Part Four: Angelo Codevilla and the Neoconservative Fantasy
“Our ruling class does not like the rest of America. Most of all does it dislike that so many Americans think America is substantially different from the rest of the world and like it that way. For our ruling class, however, America is a work in progress, just like the rest the world…The country class actually believes that America’s ways are superior to the rest of the world’s.”
~ Angelo Codevilla, 2010
A fundamental aspect of Jack’s America-is-ending narrative is the idea of class warfare. Jack does not see this war as an economic one. Rather it is a war of ideology. There is a superior class, driven by the American Beast (a Contrabiblicism-Leftism hybrid). Since the 1850s, this superior class has waged a silent war against the inferior class — traditional, conservative Christian American culture. After many battles, the war is nearly won. Superior leftists are the victors, to whom the spoil — control of morality and values and channels of media — has gone.
Rightists must retreat. Rightists must create their own institutions along the way to a new counterculture. But only traditional, conservative Christian American rightists. Certain groups of rightists are not allowed. I find each exclusion interesting in its own right. But one in particular is highly curious.
In Jack Crabtree’s counterculture, the following will be true:
No libertarians allowed.
I find this highly curious for reasons that will become clear later in this post.
There are two important assumptions underlying Jack’s narrative here: First is his understanding on the existence of a “superior class,” which Jack himself credits to a neoconservative theory of a “ruling class.” The second is Jack’s constant reliance on a Marxist theory of cultural hegemony.
Jack’s argument hinges on the validity of these two assumptions. And I find both of these assumptions problematic.
Angelo Codevilla Sheds a Great Deal of Light
The first foundational assumption of Jack’s is the existence of a superior/inferior class structure. If this structure does not actually exist in the way Jack has articulated it, then he has misdiagnosed both the problem and how his so-called Beast manifests itself in actuality. By his own admission in Footnote 9 of his paper, Jack’s belief in this class structure comes directly from a man named Angelo Codevilla:
“I must credit Angelo M. Codevilla for its [the superior class] inspiration. Every now and then you read a book that analyzes something that you have known, experienced, and lived your whole life through but were never quite able to put your finger on. Professor Codevilla’s book The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (New York: Beaufort Books, 2010) is one of those books for me. His identification of the existence of a ruling class sheds a great deal of light on my own history and experience. I believe he is right on target… My analysis would not have been possible without the initial insight and inspiration provided by Codevilla’s book.”
This is high praise from Jack Crabtree. Angelo Codevilla made sense of Jack’s personal life in many ways — he put his finger on experiences of Jack’s in ways that Jack never could. Codevilla’s ideas about a ruling class gave some sort of structure and meaning to Jack’s “history and experience.”
I argued in my previous post that Jack’s narrative does not seem to make sense of the actual empirical evidence of America’s trajectory. I also pointed out that, even if empirical evidence did not match (and even if it instead contradicted) Jack’s narrative, Jack was upfront that he would not be persuaded to set aside that narrative. I think this admission of Jack’s about Codevilla helps understand why: what Jack has found convincing about his narrative is not whether or not it explains reality in general. What he finds convincing is how it explains his personal experience of certain phenomena.
And the man that gave Jack the tools to understand his personal experiences of certain phenomena is Angelo Codevilla.
So who is this person, and what did he say?
About Angelo Codevilla
Angelo Codevilla is a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. He served under President Ronald Reagan within the U.S. Department of State, focusing on Western Europe and matters affecting the U.S. intelligence community. He also dealt with U.S. intelligence as a U.S. Senate staff member.
More important to the purposes here is not who Codevilla is, but what he is. He is, frankly, a Machiavelli-admiring neoconservative hawk. He is such “a good super hawk,” that “he makes many neoconservatives look like pacifists.” If you have strong political opinions, that description will either make you feel more or less favorably to him at first glance. If you are perhaps not up on foreign policy politics, though, that description might mean nothing to you.
Let me break it down.
By “Machiavelli-admiring,” I mean that Codevilla considers Machiavelli to “be an exemplar of political wisdom.” His Machiavellian approach involves sacrificing “principle to expediency, to ‘let the end justify the means.'”
