The American elite has many worries—maintaining geopolitical stability, reducing inequality, ending discrimination, and the like. But what if the greatest threat to the United States is not these things, but rather elites themselves—in particular their unwillingness to accept responsibility as stewards of society and their disengagement from the rest of the population? This “pulling away” by elites compromises the country’s ability to address the various challenges it faces. Compounding this threat, American elites’ hubristic confidence that they are on “the right side of history” limits what they might otherwise learn from the rise and fall of other societies.
The great Arab historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldūn studied the “science of society” (‘ilm al-‘umran), emphasizing the importance of aṣabiyyah—social cohesion or group solidarity—as crucial to understanding the rise and fall of any state. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, who examined 26 world civilizations in his 12-volume A Study of History, saw civilizational decay as resulting from the deterioration of the creative minority—composed of elite leaders—that drives progress. The elite degenerates, growing prideful and dominant even as it loses the ability to innovate and address societal challenges. Instead of leading with a confident sense of virtue and purpose, it turns parasitic and “succumbs to the sickness of ‘proletarianization.’” Others have theorized that countries weaken due to a decline in civic virtue (Edward Gibbon), cultural dynamism (Oswald Spengler), familism (Carle Zimmerman), productive forces (Karl Marx), and political institutions (Samuel Huntington).
Though these scholars emphasize different things, for the most part they consistently point to the importance of elites and social cohesion for the success of any polity—and see these two as being connected. Elites—groups with outsized power and influence over the major institutions in any society—were historically comprised of at most 2 percent of any people. Depending on how broadly one defines the term, “elites” comprise anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the American population today.
If a society is to prosper, elites must not only creatively address critical challenges, they must also avoid becoming disconnected from society and acting in ways that undermine its dynamism and loyalty. Although correctly anticipating and responding to challenges the U.S. faces may seem to depend on rational decision-making by merit-based actors, history shows that this is incorrect: Deep ties to society are necessary for the right intelligence, a tradition of self-sacrifice is necessary to inspire collective action, and longstanding habits of virtue are necessary to ensure the societal response is energetic.
The Science of Society
Comparative analyses of how underlying societal and institutional dynamics shape the destiny of countries across centuries are far less popular today than in the past. This is partly due to specialization, the dominance of economics, the rise of gender and other identity studies, and a clear preference for quantitative models. There is a broad intellectual consensus in academia and officialdom that policy choices (which can be rationally deduced) and leadership (which should be selected on merit) matter more than anything else. According to this consensus, as societies evolve in only one, ever more positive, direction, the study of their broader dynamics, norms, and cycles is not vital. This is unfortunate. As the U.S. experiences an unprecedented decline in social cohesion, it is precisely such knowledge that is increasingly important.
Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah, completed in 1378, is one of the earliest treatises on the science of human social organization. His goal was to ascertain the underlying causes and effects of historical change and the probability that events from history happened as reported. As Charles Issawi and Oliver Leaman describe in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ibn Khaldūn proposed that
society is an organism that obeys its own inner laws. These laws can be discovered by applying human reason to data either culled from historical records or obtained by direct observation. . . . These laws are explicable sociologically, and are not a mere reflection of biological impulses or physical factors. To be sure, facts such as climate and food are important, but . . . purely social factors as cohesion, occupation and wealth [have greater influence].
Groups with greater aṣabiyyah (loosely translated as social cohesion or group solidarity) are more likely to defeat those with less even if they are comparatively smaller, poorer, and less technologically advanced. This aṣabiyyah is built from a combination of kinship ties, common religion that builds a shared orientation, and economic gains from trade, pillage, or conquest. The legitimacy of leaders—and the institutions that support authority—are products of the three. But Ibn Khaldūn noted that aṣabiyyah declines with success. It is eroded either by the indolence that development and luxury bring or by the social divisions that necessarily result from the concentration of wealth and the development of hierarchy in society. (Hierarchy becomes necessary to manage a larger, more sophisticated entity.)
In the West, building off the work of Greco-Roman authors, the comparative history of societies emerged as an important field of study in the 18th century. The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, for example, tried to accomplish something similar to Ibn Khaldūn in his book The New Science, published in 1725. In it, he espoused a cyclical pattern of human history, with each society passing through three recurring ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. The initial leadership of elite patriarchs that “united wisdom, priesthood, and kinship” evolves into a competitive and crude egalitarianism.
