The New American Aristocracy
By Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D.
Many progressive thinkers today are in varying states of shock. We now largely understand the demographics that define the winners and losers of the 2016 election. But, how do we understand what is happening to the nation’s collective consciousness? How has the psychological split between political poles become so vast?
One of the founding principles of American society was the belief that we are all created equal. Two and a half centuries ago, this was a fresh and radical idea in the world. For centuries, European and other aristocratic societies around the world believed that some people, by virtue of their birth, were entitled to privilege. Others, by the same circumstance, were understood as destined to serve the privileged minority born to so-called noble families.
For hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, an aristocratic class did not exist—at least not in any way we can readily detect from the archeological record. People lived in small groups and needed every person’s effort for the survival of the whole. Everyone hunted, gathered, cared for children, or made useful things. No one appeared to live in a manner of luxury that far exceeded the means of the rest of the group. Perhaps there is some sort of racial memory embedded in our bones that makes us feel umbrage toward our fellows who seem to live on another planet of privilege. The schadenfreude some feel when elites are brought down by scandal or gross miscalculation reflects that longing for greater equality and a more even distribution of resources.
The American Revolution embraced this sentiment. The founders did away with kings and queens, princes and princesses, barons and baroness, dukes and duchesses, counts and countesses, lords and ladies, and all the rest. Unlike the image on the crests of European royal families and nations, our American eagle wears no crown. For its first two centuries, a powerful fantasy persisted in America: any people from any origins could apply their talents and succeed in equal measure to their hard work and ingenuity. There were many holes in that romantic vision. Nevertheless, there was at least an ideal of inclusion and equal opportunity in the collective imagination that had not existed widely in previous societies.
In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The five Pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty, Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtue. Any one of the three first can, at any time, overbear any one or both of the two last.” Rolling forward to the 2016 election, Adams seems eerily prescient. Many early Americans were completely sincere in their advocacy for liberty and an egalitarian society. At first, however, the founders only extended the benefits of democracy to a minority of the population—white men with property. Nevertheless, the idea took hold and through the significant efforts of all the other previously excluded classes, great steps toward the ideals of equality occurred.
First, in the nineteenth century, the Thirteenth Amendment granted former slaves freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868, gave them citizenship and also conferred birthright citizenship to all. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment removed race as a barrier. Women’s suffrage movement culminated in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment allowing women to vote. In 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment extended the vote to eighteen-year-olds. Group by group, those previously excluded from participation in democracy fought for and won inclusion in the American political process.
One American dream foresees a day when anyone, regardless of race, gender, economic class or sexual orientation, will have the inalienable right to vote, marry, receive equal pay for equal work, live where he or she wishes, and have equal access to work, heath care and education. Some politicians, however, are working hard to deny the poor easy access to the ballot box through regressive voter exclusion rules and redistricting clearly intended to limit groups who tend to vote for representatives who are sensitive to their needs. Moreover, contrary to the inclusionary practices of other Western democracies, millions of impoverished prisoners even more former felons in the U.S. have been stripped of voting rights. The new administration is making efforts to muzzle the free press, a bastion of democracy. And with each passing day there appear to be many other regressive trends coming into play. Attacks on social security, health care and other safety nets for the less enfranchised along with calls for more tax breaks for the ultra wealthy and significantly reduced protection for the environment.
Only time will tell if the divisive rhetoric of the recent campaign becomes ensconced in the new ethos of national rule. The centuries-long battle for real equality in America continues on its rugged, twisting, even u-turning pathway. Nevertheless, many of us still carry the vision of a greater, all-inclusive and caring nation. This makes us distinct from many other societies who do not even aspire to this ideal and can give us hope for the future while present trends fill millions with anxiety.
The American Fantasy
One of the greatest and prevailing fantasies of the American dream is one of class migration. Since our founding, most Americans have believed that through hard work and carefully acquiring sufficient capital, people could advance themselves from the lower, working, middle, and upper middle classes to upper-class status. Statistically, however, this Horatio Alger chronicled journey only happens to one in one hundred Americans. The American upper class today is increasingly reminiscent of noble status in European societies. They possess significantly greater political power than most other citizens and their ranks are increasingly difficult to enter.
The Civil Rights movement brought our nation to the point that an African American man could become president. Feminism and other inclusionary movements made it possible that a woman could run as the candidate of a major party, but not enough for her to win (even with a significant majority of the vote). From an archetypal view, xenophobic possession won this election, just as it did in Germany in the 1930’s. Fear of the Other, which includes Women, won. So did the same sorts of narcissistic grandiosities, denigrations and divisiveness, which fueled the nationalist aggressions of WWII. Even many progressive white guys who are committed to American foundational ideas like equality and inclusion, are feeling marginalized at the moment. We always have been, but retain the privilege to forget that at times.
