Why do we still love aristocrats?
As we stagger through the 21st century, I’m very curious. Why do we cling to these medieval, even ancient mental, social, and behavioral patterns?
Lately I’ve been observing the American obsession with our own aristocratic remix. That is, we clearly admire some plutocrats, including those proceeding on inherited, family wealth. We elected one president. Many of us love multi-generational political families; witness this week’s celebration of Joe Kennedy III, the persistence of the Bush dynasty, or the growing interest in Chelsea Clinton.
Additionally, many Americans adore rich celebrities – think of the Kardashian following, or the sudden declaration of support for Oprah Winfrey to become president of the United States.
The United States, conceived in republican revolution, has long had its rich and/or famous and/or politically powerful families. Our own version of aristocracy has ranged from Brahmins and slaveholding families to Kennedys, Longs, and Roosevelts. Now it looks like we’re continuing that tradition into the 21st century.
Personally, I don’t partake in this phenomenon, so I’ve missed its emergence or continuation. Which makes me curious about how it works in 2018.
Does the social media experience give us a sense of closeness to these otherwise fairly inaccessible people? Perhaps our ability to retweet a celebrity’s thoughts or share a Kennedy’s embedded YouTube videos gives us a virtual sense of connection, closer than holding photos in a magazine or hearing their voices on radio.
Has the lower-case-r republican ideology not been active for a while? Paul Berman made that case in his Terror and Liberalism (2003), arguing that a functioning, secular democracy needed some popular belief to function well. Yet some social science research finds decreasing support for democracy. Others argue that Trump’s political successes reveal an American weakness for autocracy. Perhaps a rising interest in American aristocracy appears in between these two poles, of dissatisfaction with democracy and appeal to strongman rule.
There’s a classic psychology to supporting or enjoying aristocrats. The well-born elite can serve as vicarious heroes for us, representations of our selves, family members, or love objects. Perhaps this psychology simply carries on in the age of smartphones and social media, amplified by our new information systems.
Or is this really just one sign of deepening inequality and rising oligarchy/plutocracy? That is, the economic forces are at work – have been at work for a while, actually – and now the culture is developing forms for recognizing and supporting it. The 1%’s 1% might accelerate away from the rest of us, but enough of us can admire them to keep the guillotine from descending.
Several cultural offshoots might also support this. There’s the old Puritan work ethic, which we can translate into “if so and so is rich and powerful, it’s because they worked hard and deserve it.” There is also the more recent prosperity gospel, linking success in this world to favors showered from the next. The former has shown remarkable durability over the past century. The latter seems well suited to a 21st century fairly radiant with religious belief; it’s an open question how well it will play with a more secular or religiously unaffiliated younger generation.
Along those lines, what is the role of education in shaping a 21st century aristocracy? The Economist argues that certain forms of education – private primary and secondary schools, the right Ivy colleges – help give inherited wealth an aura of intelligence. That has long been the case with European aristocracies, and some American families have imitated that. I wonder to what extent American educators see themselves as helping grow a modern aristocracy.
This 21st century echo of the medieval elite… is it likely to continue over the next decades, or is this moment the last residual twitch of an outmoded system?