One of the disorienting features of modern American politics is the sense that the parties’ identities have turned upside down. Since when are Republicans the chief critics of the FBI, the national security state and military leaders? And since when are Democrats the ones who warn against domestic ideological subversion and coordinate with big corporations to control expression?
The two parties’ relationship to traditional sources of authority is changing. As Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute has observed: “Today’s Right implicitly understands itself as the outside party, oppressed by the powerful and banging on the windows of the institutions. Today’s Left implicitly understands itself as the insider, enforcing norms and demanding conformity.”
President Biden’s speech Thursday denouncing political opponents who threaten “the very foundations of our republic,” as Marines stood in the background, was a clear illustration of this insider-outsider dynamic.
To understand how the populist right sees the world, it helps to go back to the last time the left was “banging on the windows of the institutions.” The period after World War II was a time of strong political consensus in America, which a “new left” rose up to challenge. There are clear parallels between today’s populist right and the new left movement that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.
C. Wright Mills, a sociologist at Columbia University, was that movement’s intellectual godfather. Consider a passage from his 1956 bestseller, “The Power Elite,” a polemical attack on the structure of America’s institutions that would inspire a generation of new left activists:
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“[The power elite] are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.”
Today, that passage could easily appear in a populist-right publication such as the Claremont Institute’s the American Mind, which denounces the liberal “regime.” If uttered on Fox News or Newsmax, it might be condemned as an example of conspiracism or misinformation that sows discord and undermines confidence in institutions.
Mills, who died in 1962, didn’t use the term “deep state,” but an unaccountable bureaucracy was a major concern of the new left philosopher. “It is in the executive chambers, and in the agencies and authorities and commissions and departments that stretch out beneath them” where much policy is made, he argued, “rather than in the open arena of politics.”
Those making decisions were not chosen by ordinary voters: “Once, most of the men who reached the political top got there because people elected them up the hierarchy of offices,” Mills observed. “But of late, in a more administrative age, men become big politically because small groups of men, themselves elected, appoint them.”
That critique should sound familiar to anyone who has followed conservative attacks on the administrative state or the public health establishment during the covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, it has become alien to modern liberalism, which increasingly relies on deference to credentialed experts.
The threat to “democracy,” for Mills, was not that election outcomes wouldn’t be respected — it was that on the most important matters, elections wouldn’t influence governance. Americans “feel that they live in a time of big decisions; they know that they are not making any,” he wrote. That was the purview of a ruling class in corporate America and in the executive branch.
Whether Mills’s satisfying diagnosis reflected reality is debatable, just as the nature of elite power is contested today. Political movements can alternate between claiming insider and outsider status as expediency demands (and have done so throughout American history).
What matters is that today’s new right, like the new left before it, is self-consciously animated by a sense of exclusion from what Mills called “the higher circles” — including in universities, professional organizations and the national security state.
In his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” Mills rejected a complacent view of American life that he said prevailed among intellectuals: “That in the West there are not more real issues or even problems of great seriousness. The mixed economy plus the welfare state plus prosperity — that is the formula. … In the meantime, things everywhere are very complex, let us not be careless, there are great risks.”
Mills saw this consensus as stultifying and undemocratic, much as populists on the right this century have rebelled against the program of trade and globalization that prevailed in both parties after the Cold War. The pathologies of populism have been well documented, and its threats to subvert elections require vigilance and repudiation.
But is the high-minded defense of “democracy” now advanced by the Democratic Party and its powerful allies really a plea for greater participation in governance? Mills’s account of institutional hierarchies in America is a reminder of why many voters might wonder whether liberals aren’t at least as interested in ensuring their continued dominance of the contemporary power elite.