The Maintenance of Privilege
from the book
Sharing the Pie
by Steve Brouwer
Where Did the Elite Come From?
The United States has always been a country with great distinctions
between rich and poor. But when the nation was founded, it was
much more egalitarian than any of the Old World countries from
which the settlers were emigrating. Although candidates for our
highest offices in the early years of the Republic were usually
rich landowners, like Washington and Jefferson, the independence
of the young nation and the fate of its democratic institutions
depended on the existence of a new kind of "middle class"
that had little power in the authoritarian aristocracies of Europe.
In 1776 this middle class was made up of the large percentage
of men who were small farmers, artisans, and shop keepers, people
who held modest amounts of property and wealth and had control
over their own work. It was only with this semblance of equality
among small property holders in an agricultural society that it
was possible to create the traditions of New England town meetings
and a democratically elected House of Representatives.
In the parts of the United States that were not dominated
by the slave economy - the Middle Atlantic and New England states
- small property holders exerted influence in society because
the distribution of wealth was much more equal at the time of
the Revolution than it is today.
Things had clearly changed by 1870, as agrarian democracy
was replaced with industrial capitalism. In the second half of
the nineteenth century a rising group of capitalists and industrialists,
the greatest of them known as the Robber Barons, came to dominate
American life. As they ruthlessly exploited every chance to control
the various sectors of American society, they sought to legitimize
themselves as the true and worthy "upper class." This
trend has only worsened over time, for the top 10 percent controls
even more wealth today than it did in 1870.
Maintaining an Aristocracy
As the rich exercised the new power of industrial capitalism
in the 1870s and 1880s, they created many institutions and social
structures to protect their wealth and promote their exclusive
status. What is remarkable is that most of these social props,
antiquated as they seem, still survive in some form today and
help maintain the aura of authority that allows the rich to dominate
the rest of the population. Sociologist E. Digby Bartzell, a self-proclaimed
member of the Philadelphia "aristocracy," subjected
these upper-class institutions to lengthy analysis. He listed
some of the important exclusive practices that arose in the 1880s
and that have continued to define the upper class right up to
the present day.
* The rich sent their children to elite private schools where
they could be protected from association with children of other
classes. Old schools like Andover, Exeter, and St. Paul's became
popular in the early 1880s. Over the next twenty years, they were
followed by a new crop of exclusive prep schools, including Groton,
Taft, Hotchkiss, and Choate.
* The upper class began to meet to play games-usually golf
and tennis-at exclusive clubs. The Country Club was first established
in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1882; one or more such clubs were
soon constructed in every large metropolitan area.
* The rich escaped to exclusive summer resort communities:
Northeast Harbor, and Kennebunkport, Maine; Newport, Rhode Island;
* They left the cities for remote suburban residential areas:
Tuxedo Park ; New York, followed by Chestnut Hill (Boston!, Shaker
Heights (Cleveland), and many more.
* Parents wanted their children, graduates of the exclusive
prep schools, to mix with young men of similar origins, so they
sent them to the prestigious universities of Yale, Harvard, and
Princeton. The list also included the rest of the Ivy League and
a host of small, exclusive colleges.
* The Social Register, first published in 1887 in New York
City, was a list of the families with whom the very wealthy felt
it acceptable to associate; it also served as a sourcebook for
debutante daughters making their social "debuts" and
beginning their search for proper upper-class husbands. The Register
was published in separate editions for the elite families of thirteen
American cities; one large edition now covers the whole country.
* The "men's club" was born as a meeting place for
men of business affairs in major American cities-for instance,
the Century, Metropolitan, and Links clubs in New York; the Bohemian
in San Francisco.
There were and are, of course, many other ways for the upper
class to preserve its privilege. "High culture" is often
purchased through large-scale philanthropic donations to symphonies,
art museums, and historical organizations (some historical sites
are nothing more than lavish mansions devoted to the acquisitions
of one family, such as the Vanderbilts or Hearsts). In the realm
of private philanthropy, about half of all money donated comes
from multimillionaires. Although some charitable programs help
the needy and neglected, the fact is that American philanthropy
is not primarily devoted to such causes.
