Populism vs. Elitism

Europe has a long history of governance by elites (monarchies, dictators, oligarchies, etc.) Even in its practices of democracy, Europeans have defaulted to governance by the elites. For instance, a July 2008 edition of The Economist noted:

“EVERY student of France is familiar with the énarques, graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. They account for seven of the past ten prime ministers, including Dominique de Villepin, the current one, as well as President Jacques Chirac. From time to time, ENA’s grip tightens. Consider the class of 1980, known as the promotion Voltaire. This crop, mostly in their early 50s, from a class of just over 100, is now running the country.

“On the centre-right, the year included not only Mr de Villepin (and his sister, Véronique), but also Pierre Mongin, his directeur du cabinet, and Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, a cabinet minister. On the left, it numbered François Hollande, the Socialist leader, and Ségolène Royal, his partner and popular Socialist regional boss: the two met at ENA. In business, the year of 1980 counts Henri de Castries, head of AXA, an insurance giant, and Jean-Pierre Jouyet, ex-head of the French Treasury and now head of Barclays France. Among several other top executives appears the figure of Marie-Françoise Bechtel, who was until recently director of, well, ENA.”

Emerald Insight described a 2014 study by Mairi Maclean (Department of Organisation Studies, University of Exeter Business School, Exeter, UK, and) Charles Harvey (Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle University, Newcastle, UK) that concluded that a relatively small group of elites effectively controlled both the government and major industries of France:

“Findings – The paper finds elite cohesion to be achieved quite differently in the two countries. In addition, it finds that the ties that bind French connectors tend to be strong and institutionally based.”

“Practical implications – The case of EDF suggests that the most ambitious of State-sponsored strategies can also be the most successful. It implies that elite ideologies in France have deviated relatively little from sentiments expressed by Rousseau and de Gaulle concerning the primacy of the national interest and the conviction that firms can serve as an (expansionist) instrument of the nation. The Messier case illuminates the pattern of close relationships among the French business elite. It demonstrates how a strategy of expansion may come unstuck when it is not grounded in the customary modes of business regulation.”

Inclusion in the cabal of elites is garnered by birth and/or post-secondary education at the elites’ schools of choice where students are indoctrinated into the “benefits” of governance by the elites. It makes little difference whether these members gravitate to the left or to the right politically as long as there is adherence to the idea that power and control emanate from their ranks.

The same can be said of Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, Spain and to a lesser degree the Nordic countries. The Baltic countries, recently emerged from dominance by the former Soviet Union, have not built a “ruling elite” and tend to be dominated by ruthless oligarchs who will, overtime, become the “ruling elites” – generally in the second or third generations as they embrace the patina of respectability.

Is any of this sounding familiar? (Think of the Rockefellers and the Kennedys.)

These elites give lip service to the concept of representative democracy – democracy is just fine as long as the leadership comes from their ranks. They are more or less indifferent to the political philosophies – conservative or liberal – so long as those political philosophies do not disrupt the underlying power structure. But when their power is directly threatened they act with haste to quash such rebellions. A most recent example has just occurred in Italy where the competing elites have failed repeatedly to organize a new government amongst the traditional parties. However, the extreme wings of political governance have found a common cause – the overreach of the European Union – and successfully organized a governing coalition. In accordance with the rule of law, the coalition of left and right populist parties presented its credentials to the Italian President Sergio Mattarella who promptly rejected them throwing Italy into political turmoil. The left/right coaltion represents the great unwashed of Italy and are considered an anathema to the ruling elite. Mr. Mattarella is the epitome of those elites having served in the Italian government in one capacity or another for decades. Even the staid Wall Street Journal -– often a pillar of the ruling elites in America – was so offended by this naked power grab that it opined on Monday:

“Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected the populist right-left coalition’s attempt to form a government on Sunday, explaining that it threatened Italy’s participation in the euro. Brussels may be relieved for now, but this rejection of the recent election result may stoke even more populist ire in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

“It’s hard to imagine a more highhanded elite dismissal of public opinion than Mr. Mattarella’s diktat. . .”

Again, is any of this sounding familiar? Does the concept of “deep state” appear more familiar? Does interference by the Justice Department (Loretta Lynch, Rob Rosenstein, Sally Yates and Lisa Page), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and Peter Strzock), the Central Intelligence Agency (John Brennan), the National Intelligence Agency (James Clapper) and the National Security Administration (Susan Rice) in the 2016 presidential election and the follow on to President Donald Trump’s administration sound familiar?

While decrying the corruption of the opposing political parties, the elites ensure that the elite members of the opposition seldom suffer any serious consequences for their action. (In fact, they are heard to sniff that holding a losing party responsible for crimes committed under its administration is akin to being a third world nation.) A May 3, 2009 article in Real Clear Politics charts the history of that accommodation among the elites:

“When Thomas Jefferson succeeded John Adams, a contest that put America on such a different footing that it is remembered today as the Revolution of 1800, he did not seek to put members of the Adams administration on trial. When Warren G. Harding followed Woodrow Wilson in the White House in 1921, he did not put Edith Galt Wilson on trial for usurping the office of the presidency after Wilson’s stroke. When Bill Clinton ended a dozen years of Republican rule in 1993, he did not try to prosecute Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for deceiving the Congress over the Iran-Contra affair.

“In the span of 220 years there have been 43 changes of presidents, and always this rule, never written but never broken, has prevailed: Presidents let their predecessors be judged by the merciless jury of history, not by the temporal verdicts of courts.

“Commentators and historians often apply a facile shorthand to describe the fundamental principle (and surpassing greatness) of the American political system: Here the transfer of power from one party to another, or from one president to another, is accomplished by ballots, not bullets. That shorthand has an unspoken corollary: Here presidents and parties do not criminalize the policies of their predecessors.”

That “unwritten rule” has a sound basis when applied to governance but has given rise to abuses of a more personal nature – financial enrichment and preservation of power. Again, does this sound familiar?

There is a theory that governance of complex institutions is difficult and that people in a democracy (already spending full time trying to manage a family and a career) are incapable of dealing with such complexities and accept rule by elites – people they believe are smarter, better educated and better equipped to deal with these complexities. So long as the elites do not disrupt their lives they will tolerate the abuses by the elites. Again that is understandable but tends to allow abuse of the system.

However, there are times when the people in a democracy come to believe that their lives ARE being disrupted by the governance of the elites and they react democratically in a way that frightens the power structure of the elites. This has occurred in Great Britain where the people voted to exit the European Union because they were being asked to bear a disproportionate burden (taxes, immigration, job migration, etc.) dictated by a group (the European Union leadership) who were unaccountable to their way of life. It has occurred in Italy regarding the European Union’s dictated budgetary restrictions using the “euro” as leverage. It has occurred in other European countries regarding the onslaught of Middle Eastern immigration again dictated by the European Union regardless of the wishes of particular countries (Spain, Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia).

The question then is whether governance yields to the popular sentiment or the elites act to thwart the popular sentiment. The best cure for elitist abuse is transparency. Difficult as it is to witness, we are seeing that play out in the current scandal in Washington involving an allusion Russian collusion that remains unproven and a growing recognition of the abuses of the previous administration in using the agencies of the federal government to thwart the 2016 election. The final shoe has not yet dropped but I’m betting on the popular sentiment.