Reviews | Republicans and Democrats swapped roles. A new leftist manifesto from the 1950s helps explain this.

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American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1960.
American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1960. (File photos/Getty Images)

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One of the disorienting features of modern American politics is the feeling that party identities have been upended. Since when have Republicans been the main critics of the FBI, the national security state and military leaders? And since when have Democrats been the ones warning against national ideological subversion and coordinating with big business to control expression?

The relationship of both parties to traditional sources of authority is changing. As Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute has observed: “Today’s right implicitly understands itself as the outside party, oppressed by the powerful and knocking at the windows of institutions. The left today implicitly understands itself as the insider, enforcing norms and demanding conformity.

President Biden’s speech on Thursday denouncing political opponents who threaten “the very foundations of our republic,” as the Marines stood in the background, was a clear illustration of this insider-outsider dynamic.

To understand how the populist right sees the world, it is useful to go back to the last time the left “knocked on the windows of institutions”. The period after World War II was a time of strong political consensus in America, which a “New Left” rose up to challenge. There are clear parallels between today’s populist right and the new left movement that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

C. Wright Mills, a sociologist at Columbia University, was the intellectual sponsor of this movement. Consider a passage from his 1956 bestseller, “The Power Elite,” a polemical attack on the structure of American institutions that would inspire a generation of new leftists:

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“[The power elite] command the main hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They run big business. They run the state apparatus and claim its prerogatives. They run the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of power and the wealth and fame they enjoy.

Today, this passage could easily appear in a right-wing populist publication like The American Mind of the Claremont Institute, which denounces the liberal “regime”. If it’s spoken on Fox News or Newsmax, it could be condemned as an example of conspiracy or misinformation that sows discord and undermines trust in institutions.

Mills, who died in 1962, did not use the term “deep state,” but irresponsible bureaucracy was a major concern for the new left-wing philosopher. “It is in the executive chambers, and in the agencies, authorities, commissions and departments that extend below them” that most policy is made, he argued, “rather than in the open arena of politics”.

Those who made the decisions were not chosen by ordinary voters: “Once most men who reached the top of politics got there because the people elected them into the hierarchy of office,” Mills observed. “But lately, in more administrative times, men are becoming politically important because small groups of men, themselves elected, appoint them.”

This critique should sound familiar to anyone who has followed conservative attacks on the administrative state or the public health establishment during the covid-19 pandemic. In the meantime, he has become alien to modern liberalism, which increasingly relies on deference to credentialed experts.

The threat to “democracy,” for Mills, was not that election results would not be respected—it was that on the most important issues, elections would not influence governance. Americans “feel they live in a time of big decisions; they know they don’t,” he wrote. It was up to a ruling class in American business and the executive branch.

Whether Mills’ satisfying diagnosis reflects reality is debatable, just as the nature of elite power is disputed today. Political movements can alternate between claiming insider and outsider status as opportunity demands (and have done so throughout American history).

What matters is that the New Right today, like the New Left before it, is consciously driven by a sense of exclusion from what Mills called “upper circles” – including in academia, professional organizations and the national security state.

In his 1960 “Letter to the New Left”, Mills rejects a complacent view of American life which he says prevails among intellectuals: “That in the West there are no longer any real problems or even problems of great gravity. Mixed economy plus welfare state plus prosperity, that is the formula. … In the meantime, things are everywhere very complex, let’s not be negligent, there are great risks.

Mills viewed this consensus as mind-numbing and undemocratic, much as right-wing populists of this century rebelled against the trade and globalization agenda that prevailed in both parties after the Cold War. The pathologies of populism have been well documented, and its threats to overturn elections require vigilance and repudiation.

But is the noble defense of “democracy” now advanced by the Democratic Party and its powerful allies really a plea for greater participation in governance? Mills’ account of institutional hierarchies in America is a reminder of why many voters might wonder if liberals aren’t at least as interested in securing their continued dominance over the contemporary power elite.

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