You are hereWatch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won’t Tolerate Dissent

Watch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won’t Tolerate Dissent


By Joel KotkinJune 07 2014

Appearing in: 
The Daily Beast

In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.

An alliance of upper level bureaucrats and cultural elites, the Clerisy, for for all their concerns about inequality, have thrived, unlike most Americans, in recent years. They also enjoy strong relations with the power structure in Washington, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street.

As the modern clerisy has seen its own power grow, even while the middle class shrinks, it has used its influence to enforce a prescribed set of acceptable ideas. On everything from gender and sexual preference to climate change, those who dissent from the official pieties risk punishment.

This power has been seen recently in a host of cancellations of commencement speakers. Just in the past few months Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, and former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, have been prevented from speaking by campus virtue squads whose sensibilities they had offended.

The spate of recent cancellation reflect an increasingly overbearing academic culture that promotes speech codes on what is permissible to say and even seeks to provide “trigger warnings” to warn students about the presence of nominally troubling subject matter in readings and discussions so they can avoid the elements of reality they find offensive. 

The very term Clerisy first appeared in 1830 in the work of Samuel Coleridge to described the bearers society’s highest ideals: the intellectuals, pastors, scientists charged with transmitting their privileged knowledge them to the less enlightened orders.  

The rise of today’s Clerisy stems from the growing power and influence of its three main constituent parts: the creative elite of media and entertainment, the academic community, and the high-level government bureaucracy.

The Clerisy operates on very different principles than its rival power brokers, the oligarchs of finance, technology or energy. The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society. Like the British Clerisy or the old church-centered French First Estate, the contemporary Clerisy increasingly promotes a single increasingly parochial ideology and, when necessary, has the power to marginalize, or excommunicate, miscreants from the public sphere.

Of course, every society needs a clerical class, to instruct the young and maintain cultural standards. But in the past, at least in modern America, they tended to be a tolerance for fairly disparate views. Today’s Clerisy, by contrast, is increasingly homogeneous in its beliefs- despite pockets of conservative power such as the Heritage Foundation and most notably the media empire controlled by the Murdoch family.

The modern Clerisy’s homogeneity springs from their social conditioning. Educated along similar ideological lines at major universities, they tend to be geographically concentrated in wealthy, “progressive” places, where few dissent from the prevailing worldview. As such they breathe, as analyst Walter Russell Mead suggests, “within a cocoon.” Inside their urban cocoons they operate from a thoroughly internalized set of progressive tropes on such issues as the environment, urbanism, gender and race. In practical terms, such as in their support of President Obama and the Democratic Party, they are both broadly allied with centers of power and influence, much as the clergy was in Medieval and early modern times.

America’s Nomenklatura

The Clerisy has thrived during these hard times. Since 1990, the number of government workers has expanded by some five million to some twenty million. That’s four times the number who were employed by the government at the end of the Second World War, a growth rate roughly twice that of the population as a whole.

The upper bureaucracy have been among the greatest beneficiaries—along with Wall Street and the green crony capitalists —of the Obama Administration’s economic policy. The number of workers, particularly at the federal level, continued to rise even at the height of the great recession. Between late 2007 and mid-2009, the number of U.S. federal workers earning at least $150,000 more than doubled. The ranks of federal nomenklatura—combined with a host of related private contractors —- have swelled so much that Washington DC by 2012 replaced New York as the wealthiest region in the country .

The upper bureaucracy has evolved into a privileged and cossetted caste. In California, state workers are allowed such special privileges as having their Department of Motor Vehicle records kept confidential; a sensible precaution for those, like police, who deal with criminals but now expanded to cover a vast array of public servants, including social workers. Naturally, as beneficiaries of an expanded government, public sector unions have been among the strongest backers of regulatory growth and ever increased social services. Their political power has also been on the rise; since 1989, public sector unions accounted for two of the top three top ten donors to political candidates.  

More important still is the bureaucracy’s ability to control society through unelected agencies, something that grew even during Republican administrations, but has achieved unprecedented scale under President Obama. Increasingly, agencies such as the EPA and HUD, seek to shape community development patterns—for example on land use policies —- that traditionally fell under local control. With their power, the agencies have harassed unfriendly conservative organizations, as seen by the IRS, and monitored the populace’s private conversations, seen in the case of the NSA. But to some prominent members of the Clerisy, these power grabs haven’t gone far enough.

Leading figures of the Clerisy, like former Obama budget advisor Peter Orszag and Thomas Friedman, argue that power should shift from naturally contentious elected bodies—subject to pressure from the lower orders—to credentialed “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels or the United Nations. The popular will, according to the Clerisy and its allies, lacks the scientific judgment and societal wisdom to be trusted with power.

The Real College of Cardinals.

Like the upper bureaucracy, academia has also expanded rapidly in recent decades. In 1958 universities and colleges employed under 370,000 people; by 2014 that number had expanded to roughly 1.7 million. With universities now serving roughly twenty million full and part time students, academics have never exercise more influence over young Americans.

Ironically, despite its patina of egalitarian beliefs, the academic world now epitomizes the new hierarchical class order as much as any major institution. The roughly 1.4 million instructors in the University system, have experienced what one writer calls “the great stratification” between roughly 500,000 largely older tenured “alpha” Professors and a vast “beta” of low-paid teaching assistants, contingent faculty and those working in extension programs.

At the same time, the bureaucracy of the University, like that of the government, has exploded, even more at elite (and tax-favored) private schools than among public ones. Whereas there were about 250,000 administrators and professional staff members in 1975, about half the number of professors, by 2005 there were over 750,000, easily outnumbering tenure-tracked professors. As the University has gained in power, those in control have taken on ever more the trappings of an aristocracy whose primary mission is self-preservation—not unlike the Medieval European clergy.

