most we can have are elites in differentrnfields that are distinct from each otherrnand are often in conflict with each other,rnand while that is not the kind of equalityrnwe would really like or the kind Marx andrnhis Enlightenment forebears chatteredrnabout, it’s close enough, at least as longrnas the elites are reasonably open to newrnmembers and arc sufficiently competitivernwith each other that they do not colludernagainst the nonelite parts of society.rnThis version of elite theory, knownrngenerally as “democratic elitism” orrn”pluralism,” was closely associated withrnthe political liberalism of the 1950’s, wasrnthe dominant school of thought amongrnAmerican social scientists until the risernof New Left Marxism in the 1960’s, andrnwas particularly useful in explaining why,rnwhenever the American rabble got out ofrncontrol in movements like those centeredrnaround Senator Joseph McCarthy,rnelites rather than the people should be inrncharge. Its major proponents includedrnthe sociologists Talcott Parsons, DanielrnBell, and Suzanne Keller and politicalrnscientist Robert Dahl, and echoes of itrnare to be found in the writings of ReinholdrnNiebuhr, George F. Kennan, WalterrnLippmann, and the eariy John KennethrnGalbraith, among others.rnWhether the theory of “democraticrnelitism” was ever true, whether distinct,rncompeting, and reasonably open elitesrnever actually performed in the neat Newtonianrnwaltz they were supposed to berndancing, has never been very clear, butrntoday, whether they once existed or not,rnthere are clear signs that they don’t anyrnmore, that those elites are beginning torncome together to form what can only berndescribed as a ruling class, of the kindrn18th-century oligarchs would havernenvied.rnOne major problem with the theory ofrn”democratic elitism” has always beenrnthat its proponents tend to assume thatrnthings really are the way they are supposedrnto be and that they seldom troubledrnto look beneath the surface of politicalrnand social competition to discoverrnthe underlying unity that supposedlyrncompeting elites display. Democraticrnelitists often cited conflicts betweenrn”business” and “government,” for example,rnto show that each checked and balancedrnthe other, never grasping (or atrnleast never revealing) that the supposedrnconflict between them more often disguisedrnclose cooperation. Nor did theyrngrasp that the “adversarial” thrust of thernmajor media and cultural institutionsrnwas unilaterally directed against older, rivalrnelites and their institutions ratherrnthan against the leadership of large corporations,rnlabor unions, major universities,rnor major hgures in the political establishment.rnArchie Bunker was a figurernto be ridiculed; Jackie Kennedy was not,rnmuch less the repellent brood of gangstersrninto which she married. Even in thernheyday of “democratic elitism,” then,rnthe elites stuck together a good dealrnmore than the theory said they were supposedrnto.rnIf their collusion was apparent evenrnthen, it is even more obvious today, andrnthe kind of conflict that does exist—rnbetween the political parties or thern”competition” between multinationalrnoligopolies, for example—is by no meansrnunusual even in what are clearly knownrnto be ruling classes. In I8th century England,rnthe political and cultural conflictsrnbetween Whig and Tory, Court andrnCountry, was no less real and no less bitterrnthan those between Republican andrnDemocrat, Dan Quayle and MurphyrnBrown, today; but no one imagines thatrnthe conflicts of the Augustan Age werernanything more than family squabblesrnwithin what Disraeli called the increasinglyrnmonolithic “Venetian oligarchy” ofrnthe British ruling class. Today, the essentialrnunity of the elites is obvious not onlyrnin such shadow-boxing as the nationalrnelection just concluded (far calmer thanrnmany 18th-century contests for a seat inrnthe House of Commons) but also in thernincestuous and self-serving structure ofrnthe elites in government, the economy,rnand the dominant culture. Each eliternsupports the others; their members sharernthe same ideas, values, tastes, and manners;rnand they all collaborate in smotheringrnanyone or anything that makes an audiblernsqueak against the ruling class andrnits interests.rnGenuinely adversarial dissent is discouragedrnor actively condemned, whilernbooks espousing ideas that question therncommon worldview and ideology of thernruling class are banned, candidates whornchallenge the political monopoly are systematicallyrnsmeared and excluded fromrnthe official debates, and political groupsrnthat dissent from or challenge the monopolizationrnof power are branded asrn”extremist” in the ruling class media andrnsubjected to political and legal harassmentrnand persecution by the ruling classrnpolice apparatus. Meanwhile, the policiesrnand ideologies that each “competingrnelite” follows or peddles reinforce andrnsupport each other, so that even the illusionrnof competition and balance beginsrnto shrivel. What stands out today aboutrnthe elites of business, government, andrnthe dominant culture is not any fictionrnabout the “countervailing power” theyrnrepresent, but their increasing unificationrnand cooperation in defense of theirrncommon identity and common interests.rnThe process of oligarchization is evidentrnalso in the emergence of the typicalrntraits of a ruling class, its class consciousness,rnmanifested in the appearance ofrnsnobbery and the evolution of codes ofrndress, speech, manners, taste, andrnlifestyle that distinguish the ruling classrnfrom those outside it. In late 20th-centuryrnAmerican society, it is increasinglyrneasy to pick out of a crowd those Americansrnwho are in the ruling class and thosernwho are not, and only a brief conversationrnis necessary to confirm your intuition.rnThe distinctions between themrnare only in part those of education,rnspeech, and dress, and any extended conversationrnat once reveals the attitudinalrngulf that separates the two orders of society.rnThe British ruling class of the 18thrncentury was lucky, and almost unique, inrnescaping the usual fate of an aristocracyrnthat solidifies itself into a unified oligarchyrnand exercises social and politicalrnpower exclusively in pursuit of its own interests,rnwith little concern for the interestsrnof the larger society from which itsrnpower derives. But the British aristocracy,rnfor all its flaws, remained a healthierrnclass than its continental counterparts,rnwhich eventually fell to the firing squadsrnand guillotines of new elites. There is littlernindication that our own emerging rulingrnclass exhibits its virtues or even somernof the flaws that helped it preserve itsrnpower. EfHcient tyranny requires a certainrnamount of strong character, and thernvery structure of the American rulingrnclass tends to weed out anyone who exhibitsrnthe traits necessary for the constructionrnand maintenance of seriousrntyranny. That failing constitutes a majorrnvulnerability of the new oligarchy,rnits incapacity to grasp fully the naturernof power and what the exercise ofrnpower demands of those who wield it.rnWhether that failing is a vice or a virtue,rnit is certainly a weakness that those socialrnforces outside the new ruling class canrnexploit to help send the Americanrnoligarchy to the same graveyard wherernall aristocracies eventually wind up.rnG-‘rn38/CHRONICLESrnrnrn