Certainly, the twisted knots into which the United States Supreme Court and the Florida electorate tied themselves in order to certify the 2000 election of George W. Bush were an important crossroads in the accelerating decay of America’s governing class. But even that was merely an inflection point in a process that has been unfolding for at least the last fifty years.
When America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, we were still a nation of the proudly governed. Indeed, the concept of a “ruling class” was much ignored then by the masses, in favor of the immutable “Establishment.” But, since that time, even the fantasy of governance of the people, by the people, has withered away such that most of the electorate, whether they will readily admit it or not, no longer imagines that they are in control. Indeed, most take it as a hard truth that those we elect to govern are merely employees of the very wealthy, whom one might recognize as a monarchy in all but name.
This is not a new phenomenon in this promised land of opportunity. The moneyed class has always held more sway in its politics than the man on the street. Yet, in more economically mobile times, there was enough churn between the classes that at least the theory of equal representation was somewhat plausible. Those born poor or of modest means were more accepting of the power of the wealthy if the chance existed, however improbable, that ether they or their children might be able to climb to real power. And this egalitarian attitude was even more prevalent in the thirty years after World War II, when the power of the middle class was at its height. Since then, however, the very wealthy have succeeded in building a nearly impenetrable firewall between themselves and the unwashed masses, and those unfortunate to have been born on the wrong side of that wall have seen their individual chances of climbing the economic ladder shift relentlessly from improbable, to impossible.
Even this would not be a problem if the very rich were somewhat representative of those they rule. But, increasingly, they are not. Over the past thirty years, the Randian captains of industry who meritoriously climbed to the top, and who could at least acknowledge the working class, have been replaced by financiers, inheritors, the idle rich, the occasional lottery winner, and other rent seekers who have become disconnected from the wants, needs, and desires of those from whom they extract their tax. For, unlike those they have replaced, one must wonder what it is, exactly, the new American ruling class has accomplished, other than to further gate its community?
In many ways, the present economic situation loudly echoes the Gilded Age of the 1880’s, whether in comparison to the vast inequality in wealth, the poverty of the poorest of the masses, the economic toll of the boom and bust cycles, the powerlessness of the average worker and the increases in automation that made them irrelevant, the political corruption, the ability of corporate officers to extract vast shareholder wealth from companies they barely oversaw, the concentration of economic power in the hands of the relative few, and so on. And since history both echoes and rhymes, so too will return the civil unrest, the great battles between capital and labor, and the clash against corruption as the masses regain their unified voice. For, if there is one unifying characteristic of the very rich throughout their long recorded history, it is the implacable inability to contain the bottomless greed and avarice that defines them. In that, they are like insatiable little children left unattended in a candy store: they simply cannot help themselves.
Yet America, and indeed the world, has reached one of those epic periods of human civilization that is particularly intolerant of incompetent leadership. Nearly six years after the largest global economic crash in eighty years, caused in no small part by feckless financiers who have escaped retribution while forcing harsh austerity on those who were previously their marks, the rule of law upon which both a strong democracy and a robust free market depend lies nearly in tatters. At no time in recent history has there been such a clear demarcation between the rules for the rich and the rules for the poor. The long-denied presence of class warfare has become very real as of late, and the victims are becoming restless.
It must be admitted, though, that much of the pain inflicted by our new ruling class has less to do with some sadomasochistic desire to punish the poor than it has to do with their absolute disconnect from the daily realities of life. These are not the people who were born on third and thought they hit a triple; these are the people who were born on home plate, and raised to believe that is the way it should be. Failure is not a word in their lexicon, because failure has been stricken from the equation. They will never lack for food, clothing, friends, the helpful hand, entry to the best schools, the most exclusive clubs, the most outrageous toys, the most beautiful consorts of either sex, or anything else they desire. Their world is as different from even the “merely” rich as we are from ants.
For it is not those born to the very top of the ladder who are the most fearsome, but those upon whom they stand, merely two or three rungs below – who can see the top, envision it in their grasp, and thus ever so motivated to jump even harder on those located beneath them. And so it goes, on down the ladder, each rung or two jumping that much harder on those below them, until that last, bottom rung, the ones there hanging on for sheer desperation, dangling just far enough above the forever poor to be truly terrified, and for whom even totalitarianism is less fearful than tumbling into the trampling masses below.