By “neoconservative,” I mean that Codevilla is the sort of person who really wants the United States to be the world’s policeman. Neoconservatives believe “American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement.” They consider this appropriate because of “the narrative of America’s ‘greatness’ or ‘exceptionalism.'” The reason for the “neo,” by the way, is that arguably “perpetual war to rid the world of evil is about as far as one can get from traditional conservatism but it was also the mantra of Bush’s Republican Party.”
The uptick of this is that neoconservatives are essentially imperialists. While calling someone an imperialist these days is usually considered negative, neoconservatives embrace the term and argue that the U.S. should “embrace its imperial role.” This mindset is about “spreading American dominance.” And Codevilla is squarely in this camp, desiring to “rehabilitate colonialism” and facilitate “imperialist occupations.”
By “hawk,” I mean that he is a war enthusiast, in the tradition of nationalism. As far as hawks go, he is very hawkish. Some call him a “super hawk.”
The purpose of my paper is not to argue politics, and it would be a distraction to argue about the nuances of foreign policy. But I shall say briefly that I have serious problems with respecting a Machiavellian warmonger who has favorable thoughts towards any forms of colonialism and imperialism. I also am going to be extraordinarily distrustful of such a person as well.
If that in itself were not raising red flags, consider other facts about Angelo Codevilla. He believes in the legitimacy and respectability of the anti-Obama “birther” movement” (which is ironic, since that movement began among Hillary Clinton supporters). He thinks black studies programs have no useful purpose and are merely “partisan.” He thought that, “Sarah Palin is a political talent we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.” He considers the brutal treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib to be nothing more than “slight mistreatment.” His foreign policy has been described as “Mass Execution as Public Policy” — to the point that it would “require making the streets of Washington and Wall Street run with blood.” In his perspective, “instead of the Iraq war, we should be having the Arabian war.” If you attempt to oppose U.S. interventionism (which truly borders on a form of state-sponsored terrorism, as he articulates it), he considers that “leftist” and “anti-American.”
Yes — to this man, opposition to U.S. state-sponsored terrorism is leftist and anti-American. This is the sort of nationalist extremist with which we are dealing. Codevilla even thinks that we should threaten to drone strike innocent civilians in order to put pressure on Islamist terrorist leaders. This is not an exaggeration. He believes “the prospect of sudden death” is a legitimate rhetorical device.
Codevilla is so extreme that conservatives previously wanted nothing to do with him. Take Daniel Larison, for example. Larison is a conservative Christian and a senior editor at The American Conservative. As a conservative Christian, Larison considers Codevilla “wildly, intensely hawkish and hegemonist; he is one of those people who will bear the label imperialist as a badge of honour.” Which is a really bad thing in Larison’s mind.
Larison dislikes Codevilla’s ideas so much that he feels himself “breaking out in hives on those occasions when [he has] read Codevilla in the past.”
What is particularly interesting in relation to Jack’s paper is that Larison argues that no educated person “would ever confuse a Codevilla piece with anything relating to” true conservatism.
Keep in mind here that Larison is not only a conservative. Like Jack, Larison personally believes in the concept of encouraging “individuals and families to personally secede from the corrupt and corrupting influence of post-Christian culture in America.”
But unlike Jack, Larison feels the true weight of the context in which Codevilla writes: a very context of American exceptionalism and greatness that borders on colonialism and imperialism. From what I have read, there seems to have been a general consensus among traditional conservatives that Codevilla is not one of them.
Right-wing conservatives, however, adoringly embraced him because of two events, one in 1979 and one in 2010.
How Gary North and Rush Limbaugh Made Angelo Codevilla a Rockstar
Gary North and 1979
In 1979, Gary North was doing what Gary North does best: spreading end-of-the-world narratives and making money off of them.
Gary North is a disciple of R.J. Rushdoony, King of Christian Reconstruction. North married Rushdoony’s daughter and is widely considered the Prince and heir of Christian Reconstructionism. Most recently, he authored Ron Paul’s curriculum for Christian homeschool students.
