One of the more exciting prospects for the Dole-Clinton presidential contest should have been the “presidential debate,” which, ever since the Kennedy-Nixon slugfest of 1960, has titillated the mass electorate with the delusion that the voters actually have a real choice between two different viewpoints. The only reason a Dole-Clinton debate ought to have been exciting, however, is that it should have been interesting to see what the two participants could possibly disagree about. What exactly were they supposed to debate? NAFTA and the World Trade Organization? Mr. Dole supported Mr. Clinton on those matters. The deployment of American troops to Bosnia? Mr. Dole was on board with that one too. The appointment of judges, then, which Mr. Dole has mentioned as one of his major differences with his Democratic rival? But as a Republican senator Mr. Dole personally voted for almost every one of the federal judges Mr. Clinton has appointed in the last four years and expressed immediate support for both of the two Supreme Court nominees whom the President has named. Affirmative action? No, Mr. Dole has abandoned his earlier pledges to abolish it. Immigration reform? No again, since Mr. Dole has barely mentioned the issue and has done nothing to question the administration’s position. Ah, well, then, gun control, surely? But Mr. Dole supported the Brady Law when it came before the Senate and in 1994 announced that Mr. Clinton’s support for the ban of the sale of semi-automatic “assault weapons” was “not an issue.” More recently, he has announced that the repeal of the ban, already passed by the Republican House, is no longer an issue. Since Mr. Dole didn’t think it was an issue when it was passed and doesn’t think its repeal is an issue now, it would be fascinating to find out exactly when he did think it was an issue. Indeed, it would be fascinating to learn whether Mr. Dole considers any issue at all to be an issue.
In short, there is virtually no single major matter of national politics in the last four years on which the two candidates are in conflict. Despite being reduced to attacking Mr. Clinton on the relatively minor issue of tobacco regulation, Mr. Dole by the time of the election might reasonably be expected simply to pack it in and endorse his rival’s re-election.
The classic formulation of the view of American politics as a largely meaningless contest between two largely indistinguishable contestants was the remark of George Wallace in 1968 that there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats, and that insight, if true of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, is even more true today. It also is a truth that more and more voters are beginning to discover for themselves, despite all the efforts of both parties and the establishment media to invent false conflicts and differentiations as decorative and distractive rationales for holding elections at all.
But there are deep-seated historical reasons for the convergence of the two major parties and for the ever quickening disappearance of any serious adversarial dissent from national politics and the national culture. The main reason has to do with the consolidation of power within both political parties and the national media by what can now be fairly accurately characterized as the American Ruling Class — not just a series of separate but cooperating elites but an increasingly monolithic social and political force that shares a common world-view and a common set of interests. For an introduction to the specific composition of this ruling class, how it managed to acquire control of the two major parties, and how it has shaped some of the major political decisions of the federal government for the last century, one can not do better than peruse a newly published but sadly posthumous monograph by the late Murray Rothbard, Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy.
Written in 1984, the Rothbard monograph (which includes an afterword by Justin Raimondo of the Center for Libertarian Studies and a reprint of a 1978 article by Rothbard about banking interests and the Panama Canal Treaty) details the emergence of banking and other corporate interests, their infiltration of the two parties and the government since Grover Cleveland’s time, and their role in directing national policy toward what is today politely described as “internationalism” but which Rothbard more bluntly and accurately calls “imperialism.” “The great turning point of American foreign policy,” writes Rothbard,
came in the early 1890s, during the second Cleveland administration. It was then that the U.S. turned sharply and permanently away from a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention to an aggressive program of economic and political expansion abroad. At the heart of the new policy were America’s leading bankers, eager to use the country’s growing economic strength to subsidize and force-feed export markets and investment outlets that they would finance, as well as to guarantee Third World government bonds.
Rothbard’s monograph is a virtual Who’s Who of the American power elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and he shows again and again how the same names representing the same banking houses and families (and later the same corporate and institutional establishments set up and controlled by those interests) dominated the foreign policy of the United States, regardless of which party was in power or which mediocrity carried their banners in the White House. Originally the interest of this new class lay in expanding its influence in Latin America against British competitors and in using the national power of the American government to protect and advance its influence, but by the early twentieth century its interests had become global.
The major actor in the early part of this tale was the House of Morgan, which managed to slip Theodore Roosevelt, closely linked to Morgan interests, into the vice-presidential slot under McKinley, who was soon laid low by a “lone-nut” assassin. Both of TR’s secretaries of state, John Hay and Elihu Root, also had strong connections to the Morgan interests, as did several other Roosevelt Cabinet members, and it was J. P. Morgan’s partner, George W. Perkins, who induced Teddy to read Herbert Croley’s The Promise of American Life in preparation for the Progressive Party campaign of 1912. Croley’s book became the bible of the Progressive movement, and it was Morgan men and money as well that in 1914 founded the major outlet for the expression of Progressive opinion, The New Republic, with Croley as its first editor (and Morgan partner Willard Straight as co-editor).
