The American Aristocracy

Zoe Kovacs | rising editor-in-chief

This article is an adaptation of a paper previously submitted for the political science class Modern and Contemporary Political Thought, taught by Dr. Andrew Lotz at the University of Pittsburgh.

We tend to think of aristocracy as a thing of the distant past — something to study in tandem with ancient Greek history and long lost political structures. The conception of a small, elite group privileged with ruling power over a much larger, “inferior” class is one long since dead, buried by centuries of revolutions and political restructuring. Today in America, our prevailing political structure is ostensibly one of democracy – by the people for the people, with plenty of freedom and equality sprinkled on top.

But one of the fundamental characteristics of American democracy, according to a major work of political theory written during America’s early years as an independent state, is that it resists revolution – because revolution, the upheaval of one system for replacement by a newer, ostensibly fairer one, should simply be unnecessary under true democracy. Things are so equal, everyone is so free, everyone has rights! Beyond that, our legislative system is structured so that the amendment of laws, as well as the creation of new laws and elimination of unjust ones, is constant and relatively quick. Such a system stands in stark contrast to aristocracy, which is inherently oppressive, exclusionary and resistant to change.

Unfortunately, political theory remains just that — theory. Today, America on paper boasts the same equality and freedom of the dreamland Alexis de Tocqueville recounted in 1835, but reality tells a very different story. The United States have a consistent history of excluding peoples of color, and even, at certain points, those who were white but did not fall under a very specific category of whiteness – natives and immigrants alike – from citizenship itself, thereby depriving them of civil liberties and basic human rights.

The trouble is that even after we amend legislation to be more inclusive, the treatment of marginalized groups within society does not change to reflect the laws. This, too, is a telltale feature of aristocracy: indeed, the flexibility with which the laws are bent is a crucial weapon, as it is both the instrument that decides who is inferior to whom without explanation or logic, and the tool that allows legislators to decide how and when they would like to exercise laws. Under this malleable system, prejudice and racism thrive and, more often than not, go unpunished when they influence trends of violence or discrimination. We see evidence of this in the in the high rates of police brutality against people of color, in the overwhelming wealth disparity between upper and lower class households, the former of which are overwhelmingly white (not to mention the effects poverty has on virtually every aspect of life, including education, health and food access).

There are two fundamental aspects of an aristocracy. The first is the difference in qualities of life between the “nobility” and the non-elite classes. The second is the fact that the elite class is elite solely on the basis of heredity. In other words, its power is perpetuated by birth and wealth. Under aristocracy, the small elite class rules over the (much larger) remainder of the population in lieu of representation or consideration for their wellbeing. In contemporary America, where the average white household has sixteen times the wealth of the average black one and thirteen times the average Latino; where the government is comprised overwhelmingly of white people with scant representation for other races; where the first sparks of revolution have already flashed in spite of its supposed “unnecessariness,” we find the very basic qualifications of an aristocracy.

Aristocracies are now widely recognized as being both oppressive and nonsensical, and to draw comparisons with America, a nation that prides itself on a supposed foundation of equality, is telling. Essentially what we have in modern America are aristocratic features parading as democracy via laws that seem equal, but in practice are not – which, I would argue, is even more insidious than outright exclusionism, because it is far more difficult to change a culture than it is to change a law.

Zoe is a junior studying English and Classics. She will be taking over as the editor-in-chief of The Fourth Wave beginning in January 2017.