Meeting the Authoritarian Populism Challenge 4: The "Super Rich" and the "Meritocratic Elite"

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

November, 2018

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Referenced Resources and Photo Credits found at the end of the transcript.


A continuing look at our Massively Parallel Peacebuilding-based strategy for defusing the deep social conflicts along the red/blue divide that are undermining democracy and leaving the door open to authoritarianism, chaos, and violence. This post offers a ideas for persuading the superrich to be part of the solution and for a trust-earning strategy for building bridges between society's professional elites and grassroots citizens.

Full Transcript

Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. In this post we're going to look at the super rich and the meritocratic elite, the two groups that populists and those with populists sympathies find most objectionable. We are going to talk about what might be done to persuade these groups to change their behavior in ways that might diffuse some of the crisis.


This and all other posts in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar Series are offered as preliminary ideas for discussion. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Slide 2. There is more background on this entire series of posts on the website, including a description of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding and the whole series of posts in which we've tried to analyze and identify ways of more constructively addressing Authoritarian Populism.

Slide 3. We've been organizing this series of posts in terms of our ten Massively Parallel Peacebuilding challenges.  So far, I have talked about everything but Challenge 4: Reconciling the Past / Envisioning an Attractive Common Future. At the moment, we do not have a common vision of the society in which we would all like to live. We had a vision or, at least, a great many of us of us had a vision of a relatively homogeneous world in which everybody pretty much agreed on the big issues. The problem is that this is not a realistic vision. What I want to try to do over the next two posts is to look at some of the issues that we need to address if we're going to develop a vision that really works.

This post is part of a series of posts on Authoritarian Populism Name & Logoand strategies for more constructively addressing the red/blue divide.

It is also part of the larger Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo seminar series.

Slide 4. For this post, I want to build on this funny pyramid diagram that I developed my earlier mapping posts. This imagines that we really have a three-way conflict with the progressive, liberal, Democratic left on the left and the conservative, Republican right on the right and then, at the top, there are folks who are increasingly less attached to the political differences and are more interested in pursuing dominant positions in society and the economy. At the very top you have aspiring plutocrats and authoritarians whose real goal is to do whatever it takes to gain power over the larger society. Their strategy for doing that has involved a lot of divide-and-conquer politics that is a big contributor to our deeply-divided society. Our challenge is to figure out how to limit these divisions and the exploiting behavior of those at the very top of the social hierarchy.

Slide 5. Encourage Meaningful Philanthropy -- I don't want to convey the impression that everybody who is super rich is evil. (This is, however, a pretty popular view and billionaire bashing is great sport.) In this context, a good place to start would be by imagining a world in which the very, very rich recognized their privileged position in society and took steps to use that position and its associated wealth to advance the common good to everyone's benefit. Here we could think about strategies for encouraging meaningful philanthropy --- the kind that really makes a positive difference in the lives of a great many people. Bill and Melinda Gates have, for example, done an impressive job of figuring out how to effectively use their enormous wealth to help the world meet its many healthcare challenges. One could imagine, especially for those who have connections with the very rich, putting together a set of appeals designed to persuade these folks to do similar really helpful things.

Slide 6. Appeal to Enlightened Plutocratic Self-Interest -- There is another angle for cases where a purely altruistic appeal is insufficient, which I think makes a lot of sense. This is an interesting article written by a guy who claims to be a plutocrat (which I assume means he has at least a billion dollars). He is trying to explain to his fellow very, very rich folks that it is in their enlightened self interest to vigorously work to limit (rather than exacerbate) the big divisions and inequities in society. His argument is that super-rich need to take steps to roll back some of the increases in the proportion of societal wealth that they have managed to accumulate over the last 30 years. He makes a pretty persuasive pitch from the perspective of one plutocrat to another about the need for social equity, redistribution, and fixing the economy as a way of forestalling the kind of societal meltdown that will threaten the rich as well as everybody else. This goes back to the last post where I called for an urgent effort to figure out how to make an economy work for everybody.

Slide 7. Resist the Temptations of the Authoritarians -- As one imagines a world in which the very, very rich interact with everyone else in a better way, I think that it is important to be realistic. Not all of the rich are going to be willing to redistribute their wealth in ways that advance the position of grassroots citizens. They are going to try to use divide-and-conquer tactics to try to advance their position by enticing elements within society to support their quest for dominance by promising to protect the interests of their supporters in significant (but generally modest ways.)  In another one of my silly little diagrams, I imagine people being tempted by the rewards (gold bricks) promised by aspiring authoritarians and plutocrats. Accepting those "gold bricks," however, almost always comes with a bigger cost--which is often getting cheated out of what you expected and getting something far more sinister instead.

To combat this we need to mobilize groups that try to make it clear that it's not socially acceptable to advance your group's interests by, in a sense, "selling your soul to the devil" and throwing your support behind somebody whose real agenda is authoritarian dominance and who seeks to subvert the basic democratic values (with a small "d" not big "D" for the Democratic party) on which the U.S. and other democratic societies are based. So, these are three areas in which you might want to push a more constructive vision about the role of the very rich.

Slide 8. Now I would like to talk about a more constructive vision for the meritocracy. In this diagram, it is the top 19.9%, or the tier of people just below the super rich. (Other analysts define this group with somewhat different percentages.) As I talked about in an earlier post, this is a group that has an enormous number of advantages. There are lots ways in which privilege, luck, and hard work all reinforce one another in ways that give this top tier of society pretty much a lock on society's most lucrative and powerful positions.