For Vico, each age has distinct attributes that affect everything from the nature of government to the civil order to language. As societies develop, they create new structures and constraints that shape culture. Primitivism grows into idealism and then rationalism, but the latter fails to reach the perfection it seeks. Instead, it yields cynicism, “barbarism,” and “civil disease,” which corrupt the body politic from within. Responding to Descartes, Vico warned that too much emphasis on individualism and the rational development of distinct ideas undermines the tenets of religion—tenets that are essential to holding society together. In this last stage of rationalism, the people, “like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure.”
Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Oswald Spengler were among the many other scholars who studied the comparative history of societies. Tocqueville, for example, analyzed the nature of American political and civil society—and contrasted it with France—to understand why democracy had succeeded in America but failed in so many other places. Adam Smith analyzed the nature of the market society in crafting The Wealth of Nations; he is best understood not as an economist but, in the words of Encyclopaedia Britannica, as “a social philosopher whose economic writings constitute only the capstone to an overarching view of political and social evolution.” Indeed, he saw his most famous work as a study of “the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society.” Weber emphasized both the importance of sociocultural dynamics—and the influence of Protestantism in particular—to understanding the rise of the West and the importance of elite behavior in understanding how any particular country would evolve.
Émile Durkheim helped establish the field of modern sociology as a science of “social facts”—phenomena that structure individual behavior and seemingly autonomous or even chaotic decisions within a larger pattern. Although he was not specifically interested in the broad arc of how societies rise and fall, Durkheim’s work concerned what holds society together and how it might break down. He differentiated between mechanical solidarity arising from similar values, work, and life experiences in traditional societies and organic solidarity arising through interdependence and complex social interactions in dense modern settings. The latter brings more freedom, but secularism, the division of labor, and individualism risk producing anomie and disintegration. Rapid change in the values and standards a society professes produces a disconnect with what is achievable in reality, yielding alienation, purposelessness, and, eventually, “derangement” from the “the malady of the infinite” (desire that cannot be fulfilled) and a rise in suicide. Nationalism that bound people together through common purpose and solidarity—reducing moral isolation in the process—was essential to counter these dangers, especially in highly individualistic modern societies.
In the years since World War I, Toynbee’s magisterial series (published 1934-61), which defined his career, is arguably the most ambitious and important development for understanding the dynamics of societies over time. He focused on how cultures or civilizations arise from primitive societies as a response to difficult challenges, then grow and decay. Like Ibn Khaldūn, Toynbee believed that the proper study of history required more than examining a particular series of events from one place or time period; one must look for patterns that repeat across societies and time. In contrast to Ibn Khaldūn (and many of his predecessors), however, he did not believe that societies inevitably die. On the contrary, civilizations could adapt in ways that allow them to achieve ever greater growth.
Toynbee observed “Creative Minorities” playing crucial roles at every stage of a society’s rise and fall. Initially their very presence makes the rise possible. When confronted by a series of difficulties, members of a creative minority respond in ways that solve the problem, yielding a progressive and cumulative development of the civilization’s capacity, values, institutions, and techniques. But this creative minority does not dominate. On the contrary, it inspires and is freely imitated and followed, ensuring an essential unity and preventing major social cleavages.
Decay is not caused by an external assault or a decline in technology. In Toynbee’s formulation in A Study of History, “. . . the nature of the breakdowns of civilizations can be summed up in three points: a failure of creative power in the minority, an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority, and a consequent loss of social unity in the society as a whole.” In this latter stage, the “Creative Minority degenerates into a mere Dominant Minority which attempts to retain by force a position which it has ceased to merit.” Its mores decay and it declines into “truancy” and “promiscuity,” becoming self-serving rather than self-sacrificing. It worships the great achievements of its “former self,” becoming overly prideful in the process, and unable to effectively address the next set of challenges that a society faces. The decay may occur over centuries before dissolution finally ensues.