In certain ways, the 2016 election results are a powerful sign that women and minorities (including religious, social, sexual, cultural, and spiritual minorities) have made great progress toward true equality in America. While it may feel like a pyrrhic victory, it is, nonetheless, stark evidence of tremendous progressive change. In recent decades, previously disenfranchised groups made enough transformation in the American psyche to literally scare the hell out of the traditionally dominant White Tribe. And Hell may now be loosed on the nation. If so, it’s not the first time.
The European colonists unleashed Hell on the Native people in America, on the Africans whom they enslaved and foreign labor they imported, on each other in the American Revolution, again in Civil War, and so on through our nation’s continuing history of oppression and colonization paradoxically along side its ongoing quest for freedom and equality.
It’s possible the Second American Civil War has already begun and democracy itself may be at stake. But if those who value inclusion organize, speak out and resist regressive moves, it will be a non-violent continuation of the vigorous political and cultural exchange of ideas and values that have been a hallmark of the American experiment. Bigotry and other forms of forced exclusion from the fabric of America, regardless of whatever ideology, flag or religious icons they are wrapped in, are immoral both by the principals of our constitution and the conventional ideals of the majority of Americans.
As President Obama told his daughters: “Societies and cultures are really complicated . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”
He also said, “I do believe . . . that we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ . . . and returning to decades-old forms of bigotry . . . . It’s dangerous.” Mr. Obama felt that the desire for change was a huge factor in Mr. Trump’s victory saying, “Globalization combined with technology combined with social media and constant information have disrupted people’s lives, sometimes in very concrete ways” He said the effects can be psychological as well, making people “less certain of their national identifies or their place in the world.” On election eve, CNN commentator Van Jones coined the phenomena:
From a Depth perspective we can understand the 2016 election as a collective return of the repressed. Why might white men, who historically have been the dominant racial cohort in America, now feel marginalized, threatened, frightened and angry enough to elect someone who many people around the world doubt is temperamentally prepared for the job of U.S. president and chief defender of democracy? How did America, after 2½ centuries of slow, uneven, but steady progression toward its founding inclusionary ideals of equality, elect what at first appraisal appears to be a regressive regime, bringing intolerant attitudes toward race, religion, gender, the environment, and global affairs many of us thought relegated to the dust bins of Western history or at best the wooded fringes of the nation?
The Empty Self
One historical foundation of the American dream is a fantasy of endless expansion and limitless geographic frontiers. In Constructing the Self, Constructing America, Philip Cushman posits that as we ran out of geography we began to mine the collective unconscious as a new virgin territory from which to exploit resources. The advertising industry discovered, through Freud in part, that we had an unconscious mind that could be manipulated to act in ways that were not necessarily consistent with the conscious mind. For example, we could become motivated to consume things that we could not afford, destroyed our health or even killed us, like cigarettes. The behavioral science of propaganda, which emerged from advertising psychology in the 1930’s, has also been used to manipulate populations to consume ideas that are not good for them either.
The fascist rise to power in Germany demonstrated that national leaders could use propaganda to subvert democracy as easily as they could use it to resolve conflicts. The Nazis used propaganda intensively to justify the abnegation of human rights that led to the holocaust, using subhuman images of Jews in films, print ads, polemics and posters. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels became a huge fan of the new American science of propaganda. With thinly veiled savagery, he put it to the then unprecedented use of transforming public opinion about the human worth and dignity of entire populations. Goebbels became one of the primary forces behind the Nazis’ attempt to destroy all Jews—and other groups as well. It is noteworthy that much of demonization of Jews clustered around false perceptions that they were in some way responsible for the dissolute state of finances in Weimar Germany.
Between the two world wars Germany suffered one of the worst economic depressions in the history of industrialized nations. Similar tactics were at play in the 2016 election: demonization of minorities and liberals, fake news, out right lies (post-truth) and more. It all heated up, harvested, and directed the return of repressed white male rage. Many working and middle class families never recovered the homes, jobs and savings they lost in the 2007 Great Recession—they lost their grounding in the American dream and were justifiably angry about that.
As it did in Goebbels’s Germany, propaganda today, super-fueled by the power of instant and increasingly unvetted digital media, exacerbated a great deal of latent psychopathology. Propaganda deliberately targets self-esteem, self-image, well-being, sense of membership and safety by turning public opinion against the intrinsic worth of specific groups–scapegoating. The manipulative psychological science of propaganda is subtly and insidiously first directed toward trying to make people feel worse. Advertisers then promise shame eradication and self-esteem redemption through the products they direct people to consume. This very same process is at play in presidential marketing propaganda designed to direct people toward the Great Father archetype, as a promise to keep them safe from the very Shadows the propagandists created with their polemics.