Slide 9. A 21st Century Noblesse Oblige? -- The meritocracy is arguably the new American (or global) aristocracy. And, it's pretty hard to figure out how this is going to change (even though, I think, we ought to try very, very hard to make it change). So, the question to pose to people in this group is what is your obligation to the larger society (given that you have been lucky and privileged enough to have access to all of this education, training, and opportunity). The concept of "noblesse oblige" was something that we thought pertained to an older era and the aristocracy of old and is, therefore, no longer relevant. Still, I think that we need something like this now. I don't think that this group has given anywhere near enough thought to what they owe the larger society. This, again, is something that small groups of people could facilitate by convening discussions among privileged professionals about what they might owe the larger society and how they could give that.

Slide 10. An Intellectual Trade? -- In this context, it's important to think about how this group thinks about itself with respect to the larger society. Here, I think there is a tendency to be condescending toward others. People at the top tend to think that they got where they are because they're really, really smart and they work hard (which they often do). They don't tend to think in terms of being lucky and they do tend to think that they are somehow special and different from folks further down the social hierarchy (who, understandably, respond to this with a lot of resentment). And, that resentment is a big driver of this whole series of conflicts that are tearing society apart.

So, it's important for the meritocracy to think about more constructive ways about its role in society and its obligations to others. It seems to me that we would all be a lot better off if those in the various meritocratic roles thought of themselves as just plying another trade that is not all that different from folks in the various building trades (like the framers and drywallers in the slide). There are, of course, lots of other trades involving, for example, the folks who build and maintain highways; the nurses, orderlies, and technicians that make hospitals work. I think that we would be a lot better off if the meritocracy thought of their roles as lawyers, professors, scientists, or whatever as just another trade.

Just as electricians, firefighters or police officers can get people killed if they don't do their job right, professionals also have an obligation to provide the people they serve with quality services. If I don't do my job right,  I might cause society to make decisions that will harm lots of other people. They should probably get paid a little bit more because it took all that money and all of those extra years in school (when they weren't making much money) to master their trade/skill. Still, it shouldn't be all that much more. There is an old Marxian phrase that actually makes a certain amount of sense in this context "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." While people in the meritocracy do have some greater abilities, I still think it would be better if they thought of themselves, with associated humility, as just another one of the workers that make society work.

Slide 11. Working Class Respect -- As another part of this, I think that it would be good for upper-class communities to cultivate a lot more respect for working class contributions to society. I remember when I was on our kids' middle school and high school parent advisory boards and there was all this stuff about the importance of promoting self esteem among students. Still, the thought of anybody from one of the schools in nice, high-tech Boulder actually going into one of the building trades (as opposed to being a doctor or a professor) was a step too far. This is an interesting anecdotal article about the trouble folks around Tallahassee were having (even before the hurricane Michael) finding people in the building trades. They had one statistic that really struck me – the average age of the framers (the guys who put up a house's 2x4 framework) was, for this contractor, 57. We are getting to the point where we hold these working class jobs in such low esteem that people aren't going into critical occupations in sufficient numbers. (One could also make a pretty good argument that we have too many people trying to be lawyers and college professors.) The bottom line is that we would all be a lot better off if we recognized the contributions that people at all levels of the social hierarchy make to society.

Slide 12. Elite Trust Earning -- Since Donald Trump was elected president, an awful lot has been written about the way in which he embraces fake facts and the contempt with which he holds the nation's traditional elites, the folks who, in many ways, run the country.  Unfortunately, this contemp and hostility toward the elites is shared by a pretty large fraction of the population. In fact, it is a big part of the energy underlying populism. In all of the stuff that I have read since President Trump's election, I've seen lots of complaints from elites about not getting the respect that they feel that they deserve. By contrast, I have seen very little self-examination and questioning on the part of the elites trying to understand whether or not they are doing a good job of earning the public's trust.

The truth is that the public has good reason to question the quality of the services being provided by elites. Take this list of some of the big sectors of society and consider how well they have been performing in recent years. Start with the financial sector which produced the 2008 crash, dramatically increasing inequality, and the great recession which has taken us a decade to get past (even though we are still not really past it). The legal sector has produced what seems, at least to an awful lot of folks, like a gigantic array of loopholes for the powerful and stifling regulations for everybody else. Government has produced mostly acrimony and dysfunction. The technology sector seems to systematically violate our privacy and then sell our information to advertisers who then try to trick us into buying things we don't want. Higher education has become unaffordable education for a huge segment of the population and the research that is produces is often very disconnected and irrelevant to the lives of everyday people. The business sector has produced race-to-the-bottom wages. And, finally, the security sector has taken us into endless and seemingly unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I think that one of the keys to rebuilding the public's trust in its elite institutions is for elites to start asking hard questions about whether or not they're really earning that trust and how they could do a better job of serving the public.

Slide 13. In the next and final post in this series we are going to look at strategies for mitigating the conflict between the Democratic, left-leaning, protected classes and their supporters and sympathizers and those on the more conservative side, the Republican-leaning "left behinds." We are going to talk about how these groups might come to realize that they actually have a lot of common interests that are worth pursuing together.

Referenced Resources

Photo Credits