The Creative Elite

The final element of the Clerisy’s triumvirate is the culture-based industries and their upper middle classes participants. Arnold Toynbee identified the “creative genius” as the historic leader and savior of society—an apt description of the self image held by many of the new tech and media elites.

Today, this “creative” element has grown ever more pervasive. Artists, writers, fashion designers and actors have achieved enormous status in our society; and a handful has become very wealthy. More important still has been the rise of media oligarchs, some tied to the tech establishment, who now rank among the wealthiest Americans. Indeed of the world’s 25 richest people, a majority come from either the information sector, the fashion industry or media. These new media elites, combined with the tech oligarchy, could well emerge as the dominant economic force of the 21st Century, surpassing fortunes made in energy, manufacturing, or housing.

The media itself is increasingly populated by the children of prominent politicians and by those who come from the ranks of the plutocracy. These include the offspring of the Reagans, GOP stand-bearer John McCain, various Kennedys, and Nancy Pelosi. In Hollywood, meanwhile, some of the new powerful producers come from the ranks of the ultra-rich, including heirs to the Pritzker fortune and the daughter of Oracle Founder Larry Ellison, one of the world’s ten richest men.

The Clerical Consensus

Today’s Clerisy attempts to distill today’s distinctly secular “truths”—on issues ranging from the nature of justice, race and gender to the environment—and decide what is acceptable and that which is not. Those who dissent from the accepted point of view can expect their work to be simply ignored, or in some cases vilified. In the Clerical bastion of San Francisco, an actress with heretical views, in this case supporting a Tea Party candidate, who was pilloried, and lost work for her offense.

The pattern of intolerance has been particularly notable in the area of climate change, where serious debate would seem prudent not only on the root causes and effects, but also what may present the best solutions. Climate scientists who diverge from the warming party line, even in a matter of degree, are routinely excoriated by the Clerisy as “deniers” of “settled” science even in the face of 15 years of relatively stable temperatures. The media also participates in this defense of orthodoxy. The Los Angeles Timesas well as the website Reddit have chosen to exclude contributions from skeptics.

The stifling orthodoxy from the technocrats and media elite is benign compared to the inquisitional behavior can be seen in institutions of higher education. It is nothing short of tragic, notes civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, that a 2010 survey of 24,000 college students found that barely a third thought it “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”

Such attitudes seem natural in an environment where, according to various studies, liberals outnumber conservatives by between eight and fourteen to one. Whether this reflects natural preferences among the well-educated or is partially due to institutional discrimination remains arguable. But consider that 96 percent of all Presidential donations from the nation’s Ivy League schools went to Barack Obama, something more reminiscent of Soviet Russia than a properly functioning pluralistic academy. Nor is there any sign that this trend is slowing. Between 2007 and 2010, a University of California study revealed that “far left” and liberal views grew from 55 percent to almost 63 percent of full-time faculty while the conservative segment dropped from roughly 16 % to less than 12%. If the academic left simply waits long enough, it could look forward to a conservative-free faculty on many campuses.

A similar, if less uniform, clerical consensus suffuses the media culture, led by the television networks and the leading newspapers. In fact nearly half of all Americans consider the media too liberal, more than three times as many who see it as too conservative. Overall, reports Pew, the percentage who feel news is tilted to one side has grown dramatically from 53 percent in 1985 to 77 percent in 2011.

To be sure, there remain important exceptions to this rule, notably Fox News and talk radio, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Yet the right’s hold on the major media is demonstrably weak, and likely to decline further once Murdoch himself is no longer on the scene. A detailed ++UCLA study found that of the twenty leading news outlets in the country, eighteen were left of center.

Despite the journalistic embrace of the idea of diversity, a recent Indiana University Study notes that journalists themselves have become increasingly homogeneous.  Journalists are far more likely to be college educated than they were in 1970, and less likely to be a racial minority than just a decade ago. But the biggest change has been an ideological one; barely seven percent in 2013 were Republican, compared to nearly a quarter in 1971.

Even Arnold Brisbane, the former ombundsman of the The New York Times, has noted the group-think that now overshadows objectivity, long cherished by that most important of America media outlets. Brisbane observed that, “so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism—for lack of a better term—that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.”

These positions are all reflected in almost lock-step media support for President Obama. Over sixteen prominent journalists joined the Obama administration, which was something of a record; in 2012 employees at the major networks sent President Obama almost eight times as much in contributions as they did his Republican opponent.

This consensus of views prevails as well in the electronic media. As the liberal author Jonathan Chait suggests, the media increasingly reflects not just commercial values, but “a vast left-wing conspirary.” He adds: “You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism.”

Will the Clerisy rule after Obama?

The fact that Republicans continue to maintain considerable power in both Washington and the states suggests that the Clerisy’s power is not yet determinative. And indeed after President Obama leaves office, the Clerisy’s reach may be temporarily diminished, but its ability to set the social and political agenda will likely persist and even grow given their influence to shape perceptions, particularly among the young.

The current atmosphere of ideological unanimity—in academia, the arts and much of the government bureaucracy—set the stage for the outrages of this commencement season, making painfully palpable the growing authoritarian spirit in so many of our leading institutions. They often see themselves as a liberating force in our society, but in their dislike of conflicting ideas and open debate, today’s  Clerisy increasingly resembles the closed-minded dogmatists of the Medieval church.

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