This is Gary “Stone the Gays” North, mind you. North believes in the legitimacy of the Old Testament commandment of stoning gay people. Not just gay people, though: “When people curse their parents, it unquestionably is a capital crime.” Not just because it is just, but because, you know, stones are cheap: “the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost.”
North has a history of end-of-the-world narratives. He has made a living “predicting modern society will end in panic and ruin.” His first foray into this was forecasting “a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.” Later he would go on to warn “his followers to buy ‘gold, silver, a safe place outside the major cities.’ Then AIDS became the threat: ‘In 1992, we will run out of available hospital beds…. The world will eventually panic,’ he wrote in 1987.” After the AIDS scare came the Y2K scare (which I mentioned in Part Three of this series permeated my Christian homeschool subculture). North was one of the main “town criers” for Y2K, predicting that “the Y2K computer glitch would lead to the total collapse of the global economy, leaving Christians in the United States to pick up the pieces.” (Note, too, that North was not merely predicting Y2K would be the end of the world. He was desiring Y2K to be the end of the world. This is a quotation from an email he sent out in 1997: “Of course I want to see y2k bring down the system, all over the world. I have hoped for this all of my adult life.”)
But North’s apocalyptic declarations all began in 1979.
In 1979, Gary North published an essay in his Remnant Review by an anonymous person — North called the person “Dr. X” — about the Soviet Union and the Cold War. North called it “the most startling issue” and “the most important issue” he had ever published. It was so important that it inspired him to physically relocate his place of residence. Because of what this Dr. X was predicting, North said,
I will be moving out of Durham before the end of the year. Durham is too vulnerable, not to Soviet missiles, but to the emergency regulations that the Federal government plans to impose immediately after a nuclear attack.
This Dr. X wrote an article entitled, “The Danger is Defeat, Not Destruction.” Dr. X argued that, “The Soviet Union is not out to destroy us, but to defeat us.” That, “after being defeated by the Soviets, most Americans might wish that Armageddon had come instead.” Americans, he warned, “have rendered ourselves incapable of doing anything about the present danger.” Indeed, “the U.S. is wholly without civil defense.” Dark times were ahead. Because “[American leaders] have been whistling in the dark, “The future would belong to the Soviet Union.” “Subjugation of the United States” would open “new and more violent chapters in the history of the world,” and “the rape of the United States would be swift.”
Dr. X ended his essay with this ominous prediction: “By 1982 at the latest, the U.S. will enter the most dangerous period in its history.”
Years later in 1997, while North was drumming up paranoia about Y2K, North revealed that “Dr. X” was — you guessed it — Angelo Codevilla.
And of course, by 1982 we did not enter the “most dangerous period” of our history. That is because a few things happened after August 1979 that Codevilla was unable to predict. These include: the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in December of the same year to oust Hafizullah Amin, resulting in the end of Détente; Ronald Reagan inaugurated 40th President of the United States; and the drop in the price of oil, which brutally hit the Soviet Union’s economy. You know, just a few minor details.
Codevilla thus went viral and no one knew who he was. As “Dr. X,” he not only went viral, he also made a false prediction that was perpetuated by Gary North. His next prediction was in 2010. And it was propelled into the public consciousness by Rush Limbaugh.
Rush Limbaugh and 2010
In 2010, Angelo Codevilla publicly rose to prominence in the conservative and Christian circles because of his essay for the American Spectator entitled “America’s Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution.” This essay was “initially catapulted to public attention by populist conservative radio-host Rush Limbaugh.” It was later expanded into a book (the one that Jack read and considered fundamental to his America-is-ending narrative), entitled America’s Ruling Class: how political elites hijacked America, published also by the American Spectator in 2010.
In his essay, Codevilla took aim against “what he calls the ruling class of the government-supported elite.” Rightists (though not conservatives per se) in general found this highly inspirational.
By “highly inspirational,” I really mean highly inspirational.