A number of late 20th-century comparative political scientists, including Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Charles Tilly, Barrington Moore, and Ernest Gellner, explored the importance of social dynamics to political outcomes in their work and have thus some overlap with social analyses. Huntington, for example, looked at political development and decay in writings such as Political Order in Changing Societies (published 1968). He was particularly interested in the “conflict between mobilization and institutionalization.” Where political structures are weak, mass political participation can break the elite consensus that holds society together and undermine the political institutions that they use to govern society—risking instability, corruption, decline, or even collapse. Moreover, rapid change challenges existing values and behaviors, often breeding corruption in the process. He thus critiques the general “underlying commitment to the theory of progress” in academia that leads to a belief that societies only progress in one direction. “Little or no provision is made for their reversibility. . . . National disintegration is a phenomenon as much as national integration.”
More recently, Jared Diamond examined why societies fail in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). He argues that societies end when they fail to adequately respond to their greatest challenges, which he considers to be climate change, hostile neighbors, a worsening environment, and the breakdown of trade. Elites need to make the right decisions at critical junctures, and this depends on being actively engaged with and not insulated from the general population. A lack of knowledge, affinity, or interest can preclude effective action. Long-term planning and a willingness to rethink core values are essential to responding in time.
The Importance of Elites
Despite examining significantly different epochs and geographies, similar themes appear among observers like Vico, Toynbee, and Diamond. In particular, they believe elites play a crucial role in determining the development of a given society. Not only must they be creative and able to think long term when facing critical challenges, they must remain deeply embedded in their populations in order to understand needs, act in ways that retain loyalty, and build capacity to inspire action when needed. Elites that become too enamored of their past successes or detached from their populations are more likely to be unprepared for the challenges their societies face, act in ways that alienate others, and be compelled to use force to extend their writ. Taking a disproportionate share of the spoils from trade, war, and other forms of wealth creation can yield this detachment.
Elite behavior thus both sets the tone for society as a whole and determines the nature of the relationships that define that society—and thus has enormous influence on how cohesive it is. And social cohesion—aṣabiyyah, unity, or some form of social or elite consensus—is critical for collective action, creativity, and aspirations. On the other hand, social divisions are a common source of societal decay. These divisions could stem from too much individualism, materialism, and elites’ focus on private interests. Social disintegration is the greatest risk; this could result from some sort of cleavage among elites or between elites and the population, an increase in the corruption of institutions or morals, or a growing disaggregation of the population.
Only elites—Toynbee’s “creative minority”—are able to shepherd a society through the series of challenges that it will inevitably face. Such challenges can catalyze the creative development of new technologies and institutions that spur the advancement of the society and, in time, increase its power and influence. As Toynbee notes, “Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort.”
But these tests can also spell the demise of a society if not handled well. In such cases, the result will be more due to elite failings—in a process akin to suicide or murder (using Toynbee’s metaphor)—than from what any outsider does.
Meeting challenges of “special difficulty”—which can be physical (swamps, rising sea waters, environmental change), social (internal divisions, growing mobilization), economic (decline of trade), military (hostile neighbor), or institutional (need for reform)—requires some spiritual dynamic that goes well beyond just rational decision-making and engenders broad, sometimes fervent, action across society.
As such, many scholars identify religion as being crucial to helping communities jell, cultivating elite virtue, promoting vigorous values among the population, and inspiring heroic acts. But they also warn that as societies evolve, faith’s influence typically diminishes, contributing to a society’s decline. Rationalism and materialism come to the fore, weakening the common affinities that bound elites to their populations and the values and beliefs that fueled the society’s rise to prominence. The risk of social maladies and disintegration grows.
Table 1 summarizes the differences between responsible elites that steward their countries and irresponsible elites who neglect to do so. They are ideal-types of course. Most societies will have a mixture of elements or fall in between the two extremes.