Rothbard’s monograph is no conspiracy tract muttering about “insiders” and other unnamed illuminati, but a careful though painfully short account of the individual members of the emerging oligarchy. Nor does he try to make out that the oligarchy is always a unified force, as vulgar conspiracy speculation assumes. Rothbard shows how conflict emerged between the declining Morgan interests and the rising influence of the Rockefeller family, based on control of oil. By the 1930s, the Rockefeller empire had acquired a strong interest in U.S. intervention in Asia against Japan but, because of close ties with German industry, was considerably less fervent about intervention in Europe, while the Morgan interests wanted peace with Japan but favored war against Germany in Europe because of their close financial ties to Britain and France.
By the end of the war, the Morgan interests had ceased to be the dominant force in the new class, and Rockefeller interests had prevailed. Rockefeller representatives like John J. McCloy — chairman of the board of the Rockefellers’ Chase Manhattan Bank as well as of the Council on Foreign Relations, a director of the Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller Center, and “perhaps the most powerful single figure in foreign policy since World War II,” — have dominated American foreign policy ever since. Not only McCloy but also Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller himself have continued the tradition, as have a small army of Rockefeller in-laws and satellites like Allen and John Foster Dulles, Christian Herter, Paul Nitze, Dean Rusk, C. Douglas Dillon, and others. Through the Trilateral Commission, essentially an extension of Rockefeller interests, the influence of the family (or the powerful complex of interests the family led) continued unabated at least through the Carter administration.
Rothbard confines himself to digging out the individual names and family and institutional connections among these gray eminences and to showing that their presence has infected all administrations of both parties throughout this century. His monograph does not explore in any detail the historical context of the new class, and it is regrettable he did not update and extend the work before his death in 1995.
Nevertheless, a later essay by a scholar of the Left, Thomas Ferguson, while lacking the detail of Rothbard’s essay, does offer a view of the social and economic forces of the early twentieth century that enabled the new class to emerge. Writing in explanation of the coming of the New Deal, Ferguson contends that “at the center of this coalition . . . are not the workers, blacks, and poor who have preoccupied liberal commentators, but something else: a new ‘historical bloc’ (in Gramsci’s phrase) of capital-intensive industries, investment banks, and internationally oriented commercial banks.” What Ferguson calls the new “multinational bloc”
included many of the largest, most rapidly growing corporations in the economy. Recognized industry leaders with the most sophisticated managements, these concerns embodied the norms of professionalism and scientific advance that in this period fired the imagination of large parts of American society. The largest of them dominated major American foundations, which were coming to exercise major influence not only on the climate of opinion but on the specific content of American public policy. And, what might be called the “multinational liberalism” of the internationalists was also aided significantly by the spread of liberal Protestantism; by a newspaper stratification process that brought the free trade organ of international finance, The New York Times, to the top; by the growth of capital-intensive network radio in the dominant Eastern, internationally oriented environment; and by the rise of major news magazines.
Ferguson’s historical analysis places Rothbard’s exposure of the individual and family connections of the emerging ruling class in a larger perspective. What was going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the social process that Vilfredo Pareto called the “circulation of elites,” by which one elite displaces another, breaks down or adapts the institutions constructed by the earlier elite, and replaces those institutions with new ones of its own design and construction that reflect its own interests. “Financial capitalism,” centered around commercial banking and an economy based on it, was displaced by a new “political force,” “power bloc,” or “historical bloc” consisting of managerial capitalism, closely wedded to an enlarged and centralized state, deeply involved in global management as well as in the reconstruction of American society and culture to suit its interests, and operating through the applied technical and managerial skills of “science” (whether in the hard sciences on which its economic and technological power depends or the soft sciences of mass psychology and sociology through which it seeks to engineer social relationships and cultural norms). It is interesting that in the early part of Rothbard’s monograph the principal actors are the family members and business partners of the emergent ruling class, but by the later parts the main actors seem to have few such personal relationships. They have become something more like a true class, bound by a common outlook and a common set of interests, and not simply an extended family or a cabal of big businessmen. Families like those of the Rockefellers persist and sometimes play decisive roles, but the interests of the families have altered and are now dependent on the managerial structures and their imperatives. What is involved in a circulation of elites is not so much the disappearance of old families and their members as the re-organization of the members of the old elite in new power relationships with new interests that compel new and different patterns of conduct.
Having acquired the power to pour American society into a new bottle from which the ruling class may drink its fill, the new elite has little reason to want to retain the adversarial political system around which representative government revolves. In its place, we have “bipartisanism,” which is extended inland from the water’s edge of foreign policy to the minutiae of how you may raise your children and what books and magazines you can display on your coffee table without the neighbors calling in the hate crimes squad, and anyone who dissents from or challenges the “bipartisan” consensus to which virtually no one ever consented is certainly an extremist and probably is stashing six tons of fertilizer in his garage. Clearly, the only way to maintain the fiction of democracy in the kind of system the ruling class has designed is to stage more meaningless debates and false conflicts between more meaningless candidates representing more meaningless parties and issues, in the hope that enough voters will be swilled by the charade to keep the machinery humming and its operators in business. So far the fiction has sold well enough, but very many more “conflicts” between candidates like Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton and the ruling class will be obliged to find some other sideshow to keep American voters from paying a lot more attention to the men who stand behind democracy’s increasingly transparent curtain.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in October 1996.