Who Rules America in 2020?

by James A. Bacon

One of my college textbooks back in the early 1970s was a book by G. William Domhoff, “Who Rules America?” He argued, as best I can remember, that a corporate elite wielded power through its influence over government as well its control of cultural institutions such as think tanks, foundations, academic departments. Apparently, Domhoff has updated his book several times over the years, but his fundamental thesis hasn’t changed.

It’s time for a fresh look at the question of who rules America. I would argue that America’s elites have fractured. A post-WWII corporate elite, based on wealth, still exists, but it has schismed. Some plutocrats remain relatively conservative on cultural issues, while others have embraced leftist nostrums. Moreover, there has arisen a cultural elite that is highly resentful of the power and privileges of the corporate elite. Members of the cultural elite aren’t mega-wealthy, but they are privileged and well-to-do, and they exercise enormous authority. They have captured the mainstream media, the universities, the foundations, the nonprofits, the museums and other cultural institutions, and through them, they frame the dominant narratives of our time.

The old corporate elite was motivated primarily by a desire to perpetuate its wealth. The new cultural elite is envious and would like to reappropriate much of that wealth for redistribution as it sees fit. Even more alarmingly, the cultural elite has a totalitarian instinct. Convinced of its righteousness, it is bent upon imposing its values and priorities upon the rest of the population.

The cultural elite might be described as America’s “intelligentsia.” In a recent column George Will delivers a devastating take-down.

Much of America’s intelligentsia has become a mob.

Seeking to impose on others the conformity is enforces in its ranks, articulate only in a boilerplate of ritualized cant, today’s lumpen intelligentsia consists of persons for whom a little learning is delightful. They consider themselves educated because they are credentialed, stamped with the approval of institutions of higher education that gave them three things: a smattering of historical information just sufficient to make the past seem depraved; a vocabulary of indignation about the failure of all previous historic actors, from Washington to Lincoln to Churchill, to match the virtues of the lumpen intelligentsia; and the belief that America’s grossest injustice is the insufficient obeisance accorded to this intelligentsia.

Its expansion tracks the expansion of colleges and universities — most have, effectively, open admissions — that have become intellectually monochrome purveyors of groupthink. Faculty are outnumbered by administrators, many of whom exist to administer uniformity concerning “sustainability,” “diversity,” “toxic masculinity” and the threat free speech poses to favored groups’ entitlements to serenity.

Today’s cancel culture — erasing history, ending careers — is inflicted by people experiencing an orgy of positive feelings about themselves as they negate others. …

Much education now spreads the disease that education should cure, the disease of repudiating, without understanding, the national principles that could pull the nation toward its noble aspirations. The result is barbarism, as [Jose Ortega y Gassett] defined it, “the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.” A barbarian is someone whose ideas are “nothing more than appetites in words,” someone exercising “the right not to be reasonable,” who “does not want to give reasons” but simply “to impose his opinions.”

I subscribe to Will’s view, and I embrace it as a framework for understanding the “deep” structure of power and politics here in Virginia. Bacon’s Rebellion will pay increasing attention to the question of “Who Rules Virginia” in reality, not in the mythology of the Left.

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35 responses to “Who Rules America in 2020?

  1. “A post-WWII corporate elite, based on wealth, still exists, but it has schismed. Some plutocrats remain relatively conservative on cultural issues, while others have embraced leftist nostrums”

    Just getting harder and harder to harvest the gold.

    Wait, so Citizens United was a bad idea?

  2. “Bacon’s Rebellion will pay increasing attention to the question of “Who Rules Virginia” in reality, not in the mythology of the Left.”

    The current state constitution was adopted in 1971 in order to get the federal government off Virginia’s back based on the heinous and overtly racist 1902 constitution. However, the 1971 constitution was written by Byrd Machine droogs with the intention of preserving control over the state through anti-democratic means. While the original Byrd Machine was very much a Democratic Party operation that changed as the Democrats followed a more liberal path roughly starting with the election of John Kennedy. Hard core Byrd Machine operatives became blue dog Democrats and then Republicans.