Charitable philanthropy directly serves the rich. Teresa Odendahl,
in her book Charity Begins at Home, calculated that over two thirds
of philanthropic giving goes to "elite non-profit institutions-Ivy
League universities, museums, symphonies, think tanks, private
hospitals, prep schools, and the like." Through such donations,
which are invariably tax-deductible, "the wealthy end up
funding their own interests." Of the $124 billion spent on
private philanthropy in 1991, only 10 percent went for "human
service" projects that serve the poor. Furthermore, as the
richest citizens began making more money they began giving away
less of it. In 1979 individuals who earned more than $1 million
gave away about 7 percent of their after-tax income; by 1996,
that figure had fallen to just 4 percent. Likewise, it should
come as no surprise that in 1995, when corporate profits jumped
a record of 30 percent to over $600 billion, corporate philanthropy
went up only 8 percent, accounting for just $7 billion of the
$144 billion given by all sources.
The Foundation of Public Opinion
The corporate rich have another philanthropic outlet that
allows them to influence the political arena. G. William Domhoff,
in his various studies of the upper class and the "power
elite," reached the conclusion that rich donors "spent
far more on their horses and dogs than they did on politics."
He meant that most upper-class individuals have expensive hobbies
that they find more exciting than direct involvement in electioneering.
For this reason, indirect methods of concentrating the resources
of the upper class have been devised; among them are the numerous
elite policy-discussion groups, nonprofit foundations, and research
institutes funded by the largest fortunes.
The staying power of great industrial fortunes has been formidable
when they've been invested in such places as the Ford Foundation,
the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation. These
organizations are devoted to exploring and recommending new directions
in public policy; while they generally support the agenda of the
corporate world in business matters, they are often liberal on
social issues regarding race and gender, a point of great consternation
to many conservatives.
Among the older philanthropic organizations there are also
those, such as the Lilly Foundation and the Pew Memorial Trust,
that fund more conservative approaches. Just before Ronald Reagan
was elected, two new foundations began delineating far-right social
policies for the United States-the American Enterprise Institute
and the Heritage Foundation, the latter formed by Joseph Coors
and Richard Mellon Scaife, heirs to two of America's richest fortunes
and supporters of the Religious Right. The Heritage Foundation
differs from other charitable foundations in spending a larger
portion of its budget, about 60 percent, on putting out an explicitly
political message. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Heritage
Foundation, "more than other think tanks, has extended its
political influence by spending more money on raising funds and
promoting its thoughts than on researching them."
Related to the big foundations are the policy groups such
as the Council on Foreign Relations, which publishes the journal
Foreign Affairs and selects promising politicians and academics
to rub shoulders with America's corporate and investment leaders.
One half of the group's members come from the New York City area,
where they represent the economic powerhouses of finance and industry.
This moderately conservative organization seeks to keep the worldwide
capitalist system running smoothly and protect and expand open
investment patterns around the globe. Its counterparts in influencing
domestic economic policy, which are also dominated by the very
biggest corporations, are the Business Council and the Council
for Economic Development.
To many critics on the right and left, this kind of upper-class
cooperation looks like an immensely powerful conspiracy. The far-right
critique suggests that the Council on Foreign Relations is secretly
selling out the United States to foreign interests. In reality
it is a relatively transparent organization where elite leaders
openly gather opinions about how to proceed on key issues of public
policy. G. William Domhoff has explained how academic experts
serve the group: "The experts involved in the policy issue
were not working independently. They were working for a ruling-class
organization that had hired them to provide corporate leaders
with the best possible advice they could suggest for making corporate
capitalism function more smoothly and expansively." The Council
on Foreign Relations has operated with a much lower profile in
the 1990s. Its agenda, the opening of world markets and the globalization
of commerce, is now firmly established and enforced by the operations
of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Members of the upper-class corporate and banking families
can be quite candid about their special right to intervene in
the political process. Stewart Alsop (he and his brother Joseph
were products of the upper class and two of America's most influential
syndicated newspaper columnists from the 1930s to the 1970s) put
it this way: "I suspect that a great power needs an elite,
a class of self-confident and more or less disinterested people
who are accustomed to running things.''