Rush Limbaugh’s radio broadcast — the one that made Codevila a pubic conservative celebrity — was almost entirely dedicated to Limbaugh reading quotations from Codevilla’s essay. This is from his radio broadcast:
“Once in a while — it doesn’t happen very often — once in a while you stumble across an article, an essay that demands to be widely disseminated. This one that I stumbled across is from the July-August issue of the American Spectator, and the title is: ‘America’s Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution.’ It’s by Angelo Codevilla.”
This is almost exactly the same thing that Jack said about Codevilla.
“It is so good, it is so timely, it is so thorough and complete…This is just too important, it is just too right on, right on, right on, Angelo Codevilla…I very seldom use the word important, and this piece is important. It’s important, and I’m gonna admit one of the reasons I am captivated by it is that it encapsulates things that I have been saying for 20 years or maybe 15 years.”
Rush Limbaugh was not the only one who loved Codevilla’s piece. So did Gary North:
“Every political movement needs a manifesto. The Tea Party surely needs one. So do other grassroots political resistance organizations. They don’t have it yet, but they now have its preliminary foundation, Angelo Codevilla’s essay, ‘America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution.'”
North heaps praise upon Codevilla just like Limbaugh, declaring Codevilla to be “America’s smartest conservative political analyst” and this essay to be “the finest statement on the two-fold division in American political life written in my lifetime — more than this, in the last hundred years.” (In the same article North also said The Scopes Trail was part of “the Progressives’ long-term plan to establish the political dominance of the Nordic master race.”)
In other words, Codevilla’s words had the same impact on Jack Crabtree as they had on Gary North and Rush Limbaugh.
That was just beginning of the enthusiastic reception to this essay. “Angelo M. Codevilla is our generation’s Tom Paine,” said one person. “[This is] the most important essay I have ever read,” said another, “a true American manifesto for our time.” First Things gushed that, “Reading it, one hears trumpets.” As Reason points out, “Few essays attracted as much attention from right-wing readers this summer as ‘America’s Ruling Class.'”
Key to the appeal of Codevilla’s essay and book to rightists was one thing in particular: he strove “mightily to marry conservative cultural complaints to the libertarian case against an intrusive central government.”
Part of what he does to marry these two very different things — the conservative cultural mindset and the libertarian mindset — is establish the exact same Gestalt, or pattern, that Jack does: America is split into two classes. Codevilla calls these “a ruling class and a country class.” Also like Jack, he believes that the Republican Party is part of the problem — and heaps immense praise on — surprise! — homeschooling:
“Codevilla says the GOP is part of the problem, arguing that the party ‘has zero claim to the Country Class’ trust because it does not live to represent the Country Class.’ He has more enthusiasm for homeschoolers than for any political party.”
Since writing about the Ruling Class, Codevilla has become a celebrity in right-wing circles. He has joined the ranks of notable culture warriors in promoting “conservative” causes. In 2010, Codevilla signed a joint letter in support of former Senator (and current president of Heritage Foundation) Jim DeMint and the Senate Conservative Fund. This letter urged people to give up fidelity to Republicans in general and pledge themselves solely to DeMint and his projects. This letter was also signed by Gary Bauer (Family Research Council), Joel Belz (WORLD Magazine), Erick Erickson (who recently called Wendy Davis an “Abortion Barbie”), Michael Farris (HSLDA), Troy Newman (Operation Rescue), David Noebel (Summit Ministries), and Larry Pratt (Gun Owners of America). Angelo Codevilla also signed another joint letter in 2013, joining the ranks of Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, and Rick Scarborough.
Now that I have established a basic context in which to understand Codevilla and his thought process, let us look at what he actually argued in his essay (and later book). From there we can think about how his arguments might have influenced Jack and whether the arguments actually stand.
An Outline of Codevilla’s Essay
Codevilla opens his essay by setting forth a particular interpretation of the bank bailout during the recent Great Recession.
His interpretation of and dislike for the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 is at the heart of his thesis: political leaders from both main political parties agreed to this “bank bailout”:
“As over-leveraged investment houses began to fail in September 2008, the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, of major corporations, and opinion leaders stretching from the National Review magazine (and the Wall Street Journal) on the right to the Nation magazine on the left, agreed that spending some $700 billion to buy the investors’ ‘toxic assets’ was the only alternative to the U.S. economy’s ‘systemic collapse.'”