Table 1: Comparison of Elites
|Responsible Elites||Irresponsible Elites|
|Connection to society||Embedded||Disconnected|
|Decision-making||Includes concern for non-rational aims (e.g. glory, faith)||Based on rationalism and materialism|
|Mores||Disciplined, self-sacrificing, ethical, chaste||Self-interested, corrupt, promiscuous|
|Structure||Acts egalitarian even if position elevated||Works to separate oneself from the masses|
|Spoils||Shared||Concentrated in elites|
|Unity||Maintains as highest value||Often acts in ways that undermine it|
|Purpose of education||Build character as well as impart knowledge||Acquire merit points for self-advancement|
|Organized religion/religious organizations||Recognizes importance; deferential||Seen as instrumental but imposing few obligations|
Elites in American Society
Who are the American elite? The term “elite” can be contentious. For our purposes it includes the senior echelon of professionals in government, academia, business, media, entertainment, and the nonprofit world, all of whom work to produce and manipulate information. Debates about “the one percent” in politics and social movements such as Occupy Wall Street focus mostly on the disproportionate amount of wealth and power elites have. Protestors are concerned primarily about fairness and inequality. But some of the elite may not be particularly wealthy, and there is little consideration of how elites’ advantages bring greater obligations to society and how contemporary elites are failing to fulfill them. There is more concern for whether elites signal their support for particular causes than for whether they personally enmesh themselves within society and act in ways that contribute to its strength.
The values and standards of those driving such debates—which, ironically, include many who are arguably part of the elite or at least the semi-privileged class just below—have so changed that even admitting society has a set of elites that might play a constructive role stewarding the country forward is considered a taboo subject. Elites are rarely considered to be an essential pillar—a public good—of society, with outsized obligations, as scholars such as Ibn Khaldūn, Toynbee, and Weber argue.
It is difficult to discuss the subject in non-pejorative terms given the prevailing egalitarian ideology. Some elite theory scholars argue that this ideology is more an illusion than anything else, preventing a more serious discussion of a crucial topic and contributing to our current political and even social problems. As G. Lowell Field and John Higley argue in Elitism, “A general failure to consider the complementarity of elitist and liberal principles has been at the heart of a serious doctrinal degeneration within liberalism.” And, as Peter Berger writes in The Public Interest, “The paradox of modernization is that egalitarian regimes become progressively less feasible [as countries develop], while egalitarian ideologies are rampant.” The latter forces elites to create a “smokescreen of egalitarian rhetoric.” But this makes them less secure in their positions, and thus less able to be an effective steward of society.
Elites habitually highlight their willingness to “check their privilege” and help the marginalized, while purposely eschewing the responsibilities that their privilege ought to bring. As Anand Giridharadas argues, “American elites generally seek to maintain the system . . . our winners-take-all economy, which siphons the gains from progress upward” even while working hard to alleviate suffering and improve lives—what he calls “fake change.” They may give money or promote good causes but rarely act on a personal level in a way that strengthens society. They, for example, rarely move to third-tier cities, compromise their career prospects, or put their children in underperforming urban schools. On the contrary, as Richard Reeves writes, elites hoard opportunity for themselves, creating a class system encompassing differences in wealth, education, security, family structure, and health that functions “more ruthlessly than the British one.” They rarely support policies that would constrain their choices or limit their gains (for example, restrictions on trade, business monopolies, and tax avoidance). And while they may act (relatively) virtuously in their personal life, they regularly attack as a negative sign of privilege any attempt to promote the virtuous traditional values and mores that were once accepted as essential to personal success in the broader society (for example, get married before you have children and then stay married; work hard, don’t be idle; be a patriot; save and invest for the future).
American elites are also separated from their less-mobile neighbors. As Christopher Lasch writes, “There has always been a privileged class, even in America, but it has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings” as it is now. Whereas elites were once tied to a given place, where they settled for several generations, and understood that wealth carries various obligations, such allegiances are much attenuated today. The new elites are “far more cosmopolitan,” following the “siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.” Success is now closely associated with mobility, promoting the best and the brightest of non-elites into the ruling class and ending what was once the country’s democratic ideal of “rough equality of condition.”
As such, elites no longer have a desire to gain the esteem that once came from fulfilling the obligations of their positions. The growing divergence of skills and experience between them and everyone else mean, as Paul Collier argues, that they gain greater esteem (and deeper meaning) from their work and thus feel greater allegiance to their career, colleagues, and social group than they do to their locale. “This helps explain why social elites so often actively disparage their own country—they are esteem-seeking.” They are signaling that their national identity is no longer salient, that their loyalties and obligations have shifted. The result is that they are, as Lasch argues, “less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot.”
This cosmopolitism undermines any sense of loyalty to and need to invest in a particular place. The need to signal you are a good neighbor has triumphed over the need to act as one. All of this, as a reader of Rod Dreher’s blog wrote, “represents a terrible lowering-of-sights—from the idea that economic elites should actively help people practically unable to help themselves to the idea that they should passively chat about (‘raise awareness’) the plight of middle-class people somewhat lacking in self-belief.”