In Germany the Shadow was cast on the unionists, the communists, the gypsies and the Jews. In 2016 America it was Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, liberals, gays, and to a lessor degree the well-educated, particularly scientists. This last election targeted the repressed anger and frustration of a large marginalized segment of American society, the White working class who, before globalization, computers and the rapid advance of assembly robots, could get decent jobs and afford to support their families in a moderate degree of comfort. This downwardly mobile group also witnessed many minority groups and women making economic progress and gaining greater social inclusion, in world that was supposed to be easier for white men.
Cushman describes a uniquely American self that, while it has many similarities with other socially constructed Western selves, is acutely emptier than most. He notes that the American psyche today lacks an internalized sensed of community; that consumerism has shorn us from traditions and shared meanings. Cushman understands psychic emptiness, meaninglessness, and the lack of interiority or completeness as a chronically agitated psychological state. As more trades-based working class men increasingly found them selves failing to adapt to global transformation of the work place, which eliminated many of their jobs, feelings of emptiness, dislocation and fear of change became exacerbated. Anger toward others identified as the cause of this loss of security, stability and meaning increased. They were cynically manipulated to believe: it was those liberals and minorities who did this to us. Remarkably, this message was marketed by a member of the most aristocratic financial class in the world—a billionaire, born into wealth, who after the crash of 2007 personally profited from the misfortunes of this same cohort of downwardly mobile Americans.
Regardless of our high ideals and our steady, albeit uneven, progress toward them, our nation, as a former British Colony, largely descended from an aristocratic society. The resonance of that aristocracy is still with us today, as an echo passing through the generations. Former president George W. Bush, senator John Kerry, and other American notables, starting with George Washington, were descendants of English royalty. It is no longer a widespread belief, however, that people are born with “blue blood,” thought to be superior members of elite society by virtue of their genetic heritage. In fact, many more ordinary than notable Americans can trace their ancestry back to some royal family. This belies the fantasy that some sort of “conquering” gene exists that “great” families can pass along. Nevertheless, America is yet to achieve its ideal of becoming a classless society. The lines of class are merely drawn more vaguely now than in seventeenth-century Europe.
In European aristocratic society, even if a family lost its great wealth it could remain upper class in name. Relationship to a royal family was often sufficient to elevate one’s status, as was extraordinary distinction in battle, colonial acquisitions or other notable service to the Crown. In America, it is not so much breeding, noble acts or closeness to a particular family that designates one’s class, even though that can help. It is instead largely determined by the degree of wealth one possesses.
Money is the most egalitarian force in our society today, perhaps in all of history. Money immediately transfers power and status to whomever possesses it. In this way, as John Adams lamented, it is often more influential than education, talent, morality, and character. The current president elect has centered his entire identity on acquiring more money. He presents himself and his family as Royals, using a multitude of regal symbols—like 24-carat gold covered fixtures and marble walls in his eponymous tower and building estates that look like castles. Every image, fashion statement and action trumpets to the nation that he and his family are Ruling Class. Even his son is named with a European aristocratic title: Baron.
For some people, money is a way to display evidence of their class status. One crude expression succinctly demonstrates this theme: Fuck you, money. That is, the certain amount of money that can allow people to abandon manners, social compromise, and collaboration with others yet still retain the social inclusion others without vast wealth would lose though such behaviors. This expression has a sociopathic theme embedded within it: the fantasy that with enough money one no longer has to work with the often difficult but soul-making challenge of reciprocal human relations or care about the common good. This perceived power of money to buy freedom from social constraints is a fantasy however. In truth, many wealthy people suffer the emptiness that often arises for those who fail to nurture their intimate relationships with others. Knowing this, even though Plato warned that both wealth and poverty cause discontent, we should be suspicious of a government run by billionaires. Regardless of the shiny veneer money can plate on the ultra-wealthy, they remain all too human underneath. If they become possessed by the idea that their vast wealth makes them unaccountable to the less wealthy majority, they can be just as dangerous as the European despots America and other democracies overthrew at their founding.
Roughly half of the people in the US are not living what most would call the American dream. The majority thinks they never will, which is a new pessimism in the American psyche. Upward mobility as a foundational myth of American society seems to be crumbling. The idea that we can improve our lot through hard work and application of our gifts has been common to dreams of an America that was a land of equal opportunity. This dream led millions from other countries to our shores in the past.