This opening paragraph is one of the only times he actually makes bipartisan jabs. After this, he generally slants rightward and attacks centrists and leftists. But for this opening argument, he tries to present the perceived problem as a problem of both political parties in order to present a conflict between these parties and the public in general. He argues that while the two main parties agreed to the bailout, the public was generally opposed. Yet their voices were not listened to. This indicates that that both parties make up their own “political class,” that is distinct from “the public.” This political class was termed “the ruling class.”
Whether a political leader is Republican or Democrat, there remains a common interest in “domination.” Both parties want to dominate the public and turn a blind ear to their demands. Thus differences between the parties — or as he puts it, “between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas” — are “of degree, not kind.” Collectively, they make up “the ruling class.”
Key to understanding this ruling class is this idea that the differences between the members of the ruling class are not differences in important matters. Among the so-called “elites” that make up the class, there is little diversity. Not only is the diversity minimal, but the fact that it is minimal is allegedly unique in American history: “Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust.”
Instead of the diversity that allegedly used to make up America’s ruling elite, there is a uniformity that (also allegedly) never existed before: a uniformity about humanity’s origin, proper governance, desire for social engineering, etc. Codevilla argues,
“The schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust [never] imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed…These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints.”
While Republicans and Democrats are becoming more unified, the rest of America is getting bitter. Today, “few speak well of the ruling class.” Part of this disagreements the public has with the ruling class about certain issues: taxes, perpetual war, the economy, and so forth. But part of the public’s dislike of the ruling class is the sense of superiority it has — a sense of superiority that the Founding Fathers did not have:
“[The ruling class’] attitude is key to understanding our bipartisan ruling class. Its first tenet is that “we” are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained. How did this replace the Founding generation’s paradigm that ‘all men are created equal’?”
At first glance this general sketch of a ruling class and its sense of superiority seems something that is hardly deniable (though certainly we argue about the extent to which it is true). There is a sense in which Republicans and Democrats agree on many issues regarding governance and power. So if Codevilla was merely sketching the technocratic and oligarchic influences in our government, that would be one thing — and I fail to see how such a sketch would cause so much excitement about right-wing readers. Most everyone sees this (and sees it as a problem). That is part of the public uproar over the bank bailout, I believe.
But Codevilla is not content with sketching only the technocratic and oligarchic influences in our government. He wants to color in between the lines and push these influences away from conservatives and the right and towards centrists and and the left. This is seen as he begins to add more detail to what constitutes the ruling class.
Key elements to the ruling class’ paradigm are some very specific ideologies: Darwin, Hegel, and Marx. In fact, Codevilla pinpoints as the origin of the ruling class the exact same ideologies as Jack does for the origin of the superior class. They also pinpoint the exact same beginning in time and space: the 1850’s.
“By 1853, when Sen. John Pettit of Ohio called ‘all men are created equal’ ‘a self-evident lie,’ much of America’s educated class had already absorbed the ‘scientific’ notion (which Darwin only popularized) that man is the product of chance mutation and natural selection of the fittest. Accordingly, by nature, superior men subdue inferior ones as they subdue lower beings or try to improve them as they please…Thus began the Progressive Era.”
At this point Codevilla completely shifts gears from the elitism of a technocratic oligarchy (which was what he started with by talking about the bank bailout) and into a critique of progressivism. Which, mind you, is very different in essence from technocratic oligarchism — in the same way that conservatism is different.
But Codevilla continues on. The ruling class, he now argues, has shown admiration for Communism, Fascism, and Nazism — but here, note, he is explicitly talking about progressives: “Progressives joined the ‘vanguard of the proletariat,’ the Communist Party. Many more were deeply sympathetic to Soviet Russia, as they were to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.”