The United States today shows striking parallels with the latter stages of societal evolution as articulated by scientists of society. There is growing secularization, social disintegration, and anomie. There is a marked rise in “barbarism” and a concomitant decline in the norms and values that were once thought essential to ensuring the vigor of society, suggesting that society is inflicted with the “civil disease” Vico warned of. Individualism, materialism, and “private interests” triumph over self-sacrifice, thriftiness, communitarianism, faith, and the public interest. Elites are increasingly psychologically and financially detached from the general population, making choices that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else, and stirring resentment and backlash.
Recovering a Responsible Elite
As Max Weber argued, mass democracy always yields elite rule in large, complex societies. Mass democracy centralizes power, grows to rely on executive bureaucratic “machines” of government, and encourages the emergence of charismatic leaders who can generate mass appeal. These, in turn, concentrate influence in “ruling minorities” while strengthening the state. It is thus not surprising that the United States is ruled by such an elite. Given this reality, how might the United States produce better, more responsible elites?
The most obvious catalyst would be a national challenge that brought people together, prompted elite commitment to the country, yielded a rethink of values, and inspired a new patriotism. The threat from a rising China could potentially accomplish this if it were utilized by the right leader. A highly charismatic politician who built a coalition government and rallied people around a transformative agenda that emphasized self-sacrifice for the common good would hold the best chance, but even if such a coalition introduced many changes, it would likely be difficult to sustain the necessary energy over the long term unless the threat was ongoing and severe (as in Israel). Even 9/11 did not modify behavior for any length of time, and the threat was highly palpable.
Although it is sometimes disparaged or misused, nationalism remains an essential tool here. It strengthens social bonds and develops the generosity, honesty, concern for the common good, respect for others, and other constructive social norms essential to the functioning of a modern society. Similarly, a revival of faith and traditional mores could contribute to building the sense of responsibility for others among elites as well as restoring their commitment to the virtues with which society once flourished—including family, thrift, and civic engagement. As Tocqueville noted, only religion can reach into the “habits of the heart” as well as the “whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind.”
Technological advance and globalization threaten to aggravate the problems outlined above—and make reform more difficult. However, there are three important ways elite behavior could be shaped in a positive direction, rebuilding social sources of national strength in the process.
As a start, the institutions that select and groom elites need to prepare them for stewardship, as Weber argued. The overemphasis on merit and achievement (and wealth) has reduced the importance of character and virtue among elites, undermining the values and norms that once predominated across society, with a clear impact on everything from the political arena to the financial markets to the dating scene. This requires transforming how young adults are trained and evaluated. Schools should bolster civic education and character-building programs (for example, the Boy Scouts, at least in its original form), and evaluate students on moral behavior as well as through test scores.
Universities and graduate schools should prioritize personal character in applicants. Essay questions today probe for volunteerism and a commitment to helping society, but schools interpret these as another form of achievement. Curriculum should encourage cooperating with stakeholders, responding to the public good, and being invested in a particular place instead of pursuing individual ambition alone. For example, MBA students are often taught that profitmaking is the primary—or only—objective of a business in the United States; in other countries (such as Germany, Japan), education, culture, and government policy make the needs of employees, the location of operation, and the broader society just as important. (American politicians who bully companies, such as President Trump, have a point, even if their method is crude and comes late in the game.) Student and business leaders need a renewed focus on the moral sentiments—what we owe others—that Adam Smith saw as the essential underpinning to capitalism.
How do we better understand our duties to others? A national service program would give elites experiential knowledge and greater connectivity with other Americans. Higher incentives for living, working, and opening social capital building organizations in less well-off neighborhoods might encourage more people not just to signal their concern but actually to make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of the country. Encouraging elite undergraduate and graduate schools to instill a code of conduct and to mandate or at least strongly encourage service in an impoverished area, similar to Teach for America, would help change values. Instead of just promoting semesters abroad, they could also promote semesters of service at home. Tuition could even be reduced or forgiven for commitments to serve in a rural or inner urban city job for a minimum of five years.
