When Good Elites Go Bad


Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust

By John B. Judis

Pantheon 305pp $26

Never has a book left me feeling so ambivalent as The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust. By the end, I found myself both exhilarated by author John B. Judis' penetrating expose of the role Washington elites play in influencing public policy, and at the same time exasperated at the blind spots in his analysis. In the end, he thinks "American politics seems in far worse shape than it did at the last turn of the century." I would argue just the opposite.

A punchier title might have been When Good Elites Go Bad. Judis certainly has an interesting premise: that corporate and political elites have played the preeminent role in shaping national events during the 20th century. "By seeking to reconcile capital and labor, rich and poor" at key points in recent history, certain elite individuals and groups have served to ameliorate the economic inequality created first by the Industrial Revolution, and later by the rise of a strictly white middle class after World War II.

We can thank this aristocracy for the Progressive Era of Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the blossoming of a new national character during the activist 1960s. Who are these wise ones? Judis knows 'em when he sees 'em. From the Brookings Institution, founded in 1916 by St. Louis businessman Robert Brookings, to the disciples of Harvard University law professor Felix Frankfurter who later filled out FDR's cabinet, to Robert McNamara and Rand Corp., the author defines these elites as privileged Americans who have "aspired above class, party, and interest. They saw their role as conciliatory, as bringing classes and interests together rather than siding with one against the other."

But more recently, something has gone terribly wrong, Judis argues. The club, so vital to American democracy, is rotting at the core. Today, most politically involved business leaders have embraced "a kind of irresponsible individualism" that spits in the face of public service. (He singles out Frederick W. Smith of Federal Express and John C. Malone of Liberty Media Group for being drawn to the libertarian Cato Institute, which opposes federal income taxes and favors privatizing Social Security.) CEOs these days see themselves as part of a competitive global economy whose concerns no longer accord with those of American workers. Meanwhile, K Street lobbyists have stolen the corporate elitist mantle, twisting public opinion to their own selfish interests via such sophisticated techniques as lobbying campaigns masquerading as "grass roots organizing."

Even natural-born policy aristocrats such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune, have been co-opted, the author charges, presenting themselves as disinterested public servants while shilling for corporate clients. But Americans, who once trusted the elites to do right by them, have gotten wise to such shenanigans. The result: Public cynicism is at an all-time high.

So when self-proclaimed visionaries such as liberal elitist Bill Clinton and conservative elitist Newt Gingrich arrive on the scene, their calls for revolution end in nothing gained. Voters no longer listen. Congress is paralyzed by special interests. The '90s will be remembered as "a decade...in which the historical pretensions of political leaders far outweighed their actual achievements."

What's wrong with this analysis? Nothing. It's compelling and at times brilliant. As anyone who has followed his political writings in The New Republic knows, Judis has a finely tuned analytical style and an eye for a telling anecdote. You'll learn everything you ever wanted to know here about elite organizations, from the Business Roundtable to the Rockefeller Foundation. The volume is a virtual Who's Who of the Washington Establishment.

My quibbles are, first, with Judis' perspective. This is a book by an unabashed liberal crusader. Labor, environmental groups, student activists--good; business--bad. But this is only half the story--it never seems to occur to him that the outfits that front for labor or trial lawyers play the same self-interested game as the lobbyists he criticizes. Moreover, for Judis, the trusted "guardians of the national interest" are those captains of industry enlightened enough to embrace the labor and citizens movements that have the "ability to disrupt the normal pattern of life." Granted, thousands of protesters marching in the streets have been and can be a sign of a healthy democracy. But Judis seems to think that the only good elite is one that embraces every progressive movement.

Secondly, in focusing on elites and their subtle effects on policymaking, Judis too often imagines the tail is wagging the dog. Most of the powerful elite organizations that Judis chronicles have drawn their inspiration from the larger national discourse--from anti-Vietnam War protests to the property-tax revolt of the 1970s. As cynical as Americans are about Washington, they've hardly lost control of their democracy. Who do we have to thank for the rise of raging maverick Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.), with his $3 million in small-bucks contributions gathered via the Internet? Or for the fact that Vice-President Al Gore, so detested by the "venal" business tycoons Judis repeatedly skewers, is close to finishing off Democrat Bill Bradley--a darling of Corporate America if ever there was one? Voters--certainly not the elites.

Finally, Judis completely misses the migration of Washington lobbying power from K Street to Silicon Valley, Maryland's I-270 corridor, and Virginia's Dulles corridor. From Microsoft to America Online, new high-tech goliaths are redefining the lobbying and influence game. Maybe that'll be the topic of Judis' next book.

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