Noblesse Oblige


In The Paradox of American Democracy, John Judis, onetime house conservative at the left biweekly In These Times who has since migrated to the more like-minded New Republic, presents a seeming contradiction: During periods in the past century when the degree of popular protest and democratic participation was greatest—the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the turbulent ’60s and ’70s—elite organizations had their most decisive impact on public policymaking at the national level, fashioning an agenda for reform as well as setting its parameters.

Faced with social disruption, these elites had two options: attack the movements head-on or attempt to co-opt them. That a section of the economic elites has at times chosen to expand the social welfare role of government in order to stave off a more radical redistribution of wealth demonstrates to Judis that they are the guarantors of democratic pluralism; he sees them as a neutral mediator between capital and labor, a sometime proxy for the very movements they’re in fact restraining.

Surveying these moneyed groups’ participation in political and social reform over the last 100 years, he takes their professed intentions at face value. Invoking the National Civic Federation, founded in 1900 by national Republican Party boss Mark Hanna and dominated by the country’s largest monopolists, Judis ignores the fact that it recruited exponents of a narrow craft unionism such as Samuel Gompers, who helped to break strikes and sabotage efforts to organize industrial workers. He also looks back approvingly at the Brookings Institute, Ford Foundation (“a key ally of the new left”), and even such neocon outfits as the Committee on the Present Danger, which fought so strenuously against arms control in the ’70s and early ’80s.

He is at his best describing the rightward shift of elites in the mid ’70s, when business closed ranks against the labor and consumer movements and the older organizations fell by the wayside, replaced by think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and lobbyists of Washington’s K Street pushing for the narrow interests of their corporate constituencies. Holding out hope for a democratic renewal in which elites altruistically step in once again to help reconcile our “commitment to social equality” with the multinational plunder of the “new world economy,” he forgets that in the past they have acted in such a way only when confronted with near-insurrectionary popular pressure.