Angelo M. Codevilla, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, shares Arthur Brooks’ conviction that there is a “battle” raging in America that will determine the nation’s destiny. He discerns a class conflict dividing America, but it is not the one Marx envisioned; it is essentially moral rather than economic, spiritual rather than material. In The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (New York: Beaufort Books, c. 2010) Codevilla sets forth “the massive fact that underlies all these issues and makes each a battlefield on which vie partisans of radically different Americas” (p. xv). The battling partisans are the Ruling Class and the Country Class, and they are waging a Kulturkampf involving marriage and family, sexual orientation and values, as well as political and economic questions.
The Ruling Class congealed as the 19th century closed, embracing Progressivism as its ideology, confident “that because man is a mere part of evolutionary nature, man could be improved, and that they, the most highly evolved of all, were the improvers” (p. 17). Professionals—educated experts—needed to orchestrate the development of the modern industrial state. Progressive leaders, generally upper class intellectuals such as Woodrow Wilson, “imagined themselves to be the world’s examples and the world’s reformers dreamed big dreams of establishing order, justice, and peace at home and abroad” (p. 17). They favored “making the world safe for democracy” abroad and social reform (e.g. a graduated income tax and women’s suffrage and prohibition) at home. Doing so, as Wilson recognized, meant the government must expand beyond the clear limits of the Constitution, envisioning a “‘living’ Constitution that does not so much restrict government as it confers ‘positive rights’—meaning charters of government power. Thus they slowly buried eighteenth-century words with twentieth-century practice” (p. 37).
With Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal progressives gained firm control of the federal government and determined to further Wilson’s agenda and fundamentally change the nation. In short order, Codevilla declares: “The America described in civics books—in which no one could be convicted or fined except by a jury of his peers for having violated laws passed by elected representatives—started disappearing when the New Deal inaugurated today’s administrative state, in which bureaucrats make, enforce, and adjudicate nearly all the rules” (p. 41). Illustrating the culmination of this process was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who, in 2010, when asked were the Constitution permits the federal government to “force every American to purchase health insurance . . . replied: ‘Are you kidding? Are you kidding?’ It’s no surprise, then, that lower court judges and bureaucrats take liberties with laws, regulations, and contracts” (p. 45).
Our Ruling Class (whether Republican or Democrat), Codevilla insists, “does not like the rest of America” (p. 25). Rather, they look down on ordinary folks. Certainly they pity—feel “compassion” for—their inferiors. But they find the masses too backward and ignorant and religious—too enamored of God and guns and heterosexuality—to know what’s really good for them. He cites an illuminating anecdote from Mikhail Gorbachev, who recalled “that in 1987, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush distanced himself from his own administration by telling Gorbachev, ‘Reagan is a conservative, an extreme conservative. All the dummies and blockheads are with him.’ This,” Codevilla concludes, “is all about a class of Americans distinguishing itself from its inferiors” (p. 25). These inferior folks need to be led (or coerced) by their betters through the mechanism of a strong, centralized government. Dexterously pulling the strings of power (as Aristotle feared would transpire in democracies), our rulers transfer “money or jobs or privileges—civic as well as economic”—to themselves and their favored special interest groups (p. 28). One aspect of this is the “crony capitalism” evident in the close alliance between politicians and financial institutions. A Republican administration rescued Bear Stearns in 2008 and a Democrat administration did the same for auto industry labor unions in 2009. “The regulators and the regulated become indistinguishable, and they prosper together because they have the power to restrict the public’s choices in ways that channel money to themselves and their political supporters” (p. 31).
Battling the Ruling Class is a Country Class that resents the “ever-higher taxes and expanding government, subsidizing political favorites, social engineering, approval of abortion, etc.” (p. 52). It’s distinguished by a commitment to “marriage, children, and religious practice” (p. 53). Individuals, not officials, should make decisions regarding what constitutes the good life, and churches, not bureaucracies, should determine ultimate truths. The Country Class believes in self-government and shares Thomas Jefferson’s notion that “good government” never takes “‘from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned’” (p. 69). Codevilla obviously sides with the Country Class and concludes his essay with practical suggestions regarding battle strategies—reducing taxes, returning schools to local control, restoring citizens to their rightful place in the republic, etc.
Though Codevilla’s essay blends jeremiad with manifesto, it makes clear some of the major issues in America and provides a helpful analysis of underlying aspects of our very real Kulturkampf. As the distinguished political author of The Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone, says: “Angelo Codevilla puts into words what has been troubling an increasing number of Americans about our politics and our government. It’s a cri de coeur that needs to be read by anyone trying to understand what’s happening in public life in America today.”
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.