructive evidence of achievement and worthiness.
One cannot be excellent unless one excels, which requires action. As Heraclitus
believes, the truly elite is one who shows through personal attainments that he is
best. Consider it from this angle: If a person were by nature exceptionally strong,
agile, coordinated, and talented, yet were not applying those natural gifts, we would
not consider that person an athlete...perhaps potentially an athlete, if we knew of
those gifts. Furthermore, if we did know of those gifts and saw them being wasted
thus, we might consider the person somehow deficient. (The very notion of wasting
61


talent supports the validity of this point.) Similarly, we would not call people
naturally superior in governing if they did not show themselves to be applying
(virtuously) whatever natural talents for governing they may possess.
A fresh reading of the passages cited in the section on natural aristocracy
furnishes a new perspective on what it means to be a natural aristocrat. It means to
excel, which can only be the result of actions applying various natural talents and
predispositions toward some appropriate end. This expanded understanding of natural
superiority makes it possible to see the connecting thread in much of American
political thought. In this light it is appropriate to think of the mass of American
republicans, bom in the highest and lowest conditions, each potentially a natural
aristocrat. Such an individual has a right and duty to move through the social strata,
by dint of his or her own exertions, by demonstrating virtue and talents. Access to
power must be kept open for those who realize that potential. If a person can thus
show merit, he or she will rise in the public arena. Equally, the undeserving who may
find themselves at the top will prove themselves unworthy and unable to stay there.
The critical factor here is an emphasis on achievement of some kind. The use of ones
virtue and talent will result in outward proof of ones membership in the natural
aristocracy, and constitute a rightful claim to manage the concerns of the society.
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Equal Opportunity as Natural Aristocracy
To modem Americans, there should be nothing surprising about the
prescription implied by Jeffersons discussion of natural aristocracy, even though the
antiquated terminology may jar us somewhat. For it is nothing more than the
quintessentially American doctrine of equal opportunity. We ratify the natural
aristocratic position whenever we utter some variant of the expressions: May the
best man win, Give someone a fair shake, or Level the playing field. We are
saying, in essence, remove artificial impediments, and let this person do his or her
best. We rise to the level of our virtue and talents.
The natural aristocrat, in the minds of the Founding generation, probably
resembled Jose Ortega y Gassetts noble man in The Revolt of the Masses. Ortegas
concept of nobilitywhich, for Ortega as for Jefferson, is not something assigned the
high-bom and wealthy, but is sprinkled among all classesis the equivalent of
natural aristocracy. Nobility is life lived as a discipline, a life of effort, ever set on
excelling oneself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an
obligation.
The same spirit infuses the idea of equal opportunity. One should seek to
outdo oneself, ever reaching for higher goals. Those who have potential to excel
should be allowedthey have, indeed, a dutyto cultivate it. And because potential
is not easily recognized or measured, then everyone should be given the chance to
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cultivate a potentially latent nobility. This is the essence of equal opportunity, and we
have already examined it at length under the heading of natural aristocracy.
A Democratically Palatable
Natural Aristocracy
There is a serious weakness in considering equal-opportunity-as-natural-
aristocracy as a prescription for a just and democratic society. The problem lies in the
theory and practice of equal opportunity. Unfortunately, equal opportunity is
primarily understood in political and economic contexts. Our societys emphasis on
material successan emphasis that confers social esteem and value upon high-
visibility economic or political successreduces opportunity to one of being able
to compete with everyone else for a narrow range of prizes. There will always only
be a limited amount of power and wealth to share out among the winners of this
limited race. Consequently, equal opportunity as commonly understood turns out to
be less than ideal as a way of promoting and achieving excellence throughout society
in the way that natural aristocrats such as Ortega y Gassett would like to see. If we are
all after a limited number of brass rings, we are artificially restricted in the
development of our individual talents, predispositions, virtues and excellence.
Because each individual is bom with different natural capacities, equal opportunity
will not necessarily grant everyone the chance to develop their full potential and
contribute to society in fulfilling ways.
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If we accept the natural aristocratic injunction to set high standards of
excellence for ourselves in our chosen pursuits, the political-economic bias of equal
opportunity leaves us with an unsatisfactory prescription for excellence in anything
but economic and political success. Is there a remedy?
If we look at the idea of opportunity more broadly, we will see that there is
indeed a remedy. Instead of a race in which only the politically or economically
gifted will excel, we need a multitude of races. Imagine something like the following:
The starting line of each race would be where nature and inclination have put us.
That is, the predispositions, talents, habits of mind and heart, self-discipline,
education, energy, and ambitions that we all individually possess constitute the
starting line. From there, we run, or pursue and develop those skills according to
inclination, and the prize is to become the best one can become in the area(s) of our
choice.
But such a proposal is not the full answer, because we already have at least
some people doing the best they can, yet suffering socially because they are unable to
survive with dignity in that pursuit (e.g., teachers, artists).
What is needed to make such a remedy work is for society to recognize the
value that all contributive human endeavors represent. Social esteem and worth need
to be attached to the prize of self-development. Rather than publicly valuing only
those we currently view as successful, we need to value those who excel in the vast
range of endeavors that contribute to the well-being of society. Not only do we need
65


the excellent in politics and economics, but we also need the excellent to raise
children, bake bread, cobble shoes, and the like.
When we attach social importance to those people who are developing their
natural gifts in ways that contribute, no matter how little visibly, to society, we are
providing the second essential ingredient to full human development. The first is that
individuals pursue what they like and like what they do. The second is that society
values them for it and encourages them to excelprovided that what they do is a
contribution.
The last important element in this remedy of the deficiencies of equal
opportunity is the manner in which society allows for the pursuit of individual
excellence. For instance, if I feel I am naturally gifted as a baker and set out to
become one, yet find I am not as gifted as I had thought, what then? Am I relegated to
the ranks of losers? Not if society can allow me to seek my true niche(s). Following
Platos assumption that nature equips everybody to excel in at least one area, I should
be permitted, and encouraged to seek that area.
If society can place public value on the whole range of contributive human
endeavors in a way that promotes individuals to contribute to their fullest potential
according to talent and inclination, then a sort of expanded natural aristocracy can
emerge. But this natural aristocracy will not be one limited to political or economic
power and gain. Instead, the aristocrats will be all of us, as we try to excel and
66


demand the best of ourselves, to our own individual benefit as well as to that of
society as a whole.
Ortega y Gassett says that to promote excellence is not to throw up a screen
behind which the wealthy and powerful can venally pursue mediocrity, or, we might
add, privileges for themselves that undermine the public good. Instead, promoting
excellencebeing a natural aristocratis, first by example, to exhort others to live
life as a discipline. It is a prescription for excellence on a wide scale. It is an elitism
that allows us to reach the very top of our potentials as individuals, while also serving
our nation.
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