The American Paradox

April 30, 2012

Former President of the United States Jimmy Carter jogging

"The coexistence of a commonly held democratic and egalitarian mythology with the commonly lived hierarchical reality creates a dilemma, which the simple affirmation of the inevitable existence of inequalities does not eliminate."

American society is oriented by two fundamental but antithetical principles, the principle of equality and the principle of inequality.[1]

The coexistence of a commonly held democratic and egalitarian mythology with the commonly lived hierarchical reality creates a dilemma, which the simple affirmation of the inevitable existence of inequalities does not eliminate.

Such a dichotomy between ideology and lifestyle has been a constant feature of the American elites. As Warner points out: “Their official ideology is always heavily democratic and equalitarian, but their behavior and their values tend to separate them out as superior to, and different from, the classes below them.”[2]

George Washington receiving French generals at Mount Vernon

"American society is oriented by two fundamental but antithetical principles, the principle of equality and the principle of inequality."

This clash of principles restrains the elites from their natural expansion. They remain, to use the French expression, coincées, that is, pressed into the farthest corner, without the power needed to benefit society as they ought.

To the detriment of our country, many of the elite are convinced, at least in theory, that they should not exist. This shameful conviction impeded their expansion toward their natural destiny. It is as if some disease were acting upon a tree to prevent the growth of its branches.

General Robert E. Lee

"One of the fruits of the elite is the production of a superior human type."

The phenomenon of elites, as all that is under man’s domain, is susceptible to exaggeration and excess, but the fear of one excess should not result in its opposite. In the present case, one can easily go from one excess to another. The fear of exaggerating the role of the elites can easily lead to their atrophy and the tragic consequences attendant thereto.

One of the fruits of the elite is the production of a superior human type. However, as this superiority collides with democratic preconceptions, many members of the elites conceal their superiority; for example, corporate managers who wield a colossal power yet strive with an equal zeal to assume the habits of those of lower social status.

First turn of the Kentucky Derby race, 1995.  Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs, Library of Congress

"A society whose ideology is dominated by democratic and egalitarian principles and whose organic social constitution is governed by its natural hierarchies."

Therein lies the fundamental paradox of a society whose ideology is dominated by democratic and egalitarian principles and whose organic social constitution is governed by its natural hierarchies. As Joseph Fichter writes: “We have here apparently a peculiar combination of an actual stratified society and a general unwillingness of most Americans to admit the presence of stratification.”[3]

In his introduction to Dixon Wecter’s book on the history of elites in the United States, Louis Auchincloss states: “The very existence of a fashionable world has seemed to many the perpetuation of an arch heresy in the shrine of democracy, a vulgar noise breaking the hushed silence of the American dream.”[4]

 

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 162-163.

 


[1] Curtis, The Rich and Other Atrocities, p. x.

[2] Dye and Zeigler, The Irony of Democracy, p. 363.

[3] Fichter, Sociology, p. 75.

[4] Louis Auchincloss, introduction to Dixon Wecter, The Saga of American Society: A Record of Social Aspiration 1607-1937 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons [1939] 19790), p. xiv.

 

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