    The recent takeover of the state government by new generation liberal Democrats is the first real change in “Who runs Virginia” in over a century. Or is it? The current majority is clearly fiscally irresponsible which is very bad. However, that negative could be significantly offset if the Democrats who are in power aggressive wash out the last vestiges of the old Byrd Machine in Virginia with pre-democratic reforms. To do this the state constitution will need at least significant amendment if not an outright rewrite. Time will tell if they are up for it or just a “new day, same Clown Show”.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      This might be the right time to declare the Capitol Grounds and the State House a museum and relocate the capitol to Northern Virginia. Plenty of open land between Rt 28 and 15 in Loudoun County. A real airport, access to Metro, next door neighbors to the corporate elite. New Virginia, new capitol, new state Constitution. Why not? No new redistricting though. Some things may never change.

    • Droog? I had to look that one up. It means “young man belonging to a street gang”. The members of the 1970 Commission on Constitutional Revision were hardly young. But let’s examine them to see if they fit the description of being part of Harry Byrd’s gang:

      • Albertis Harrison, chairman–former governor and member of state Supreme Court. Yes, he was product of Byrd Organization
      • Albert V. Bryan, Jr.—Alexandria native; practiced law three from 1950-1962; Circuit court judge from 1962-1971. Later appointed to U.S. District Court judgeship. Relationship to Byrd Organization not clear.
      • Ted Dalton—known in 1950’s as “Mr. Republican” (that was when Republicans were moderates). Waged constant fight against Byrd Organization. While in the General Assembly, he cast the only vote against a 1958 resolution urging Harry Byrd to run for another term after Byrd had announced he might retire. Dalton was appointed to the federal bench by Eisenhower. Definitely not a member of Byrd’s gang.
      • Colgate W. Darden, Jr.—former legislator, governor, and president of UVa. He was aligned with the Byrd Organization.
      • Hardy Cross Dillard—One of his major roles was a a judge on the International Court of Justice. He was a West Point graduate, who later went to UVa. law school and served on the faculty there. While at UVa. he also was director of its Institute of Public Affairs, during which he invited many national American leaders to speak on campus. He created much controversy when he invited Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party to speak. He hardly seems like he would have been one of Byrd’s gang members.
      • Alexander M. Harman, Jr.—lawyer from Pulaski. Elected to a circuit court judgeship in 1964 and to the state Supreme Court in 1969. Although I could not find any additional information about him, it is likely that he was aligned with the Byrd Organization.
      • Oliver W. Hill—prominent civil rights lawyer in Richmond. Lead lawyer in the Prince Edward school desegregation case. Classmate of Thurgood Marshall at Howard Law School. Definitely not one of Byrd’s droogs.
      • J. Sloan Kuykendall—Prominent attorney in Winchester. Most likely aligned with Byrd
      • Davis Y. Paschall—at the time of the constitutional revision, he was president of the College of William and Mary. He had been Superintendent of Public Instruc tion from 1957-1960, during Massive Resistance. Likely aligned with the Byrd Organization.
      • Lewis F Powell, Jr.—nationally prominent attorney in Richmond. He never held an elective office and seemed to have kept quiet during Massive Resistance and afterwards. After the constitutional revision commission completed its work, he was nominated by Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court. Oliver Hill provided important support for his nomination. It is hard to imagine Powell as being a Byrd man.
      • A.E. Dick Howard, executive director of the commission—Richmond native. Graduate of UVa law school, top of his class; Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Spent rest of career teaching at UVa. law school. Hardly a Byrd Organization man.

      Including Howard, who, although not a formal member, doubtlessly wielded a lot of influence, the tally comes to 5 aligned with Byrd Organization and 5 not so aligned, with 1 unknown (Bryan). That hardly warrants saying, “the 1971 constitution was written by Byrd Machine droogs”.

      The 1971 state constitution is one of your favorite whipping boys. I have asked before, but have not gotten an answer: What is it about that constitution you consider “anti-democratic”? What do you think needs changing?

      • Did you remember all that, Dick? 😉 Impressive!

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I am a big fan of the dead Virginia political graveyard. Those names listed by Mr. Dick were big time players of that era. It was their last great contribution before a change of the guard occurred in the next decade. A.E. Howard was an extraordinary Virginian and almost totally forgotten about. Powell played a significant role in major Supreme Court cases such as Roe v. Wade and the Bakke cases.

      • Droog — see A Clockwork Orange. Siskel and Elbert declared Malcolm McDowell’s performance the best of the decade.

      • Add Vince Callahan to your list.

        • Vince was certainly a good legislator and Virginian and was not part of the Byrd Organization. I worked with him for many years while I was on the staff of the Division of Legislative Services and later as a local government lobbyist. The ones I listed above were the members of the Commission on Constitutional Revision, of which he was not a member.

          • As good as those guys were and especially so Howard, at that time, their perceived reform mission not foresee at all – the changes that are now being contemplated as result of the width and breadth of black angst and racial animus in general.

            It’s not a complaint but more of an observation and I wonder how many of them would now be okay with removal of the statues.

            And I know some folks think in terms of “who rules” but it’s misplaced in my view and more the complaint of those who find themselves on the short end of change. Black folks certainly are still wanting more change after decades of insufficient change.

            And compare the word equity with parity….

      • Thank you.

        No one would consider that entire group of men “Byrd Machine droogs.” IIRC, Governor Holton was Chair of the group what advocated for voter approval of the Constitution in 1970. Governor Holton was 100% the “anti-Byrd.”

        • Totally true but hypothetically, how many of the “non-Byrd” guys would have agreed with the idea of taking down the statues on Monument Ave?

          I don’t ask that to impugn them but more to illustrate the difference in the times between now and then and would those same men understand and accept the current upheaval over race?
          Did those men know that many of the statues were Jim Crow era?

  3. Funny, talking about “leftists” in almost grand conspiratorial terms when governance in the US looks like this:

    And Conservatives have the Senate, the POTUS and the SCOTUS – as well as FOX NEWS!

    lord o’mighty!

  4. Thanks for posting the map.

    It seals with overwhelming proof George Will’s “devastating take-down.” And locates the who and why and when of those Blue State’s (and their cities) ongoing descent into lawlessness, chaos and bankruptcy, their sure collapse absent a forceful and budget busting Federal bailout and intervention, that greatly weakens and impoverishes the nation, its security, and its room for the maneuver necessary to extricate ourselves from this death spiral .

  5. If the independents in this country don’t care for black lives matter and all this upheaval with the statues – the Dems may well be toast come Nov.

  6. George Will’s “intelligentsia” could be describing many of the contributors to this blog with their impressive credentials in journalism and the like. As he noted, they do often appear to want to impose their opinions and to shut down discussion.

  7. We can look at the change in environmental attitudes as some measure of change. As a life-long concerned citizen, I did not write the book on tactics of both sides (corporations vs. concerned citizens), but I have a copy of the book. Years ago corporation had the edge by simply saying the concerned citizens (like me on coal) were uniformed wackos, and that the community would profit handsomely from the presence of industry (and then the coal plant cos. spread money around to prove it).

    Now the public knows the truth, that a single molecule of pollution can kill a million people. The power has shifted in part because we have no industry to speak of, most everything is made in China. What does Virginia’s new environmental justice council hope to accomplish? Wiping out all industry/combustion processes from Virginia? Great. Somebody on this planet needs to make the good and services we use, but not us I suppose. I’d say Mexico has a bright future. U.S.A?…I am concerned.

    PS- I hope Mexico can take our trash too.

  8. Citizens United is critical to freedom. Who else will stand up to the Media, Academia, the entrenched bureaucracies and nonprofits?

  9. Good discussion — great research and reminiscences, Dick. I attribute the failures of the “new” constitution to the deference given at every turn to the GA — a faith in ‘democracy’ that ignored the fundamental reason why we have checks and balances and restraints on the ‘will of the people.’ The 1971 effort eliminated the 1902 edition of blatant Jim Crowisms but the tradeoff was to leave the old guard in the GA with the tools to apply a new, more subtle yet equally controlling version of the Virginia Way. They made things worse in some respects (subverting the independence of the SCC, for example). Droogs, indeed!

    I do wonder if this is the time to fix anything so fundamental as the constitution — things are so polarized these days that one or the other faction will try to force its will rather than seek needed compromise and balance. But it’s a document that has evident flaws and badly needs repair and updating.

    • I am confused. You attribute the “failure” of the new state constitution to its deference to the General Assembly and ignoring fundamental checks and balances. But the Governor still has veto power; he even has item veto power regarding the budget (a power that Presidents of both parties have long lusted for.) The Constitution requires that every bill have a single purpose; therefore, we don’t have legislation with unrelated riders that predominate in Congress. The Constitution requires that any bill amending an existing law (Code section) set that section out in full, rather than referencing it (thus, avoiding another annoying and confusing practice of Congress). The Constitution controls how long the General Assembly can remain in session. Finally, the Virginia Supreme Court has the power to interpret legislation passed by the General Assembly and declare any of the bills unconstitutional.

      But, I get it. What you are really upset about is the authority the constitution gives the General Assembly over the jurisdiction and authority of the State Corporation Commission. Would you really want an unelected body to have unchecked power over the utilities that provide services to the people? In the 1970’s, Henry Howell, running on a slogan of “Keep the Big Boys Honest” was upset that the SCC had not done enough to regulate electric utilities companies. Now, many folks are upset that the General Assembly has seriously hampered the SCC’s regulation of Dominion. The constitution provides a way for the people to express their will through a legislature and governor elected by them. The constitution cannot guarantee what the legislature and Governor will do with the power the constitution provides them.

      • “Governance” means many things to many folks – but it almost never delivers what individuals want. It’s instead a reflection of society as a whole.

    • It”s really hard to try to reconcile the differing visions of higher ed these days.

      On one side we have those who say they are massive failures. Then another side says they are driven by left wing ideology. Then a third side is willing to pay an arm and a leg to attend.

      It’s sorta like listening to various folks describe different parts of an elephant.

      The reality is that Higher Ed, as is, still stands, and does not seem inclined to change much – and as soon as sports come back – they won’t at all… they’ll get top dollar for those yearning to to get that American College experience.

      It’s totally true there are a lot of detractors and critics. It’s also true that there are a bunch of folks who want that College experience no matter what – AND Higher Ed knows it.

  10. If we were going to update the Constitution of Virginia now, and black leaders were included, what would they advocate for in the updated Constitution? What would Conservatives, white folks advocate for?

  11. My personal mission us to present the
    Supposedly left-wing “mythology” that you put forth. That is, unless your new henchman, Stephen D. Haner, “happily” edits me out.

  12. Good comment.

    I will add that America’s higher education as infected by the rot of post war (WW2) European intellectuals, was the engine driving American Higher education over the cliff, taking the entire nation along with it.

    History will record that America’s higher education was the fountainhead of all the ills and disease that destroyed America over a period of some sixty years. It will take a very long book to describe all the ways.

    America will not escape this fate without its total reformation of American Higher Education, a daunting but necessary task. No decent society can last with a despoiled youth.

  13. Time to say some good words about American higher ed.

    I think our conservative colleagues are mostly wrought about fluff. None of the pronouncements made by administrators will have a meaningful impact on the desire of most students to get an education that prepares them to get a job. The students who are devoted to the social causes will, in due course, discover that they need additional training if they want to be employed, and that will cure that problem.

    A number of you have criticized our major educational institutions for not actually caring about education. This is fundamentally correct, but misses the point.

    First, our institutions of higher learning are our centers of scientific/technological research. It is where all of our nation’s basic research is conducted. We have no other institutions capable of maintaining US leadership in science/technology. (All of you who have worked in corporate America know
    that R&D is really limited to D -shareholder demands for more shareholder value rarely support R).

    Second, let’s keep in mind the three things that parents actually buy when they send their dear kids to school –
    1. A brand name for future reference
    2. An alumni network for future reference
    3. A peer group for future reference

    Education is one of the elements of the brand name, but is more about image than reality.

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