(Chilton Williamson Jr.’s article appeared in the Spectator, 12/1; Photo: Sobran’s.)
A few philosophers since ancient Greece have been wise, scarcely any humble. None at all, to my knowledge, has had the hubris — or maybe courage — to tackle the foremost challenge in political philosophy facing Western democracies today: how to achieve a demotic political system with an elite culture resting on top of the popular one, and the subordinate problem of how to prevent bad culture from driving out good, or making it impossible.
Not even Tocqueville addressed the problem, which shows what a wise man the aristocratic Frenchman truly was. Yet the matter is of critical importance today, as no intellectual and artistic class, left or right, will ultimately be satisfied with a so-called civilization — such as our own — in which a cheap and unserious culture is the predominant culture.
Tocqueville, in fact, did touch upon the question in the second book of Democracy in America, where he explains how the democratic principle “not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but… induces the artisan to produce with greater rapidity a quantity of imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.”
This situation has been compounded immeasurably since the first third of the nineteenth century, first by the industrial and now by the digital-technocratic society that makes mass culture in every form so easy to create, to advertise and to sell to the nearly complete exclusion of the superior sophisticated variety. It is elementary that a market for anything of quality, from fine porcelain and Chippendale furniture through noble architecture and landscaping, painting and sculpture, music and literature, to high fashion and refined conversation, requires the existence of a highly educated, sophisticated and generally superior class of people to patronize — and pay for — it. In the absence of a Brahmin class, any civilization worthy of the name is impossible, and society is nothing more than an unstructured and disordered aggregation of affluent human savages endowed with cheap but shiny toys and expensive gadgets so technically complex that the science from which they are developed is wholly incomprehensible to ninety-five percent of the scientific ignoramuses who use and amuse themselves with them. In a democratic age, of course, Brahmins must be tolerant of the demos, prepared to accept its power at the polls and the principle of democratic social equality that will not tolerate aristocratic privilege, and willing to acknowledge that it owes its survival to the ability of the political class to recognize the value to society of a civilized minority. Conversely, in a political democracy the demotic majority must be prepared to tolerate a culturally and intellectually superior class that, taken as a whole, enjoys the economic and material advantages that permit it to fulfill the cultural and intellectual role of the old haute bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracies. This, of course, goes directly against the progressively socialistic spirit of the postmodern, ultra-democratic age, and the envy, anger and resentment that accompany it.
It is evident, in fact, that politics in the democratic republics of the Western world — the United States in particular — is going in precisely the opposite direction, as the ideological crusade against the hated One Percent widens to include the wealthy, defined by President Biden and the Democrats as anyone sitting on the princely sum of $400,000, and beyond that the inheritors of a sizable family estate. Liberals (in particular those who neither enjoy such a windfall, nor expect to) as well as downright Reds are keen to prevent the rise of new family fortunes, after having busted the old ones. Their stated aim is to reduce, and finally abolish, inequality. Thus old families must be financially and socially reduced, and nouveaux riches ones prevented from maturing and ripening to form an educated, cultivated and enlightened class on the model of historic aristocracies. “Retrograde” is a principal cussword among liberals and anyone to the left of them, yet no social and political policy could be more backward than the plan to destroy old and new wealth alike in a society where vulgarity in every form and at every level has replaced creeks and rivers, fields and plains, mountains and deserts, lakes and forests as Americans’ natural environment. Indeed, the republic’s only hope for survival is that wealth, a superior education, the habit of traveling widely and intelligently, honest and disinterested public service, and the development of a civilized habit of command will in time produce a new aristocracy worthy of the name, yet one that also respects political and social democracy by refusing the snobbery of class and of a long and illustrious pedigree, and with it the expectation of social deference.