Many of the early American colonists imagined America as a virgin land just waiting for them to exploit even though other people had lived here for thousands of years. As the wealth distribution of colonial-era Boston reveals, however, many did not fare so well. In 1760, 1 percent of Boston’s population held 44 percent of the wealth, while the upper 10 percent controlled about two-thirds. Then, as in 2016, an aristocratic minority seized much of the wealth for its own families and reduced the rest of the colonists to varying degrees of servitude. Then came the Revolutionary War.
Later generations also found serious obstacles to upward mobility despite America’s imagination of having thrown off the shackles of class. Nevertheless, many more did make their way up the economic scale than was ever possible in aristocratic Europe and a comfortable middle class evolved. In the twenty-first century, however, economic mobility in the United States slipped to thirteenth out of the seventeen most developed nations. And that slippage caused great consternation in the electorate that turned out for the new government.
Many people feel demoralized by the belief that it should be easier here; that our government and other institutions should aggressively support mobility as evidence of their commitment to democracy and freedom. Downward mobility is not merely uncomfortable or imbued with the sorrow of lost dreams and shame of persona failure; it is dangerous. People who are not psychologically minded often have difficulty looking at their own contributions to their troubles or fully understanding the larger economic forces in which they are caught. When a demagogue comes along and creates a defined target for their loss–like liberal elites or Mexicans—the cannons are primed. Blaming the Other for the dominant group’s woes is the archetypal projection for the rise of almost every tyrant including most of the oppression and genocide that has occurred in human history.
When the internal Shadow of the dominant group is cast upon other groups to bear, then members of the dominant group feel, for a time, relieved from carrying their own fear and emptiness. This scapegoating phenomena, is formed by the central fantasy that if the shadow-carrying Other can be identified, pathologized, isolated, and ultimately destroyed, then the Shadow will be destroyed as well. This is the opposite of inclusivity, which believes that dark forces are not kept at bay though repression, exclusion and destruction but rather through inclusion and integration into the body of the whole community or nation. Our statue of Liberty does not say send us your rich and powerful, it says the poor and homeless are most welcome here. Shall we edit the text on our most iconic American symbol to now welcome only the sons of Empire?
The government is not where all change starts or stops. They do what they do and we do what we do. Most of the significant and valuable change happening in this world today is at the grass roots. Much of this work, however, does not make the national news. Foucault said that the seemingly monolithic structures of power are actually full of cracks and holes that resistance can penetrate and operate through. Change is not linear. The pendulum swings. Spirals, zig-zags, twisting paths—pick your metaphor—straight lines are rare in nature.
The new Federal government and the minority of citizens who supported it (only about 1/3 of potential voters) are not the whole world. If Donald Trump’s reign does not kill the world with Nukes or Carbon we will persevere and the campaign for a more inclusive, tolerant and sustainable world goes on, beyond us to the generations who follow. Unlike so many in the world today, we still have free speech and media access. You can speak, write, teach and influence—you have real power–education, the power of language, vision and passion. Using your gifts well may be the only real antidote to despair. Things, it seems, may now get worse to get better.
I am happy to know that communities such as those convening at Pacifica are hosting alternative views to the darker face of capitalism that the new Emperor of America is displaying to the world. America has survived the personality disorders and moral deficits of other presidents. In the end, King Midas begged the gods to rid him of his golden touch, which turned all living things to cold metal, so he could once more enjoy the simple gifts of life. If we keep our attention on the real wealth of our lives–the depth of soul, our interconnections, health, integrity and power to create positive transformation within and without, wherever we are on the economic scale, this too shall pass and the American quest for freedom and equality will continue.
I do not think the revolution we need today is primarily political. Politics largely dedicates itself to serving the interests of those already advantaged by existing accords. Programs for the disenfranchised are often largely attempts to keep social unrest at bay. Even though some notable elites have genuine concern for the less advantaged, the best interests of those already in power motivate more legislators than does any real compassion. Regardless, politics of confrontation have a long, repetitious history of failure to provide lasting solutions, so I do not think that is the direction we need to look.
What we need today is a collaborative grassroots effort of proportions never previously seen in the modern age to create and sustain more community watering holes, more caring subcultures within uncaring governments and aristocratic institutions in which growing money and power over others is their primary mission. We can reach out to one another with kindness, generosity and respect to weave a stronger national fabric of inclusion and care that might be missing in the upper echelons of government for a while. Let’s spend the time ahead, talking about what we can do for one another in a time when many of the core values of an inclusive democracy seem threatened.
–Dr. Aaron Kipnis spent his first 68 years in the U.S. He is currently on Salt Spring Island, in British Colombia. He is a professor emeritus at Pacifica Graduate Institute and psychologist in California. Portions of this blog were excerpted from his book: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.
–The views expressed here are Dr. Kipnis’ and not intended to represent Pacifica Graduate Institute as a whole.