The Question of Class in America

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in the atmosphere of humanities graduate studies has heard the phrase “race, class, and gender” used as an explanatory device. The basic idea of its proponents is that the viewpoint of just about any author can be understood by breaking his identity down into these component categories. It is a fundamental staple of postmodern historical analysis and literary criticism.

I’ve never found this idea persuasive, for various reasons that I won’t go into right now. I bring it up, though, because of an intriguing essay I read yesterday that could potentially have a big impact on political discussion in the coming months. The article, “America’s Ruling Class,” is by Angelo Codevilla of Boston University. It argues that the United States is governed by a bipartisan elite that is completely out of touch with and opposed to the values of a substantial majority of Americans, but that it has co-opted about one third of the population through pork and other favors.

If you read the article, you will probably have one of two reactions: “This guy is crazy,” or, “That explains a lot.” What I found interesting about it is how it tapped into some well established templates of historical sociological analysis. For example, Codevilla uses the same “court/country” division that is a standard feature of 17th-century English social analysis. What separated the court and country in England was not so much birth or wealth, but rather proximity to the throne and levers of power, and Codevilla sees the same dynamic at work in America today.

Codevilla also draws out some anti-family and anti-church implications of modern political theories, nearly all of which recognize no fundamental social entities save the individual and the State. I discuss this idea briefly every semester in survey classes when I cover Hobbes and Rousseau, but Codevilla expresses the idea in a more catchy way than I usually do. Here’s a paragraph that jumped out at me:

“While our ruling class teaches that relationships among men, women, and children are contingent, it also insists that the relationship between each of them and the state is fundamental. That is why [elites] such as Hillary Clinton have written law review articles and books advocating a direct relationship between the government and children, effectively abolishing the presumption of parental authority. Hence whereas within living memory school nurses could not administer an aspirin to a child without the parents’ consent, the people who run America’s schools nowadays administer pregnancy tests and ship girls off to abortion clinics without the parents’ knowledge. Parents are not allowed to object to what their children are taught. But the government may and often does object to how parents raise children. The ruling class’s assumption is that what it mandates for children is correct ipso facto, while what parents do is potentially abusive. It only takes an anonymous accusation of abuse for parents to be taken away in handcuffs until they prove their innocence. Only sheer political weight (and in California, just barely) has preserved parents’ right to homeschool their children against the ruling class’s desire to accomplish what Woodrow Wilson so yearned: “to make young gentlemen as unlike their fathers as possible.”

The essay is very interesting, and I encourage everyone to read it. If you don’t agree with its basic ideas, at least it will give you some insight into the ideas that motivate the Tea Party people and their supporters.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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