Diehard teen republicans

Matt Kennard reports from the Republican convention where he's already met with Republicans young an

As I got into St. Paul airport at about 1pm also arriving were the 50-strong Junior Statesman contingent from all over the United States. A collection of diehard teen Republicans who had come to meet lawmakers and officials for a week of festivities, they were noticeable a mile off.

I spoke first to preppy looking Matthew Zubrow, a 17-year-old from Fast Hills, New Jersey. “I believe in McCain because he is a fiscal and social conservative and he is right for America,” he said, like an automaton. “He has more experience than Obama.”

At this moment his friend sitting next to him got involved. A diminutive 15-year-old called Brendan Zehner he reeled off a scary and perfectly delivered set of Republican shibboleths. “I’m not pro-McCain but I definitely don’t want Obama winning,” he said. “McCain is too liberal for me,” he continued, “his energy plan, his cap-and trade policy fails economically, and he doesn’t support drilling in Alaska, that would make us much less dependent on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. But at least he doesn’t want to tax the people creating the jobs,” said the 15-year-old.

Zubrow agreed. “In some respects McCain is too liberal. Overall I feel he is excellent and despite what I disagree with he’s a good, honest person; I know because I interned for the campaign this summer.”

But what do they think about Bush, the mega-unpopular Republican now in the White House. “In theory Bush is not the problem, he hasn’t been a bad President. It’s the way he does things that makes his policies seem bad,” said Zehner.

***

I moved on to the Convention in a shuttle full of octogenarian Republicans. They talked variously in the back about how “Fox News is too liberal”. One of the older women said, “I have a horrible feeling that Obama and his wife hate America.” As her husband was getting out he said: “Tell those liberals in the UK if they think Obama is gonna make it you’re dead wrong.”

The shuttle driver Abdi Mohamous, 26, came from Somalia in 1991 and said he was supporting Obama. “These Republicans are scary,” he said. “I have to listen to all their bullshit in the back, these 80-year-olds talking about how they want to bomb Iran and how they are disappointed because the Vice President is a woman.”

He dropped me off at home, and I went down to the convention centre to check out what I thought would be the raucous protests. In the end it was one guy with a “9/11 was an inside job” placard.

There was a surfeit of cops hanging around though doing pre-programmed routines marching about the place. Dave Morris, 25, was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I think the government planned 9/11 for it’s own political gain,” he said. “They did it so they could invade the Middle East, set up a police state, control the world drug trade, and all the other stuff.”

He was getting a fair about of media attention. “I’m just here to get people to wake up, spread the word,” he said.

Morris was standing at the main entrance, and not much was happening so I moved around to the media entrance where there was one placard that read McBlood and “No more wars for Israel”, alongside, without any seeming animosity, a pro-Israel placard of another protester.

After talking idly for a minute the atmosphere suddenly turned febrile and out passed us walked George W. Bush’s brain, Karl Rove. I followed him with my camera asking him why he’s a war criminal and what he thought of torture in Guantanamo, which was the signature issue of the Amnesty protesters, who I’d just been talking to. He gave no response and was surrounded by four burly guards. He got in the car with three women all decked in Red.

I walked back up the path and got into a conversation with the Ron Paul fans, a perennial fixture at any American political event these days. John Kusske, 30, from St. Paul was a slow talking but intelligent guy who believes in bringing the Republican Party back to the principles on which it was founded. “We have to make our presence know to the delegates,” he said. “There are a lot of people in there with ideas sympathetic to Ron Paul.”

So what was wrong with the current Republicans in power? “Two things,” he said, “Number one, they spend far too much, the Federal Reserve prints too much money, it’s spending money we don’t have; we need sound finances and I would like us to go back to the gold standard.”

He paused now consumed with an evangelical zeal that was a little scary. “And number two,” he declared, “we should not be going around the world invading other countries; we need to get rid of troops around the world and not declare war around the world without even going to Congress.”

***

That was it for the daytime convention, which was all taking place in the stuffy surroundings of the Excel Center, a gargantuan edifice surrounded by reams of barricades and surly police and tooled up secret service.

The real action everyone knew was happening in the evening in Minneapolis ten miles away where the party season was getting under way. I went along with my friend Eugene Mulero, who works for the wonkish D.C. weekly National Journal. He had got me in free to a $75 party and we got down there about 9 pm.

It was at a club called 1st Avenue on the main Minneapolis strip, which was full of cops and sprightly Republicans – not everyone’s idea of fun, but worth a try. Inside there was to be a performance by the music titan, Sammy Hagar, also know as the Red Rocker, who used to perform in Van Halen.

Inside there was the usual Republican fabric; out of the probably 300 people there wasn’t one black face. It was an open bar and everyone got jollier as the event drew on. Then came the video show that would be the intro to Hagar. Up flashed pictures of Mexico and young Americans kissing and fondling each other in Cabo, a popular Mexican resort for young frat types. Snoop Dogg’s pimp classic “Gin and Juice” then came on and the crowd looked a bit bemused. Then, strangely, a Banksy style rendering of Bush’s visage. Then the line: “Right now youth equals violence.” Then this one: “Right now Christians and Muslims don’t pray together”. Then more pictures of Mexico and the beach. Everyone looked as confused as I was.

Then up came the video and on came the prophet, Sammy Hagar, himself. A shaggy haired blond man in sandals and beach shorts and a “Cabo Wabo” T-shirt. The definition of an aging rocker his enthusiasm contrasted farcically with the depleted crowd on the floor. Behind him were fake plastic palm trees and it all felt a bit David Brent.

I talked to Marina Hockenberg, 52, from Minneapolis, who was part of the Katrina Relief Fund and selling T-shirt’s behind a table. “I think it’s a crime and unconscionable what the Bush administration did in New Orleans,” he said, while I looked around to see if anyone could hear us. She was obviously not a True Red. “The Republicans don’t seem in the mood to purchase this stuff so far,” she said. “Maybe they feel a bit guilty!”

Meanwhile the rockster was still on stage singing away and the crowd was getting behind him now. People were hi-fiving him on the stage and he was talking about his mom’s back yard in between songs and how all she wanted was a place to grow tomatoes; the Republicans cheered. He then did a song about chasing your dreams. My notebook at this point reads: “Fake palm trees – End Of The World.”

I then spoke to Jordan Russell, 22, a student from the University of Mississippi, and a College Republican. “I’m here because we have a war to win,” he said. “Palin has electrified young conservatives.” He paused: “We don’t want to be socialists,” he declared swigging his drink. “We want to be Americans!”

Hagar stopped his infernal racket after about two hours and the crowds seeped out onto the street. There was speculation that Republicans didn’t want to be seen to have fun while the South was bracing itself for a new hurricane, but judging by this show it’s going to take more than a category 4 to stop them.

Show Hide image

Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge