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How To Build A New Leadership Class

A guide to replacing our failed elites.

(Michael Hogue/TAC)

A common theme for both pundits and academics in our political moment has been the failure of America’s elites, and the need to cultivate a new class of leaders more accountable to the interests of Main Street, the working class, and the “Great American Middle”—or “flyover country” to those same elites. This line of thinking has become something of a cliché, and few have probed beyond the surface to explore why our elites failed and the conditions needed for creating a new and more humane leadership class today. 

The desire for a natural aristocracy is at least as old as the American Founding. Thomas Jefferson, for example, imagined the qualities needed for those aspiring to elected office in his new republic and had faith that the American people would be able to separate the “aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff” at the ballot box by discerning between natural aristocrats (i.e., those possessing “virtue and talents”), and artificial aristocrats (i.e., those possessing “wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents”). Centuries later, building upon Jefferson’s aspirations, many conservative luminaries have renewed the call for a natural aristocracy with the power to check the passions of the people and order society towards the common good. 

In his seminal book A Humane Economy, Swiss economist Wilhelm Röpke described the characteristics of “a natural nobility whose authority is, fortunately, readily accepted by all men.” These natural nobles would rise to the heights of power and obtain the respect of the populous through “an exemplary and slowly maturing life of dedicated endeavor on behalf of all, unimpeachable integrity, constant restraint of our common greed, proved soundness of judgement, a spotless private life, indomitable courage in standing up for truth and law, and generally the highest example.” 

Finally, after becoming “the nation’s conscience,” the new aristocrats would become models for their fellow citizens who would come to regard membership in this elite class as “the highest and most desirable aim, next to which all the other triumphs of life are pale and insipid.” In short, he had faith that the masses would accept the authority of people who resembled Aristotle’s magnanimous man. 

Appealing as Röpke’s ideal may be, the conditions for cultivating such a class of people are absent from contemporary life. More importantly, all the social, religious, and economic incentives for an aspiring leader today run in the opposite direction. 

In historian Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism, he describes how “the new ruling class of administrators, bureaucrats, technicians, and experts” that dominates public life possesses neither the old aristocratic virtues of priests and monarchs nor the virtues of natural aristocrats described by Jefferson and Röpke. A “new therapeutic culture of narcissism” instead is at the center of their worldview.

The biggest difference between the old aristocratic cultures and our own is how they raise children. And it’s in the home where the hopes of establishing a new, more virtuous leadership class go to die at a very young age. For today’s elites, guilt has replaced obligation as the organizing principle of family life. Instead of seeing society as “a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn,” as Edmund Burke aptly put it, they reject the concept of stewardship all together. Nature and tradition are   repressive or at least passé, and children are aided by an army of counselors, consultants, and programs in the hope of a lifetime of self-actualization. 

In order to justify such a selfish existence, they attempt to atone for the guilt of their privilege by ritual participation in the new religion of identity politics and its accompanying liturgical feasts. The high holy days of the past have been replaced with festivals and parades honoring various marginalized groups or identities. Anxious city managers and corporate boards offer pinches of incense to the new gods by modifying their branding guidelines and official communications to include the symbols of the new liturgical cult. Families themselves display these symbols from in their yards and on their cars. While their sense of guilt will not go away (there is no such thing as forgiveness for oppressors), they can learn to mitigate its effects and come to terms with their own narcissism so long as they pay lip service to the latest trends in social justice.

These were not the habits embodied by successful elites in the past. Lasch describes how the old rich “have firm ideas about childrearing and do not hesitate to put them into practice.” Their privileges came with accompanying obligations and there was an “unsentimental acceptance of social differences.” In short, they were raised to be rulers in the respective spheres, and they understood that their place in the social hierarchy was at the top. While this no doubt led to abuses and excesses, elites generally possessed a sense of noblesse oblige inspired by both charity and a desire to preserve a family’s status in the community. This kind of clear-eyed view of one’s duties as a leader might chafe against modern notions of equality, but they possessed a refreshing dose of realism that is largely absent in today’s ruling class. The old rich was willing to recognize their status as elites, whereas the new rich denies that they are elite at all and therefore eschews the accompanying duties. 

In economic matters the situation is arguably worse. As Wendell Berry put it in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, “The global economy…exists to siphon the wealth of…communities and places into a few bank accounts. To this economy, democracy and the values of religious tradition mean absolutely nothing.” Even if conservative economists like Röpke might have disagreed with Berry on the costs and benefits of a globalized economy, the winners of globalization still appear to be mostly liberals residing in a select number of super zips on the East and West Coasts. 

Moreover, as corporations weaponize their market share by promoting progressive social agendas and threaten to remove business from states that pass socially conservative laws, the lines between a free economy and a totalitarian economy begin to blur. Open corporate support for progressive sexual politics involving abortion or transgenderism demonstrates an agenda that goes beyond mere profit.

The loyalties of elites are similarly misplaced when it comes to global trade, especially with countries like China, which flagrantly violates human rights and ecological standards while threatening American workers and industry by malign trading practices. Their Chinese partners have now imposed untold human and economic costs by lying about the coronavirus and threatening to withhold vital medical supplies from the United States. As we saw with the NBA last fall, the leaders of American companies are very hesitant to criticize the Chinese for legitimate abuses and malpractice if that poses any threat to the bottom line. What’s needed in our country is a serious discussion about where corporate interests and national interests diverge vis-à-vis China. During the Cold War, Wilhelm Röpke argued:  

“Any attempts at justifying East-West trade need to be scrutinized with the greatest suspicion. Market and profit are not competent in the decision; the decision lies with higher political interests and business must submit to them. Businessman should really regard it as an insult to their intelligence when Moscow tries to catch them with the bait of profit. They should remember Lenin’s statement that when it was time to hang the world’s capitalists, they would trip over each other in their eagerness to sell the Communists their necessary ropes.” 

While the historical circumstances and ambitions of China versus the Soviet Union are different, the same principle applies. Business interests must give way to national interests—including the long-term stability of our free-market economy—when dealing with Communist countries. 

For an aspiring member of the “natural aristocracy” or “natural nobility,” the incentives to succeed in business or finance often run counter to traditional social values at home and national interests abroad. Moreover, the credentials required for such positions and the exorbitant cost of living in major cities force ambitious people of modest means to take on large amounts of debt. Combined with the fact that this kind of success almost always requires leaving one’s hometown, the barriers to attaining success in public life as Jefferson and Röpke would have defined it are nearly, if not completely, insurmountable.

How does this all relate to the goal of building a new leadership class in America? Because of these entrenched social and economic interests—not to mention the challenges posed by the media, higher education, and administrative state—it will be nearly impossible to create a new elite that is as dominant as the progressive ones in power today. That does not mean, however, that there aren’t ways to mitigate their influence, check their power, and redirect their energies towards less pernicious ends. 

We can and should build new and parallel educational institutions while simultaneously strengthening small conservative groups and professors at legacy institutions. Trusting the judgement of the American people, politicians should continue to expose the failures of our country’s dominant political class in Washington, D.C, especially in foreign and economic policy. Social media influencers should leverage the power of humor and sarcasm to undermine the opponents of traditional values. To the extent that it’s possible and prudent, financial incentives for American companies should be aligned with national interests, especially as it relates to producing vital military equipment, technology, and medical supplies. And finally, communities can strengthen their defense against the encroachments of big government and big business by deepening their civic, familial and spiritual roots. 

None of these strategies will usher in a new elite class overnight. But the need to unseat the ones who have been corrupted by greed or license has never been clearer.

about the author

John A. Burtka IV is the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Previously, he served as executive director and acting editor of The American Conservative. Johnny graduated from Hillsdale College and the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France. He was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute in 2018. He has appeared on Fox News and Fox Business and written for The Washington PostRichmond Times-DispatchFirst ThingsThe American Mind, and The Intercollegiate Review, among others. He began his career at ISI, and participated in academic fellowships at Washington College and The Trinity Forum.

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