This service initiative points to a second way to shape elite behavior. Government, elite grooming institutions, the media, and so forth should make a much more concerted effort to embed elites in local communities. This would make them more knowledgeable, more responsible, and better incentivized to address the challenges that the country and its common people face. (Warren Buffet’s success may have more to do with his humble lifestyle and local embeddedness than is generally appreciated.) The closer the social ties, the more personal the information, relationship, and sense of obligation, the greater the noblesse oblige. Today, elite compassion is often depersonalized—there is more of it for abstract victims and distant people than there is for those up the road. This requires creative thinking to prevent the upper crust of society from gaining disproportionately from the financialization and globalization of the economy and then living protected from the churn and dislocation these factors cause. It also requires creating the mechanisms and incentives to ensure that different classes either live in the same broad areas or intermix on more than a perfunctory level.
On the policy side, a much more concerted effort should be undertaken to limit the ability of people to gain from stashing their wealth overseas, avoiding American taxes, enriching themselves off the backs of their employees, or living only off of the dividends of one’s forebears. Incentives could be introduced to encourage investment in the country, especially in impoverished regions (something the latest tax reform attempts).
The media might highlight more individuals—especially among the elites—who returned to their communities after school, took up leadership posts in underserved communities, sacrificed potentially profitable careers for a commitment to working locally, and took on obligations to others (spouse, neighbor, town, church) at a personal cost to themselves. This would inspire others to do the same. (This strategy has been effective for highlighting personal sacrifices made for the environment.) For example, current Senator Cory Booker got his hands dirty by investing eight years in turning around one of the country’s most troubled cities—Newark, New Jersey.
Of course, the more elites reflect the racial and gender balance in the country, the easier it will be to embed them—and the greater legitimacy elites will have across all groups. A renewed emphasis on elites does not simply mean accepting the racial and gender inequalities that once excluded large parts of the country from such positions. Indeed, the strongest elite groups are open to new infusions of talent, stand upon societies with ample social mobility, and work to spread the best of civilization to all parts of their country. They are not afraid of competition; they gain from it. The key is to make entry into the elite class more accessible while not diluting the professional ethos and sense of responsibility that long defined it.
Lastly, the country’s social, economic, and political leaders, as well as elite-shaping institutions, need to instill a much greater sense of humility towards the fragility of society. Cultivating humility requires greater awareness of the history of other great civilizations and the likelihood that social decay will repeat itself. Although there are widespread concerns about America’s position in the world, the environment, inequality, and the dangers from artificial intelligence, there is little concern about social disintegration, the decline in constructive social mores, and the growing physical and psychological separation of elites from the rest of the population. A change of heart requires major changes to education—especially of elites.
More knowledge about the rise and fall of other societies and civilizations—and the lessons that can be learned from them—should be a part of every high school and college curriculum. Toynbee’s observations should be studied alongside the historical events he was describing. More material on social decay (for example, the negative outcomes from family breakup and the weakening of communal ties) should also become a part of the curriculum in schools—especially in journalism schools, economics programs, and public policy programs.
Self-Sacrifice and the Common Good
The idea that society could somehow decay or fail from internal flaws seems hard for the majority of American elites—leaders, scholars, and policymakers—to fathom. Instead, they unconsciously hold, as Huntington argued, an “underlying commitment to the theory of progress”—a Whig interpretation of history. As former President Obama liked to say (quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., who had paraphrased Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Obama employed this quote to support a progressive determinism that makes many elites believe the United States is immune to the challenges that every other major civilization in history has faced in some form. There is little reflection on the downsides the current trajectory might bring.
But elites are not without feelings. Most want to believe that they are doing good, that they are contributing in some way to their societies. The problem is how the culture currently frames this contribution. What is valued is not what is needed.
Wealth and power used to be understood as bringing responsibility and obligations—often to a particular place and group—that were developed on a personal level and requiring a personal response. Elites today who search for greater meaning in their lives will find that the best way to achieve this is in service to and communion with others to whom one is tied through a web of intimate bonds and interdependence. Embedding oneself into a community—a community that needs stewardship and that involves diverse classes, professions, and political persuasions—requires many sacrifices, even discomforts. It also promises a greater personal transformation than any quest for self-fulfillment. Only when elites are invested in the concerns of the rest of the population, humble about the “right side of history” narrative, and open to stewarding their privilege rather than “checking” it will they be able to strengthen American society.