No More Nonsense About Elitesrnby Claes G. RynrnAfisli starts rotting from the head, it is said. That a societ}’rnstarts rotting from its head needs to be much better understood.rnBlaming the dechne of Western societv on a “re’olt ofrnthe masses” absolves elites, who must bear the brunt of thernblame. Catering to popular tastes is not the result of relentlessrnpressure from the grassroots but of an elite elass proclaimingrnthe wisdom of “the people” and granting them privileges, givingrnpower to new elites.rnAmong those who set the tone in America today—in the artsrnand entertainmeirt, the media, the universities, and politics —rnthe stink of rot is unmistakable. These elites not only condonernbut generate the growing nastiness, crassness, vulgarity, dcbancher)’,rnand mediocrity of life. From corporate boardroomsrnto lecture halls, courtrooms to movie studios, foundation boardsrnto pulpits, legislatures to newsrooms, civilizahon is gasping forrnair. Man) within the American elites do the generalrntrends — some bravely and with limited success—but they dornnot corrsider themselves on the winning side. Many tr- tellingrnthemselves that things are not as bad as they seem. Some play,rnpathetically, at shll being of the ruling class by riding horses onrntheir country estate, lunching at the Metropolitan Club, or attendingrnSunday services with “nice” people at the Episcopalrnchurch.rnIf we are to think strategically about America’s elites, it is necessary,rnfirst of all, to abandon a preoccupation with electionsrnand poiidcians or, at a minimum, greatly broaden our conceptionrnof politics. Practical politics does not set its own direction;rnit is largeK’ symptomatic of the moral, culhiral, and intellectualrnlife of society. Politicians make a difference —a great deal of differencernin some historical circumstances—but they do not au-rnClaes G. Ryn, a professor of politics at the Catholic Universih’rnof America, is the chairman of the National HumanitiesrnInstitute and the president of the Philadelphia Society.rntonomously generate the energy and direction of politics, hi anrnimportant sense, they follow rather than lead. Only at the marginsrncan politicians direct the general trends of civilization.rnThey are confined b}- the hopes and preferences dominant inrntheir society. These bear the imprint of other elites, living orrndead; of those who shape the mind, imagination, and moralrnsensibilities of a people.rnRegarding the dominant political elites as the core of America’srnproblems betrays an insufficient grasp of what ulfimatelyrnmoves human beings and decides the long-term direction of society’.rnIf, by some odd historical accident, the ranks of the despisedrnpolitical elites were sharply reduced in an election, thernelites that mold the larger moral, imaginative, and intellectualrnpatterrrs of societ)’ would remain. The prevalent cultural ethosrnvvoidd continue to fashion the desires and beliefs of the Americanrnpeople, who would continue to idolize the same kind ofrnpoliticians they had just removed.rnElites both define and embody a society’s deepest longingsrnand fears. By definition, they have the more or less grudging acceptancernof a people, howexer much particular groups may resentrntheir power. New, superior elites could emerge today onlyrnif the spirit of civilization were somehow to reawaken amongrntiiose who shape thought, imagination, and moral sensibilit)’, sornthat a new sense of what is desirable and undesirable began tornemerge. Such a change would require a transformation of thernuniversities, the churches, and the arts, including entertainment.rnAnother obstacle to clear thinking about America’s elites isrnpopulism, which attributes wisdom to “the people” and perniciousnessrnto elites. Granted, the common people may look superiorrnto elites at a time when the former are holding on tornsound tradition while the latter are recklessly abandoning it.rnBut if the common people seem wiser than elites in times of socialrnupheaval, it is oirly because the)’ are slow to adopt the newrn18/CHRONICLESrnrnrn