So you see right here the conflation. First we had the ruling class, which he defined as technocratic oligarchism. Now he talks about progressivism as if they are the same thing. But in the very same paragraph he does yet another conflation:
“Our educated class was bitter about America. In 1925 the American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a legal challenge to a Tennessee law that required teaching the biblical account of creation. The ensuing trial, radio broadcast nationally, as well as the subsequent hit movie Inherit the Wind, were the occasion for what one might have called the Chautauqua class to drive home the point that Americans who believed in the Bible were willful ignoramuses.”
The point at which we are talking about the Scopes Trial and Christian fundamentalists is the point at which we are talking about neither technocratic oligarchism nor progressivism. Not to mention that, technically, the man who argued for the law that required teaching the biblical account of creation was considered a progressive at the time. This is conflation of three very different things. Yet Codevilla wants to do this: he wants to equate technocratic oligarchism with leftism/progressivism with anti-Christianity.
These false equations are necessary for the rest of his argument. Having argued that these three things are the same, this leads to some very significant observations about what the ruling class wants to do to America:
(1) The ruling class is now Marxist in intentions: it wants to change America through economic redistribution:
“By taxing and parceling out more than a third of what Americans produce, through regulations that reach deep into American life, our ruling class is making itself the arbiter of wealth and poverty.”
(2) The ruling class is now opposed to everything that a Judeo-Christian worldview stands far: It desires to subvert traditional and family values through “Kulturekampf,” or “culture war.” It is anti-Christian, anti-gender roles, anti-family, anti-traditional-marriage:
“In no other areas is the ruling class’s self-definition so definite, its contempt for opposition so patent, its Kulturkampf so open. It believes that the Christian family (and the Orthodox Jewish one too) is rooted in and perpetuates the ignorance commonly called religion, divisive social prejudices, and repressive gender roles…Since marriage is the family’s fertile seed, government at all levels, along with ‘mainstream’ academics and media, have waged war on it.”
(3) The ruling class is now opposed to conservatism: It desires to undermine parental rights. It also wants to use anonymous tips and child protective services (which is a bad thing?). Especially against homeschoolers:
“The ruling class’s assumption is that what it mandates for children is correct ipso facto, while what parents do is potentially abusive. It only takes an anonymous accusation of abuse for parents to be taken away in handcuffs until they prove their innocence. Only sheer political weight (and in California, just barely) has preserved parents’ right to homeschool their children against the ruling class’s desire to accomplish what Woodrow Wilson so yearned: “to make young gentlemen as unlike their fathers as possible.”
The truly odd nature of Codevilla’s sudden shift into conservative Christian ideology is both confusing and alarming.
There is nothing in his essay up to this point that logically leads to these observations — in fact, these observations are somewhat in tension with what came previously. One paragraph in particular contains very abstract religious phrases, like, “the enlightened ones [the ruling class] know that we are products of evolution,” whereas “the unenlightened ones [the country class] believe that man is created in the image and likeness of God.” Or, “the enlightened ones [the ruling class] know that all such judgments are subjective and that ordinary people can no more be trusted with reason than they can with guns,” whereas “the un-enlightened [the country class] are stuck with the antiquated notion that ordinary human minds can reach objective judgments about good and evil.”
So to unpack that: everyone who supported the 2008 bank bailout believes we are products of evolution and that all judgments are subjective. Also, everyone who supported the 2008 bank bailout is pro-gun control. Whereas everyone who opposed the bank bailout believe man is created in the image of the Christian God and holds to a theory of good and evil from the Enlightenment period.
Which makes zero sense.
But at this point, Codevilla has so thoroughly collapsed categories and created all sorts of strange bedfelows, that he can make a point that I am sure rang true to Jack Crabtree. Codevilla argues that, as the ruling class is so antagonistic to America’s Judeo-Christian culture (which is somehow the entire American public that opposed the bank bailouts), it wants to shut down that culture but it cannot do so with persecution. Rather, it needs to make anti-Judeo-Christian culture appear superior. Or, more cool:
“Our rulers delegitimize opposition. Though they cannot prevent Americans from worshiping God, they can make it as socially disabling as smoking — to be done furtively and with a bad social conscience.”
Another aspect of this superiority or coolness is the ruling class’ seeming lack of patriotism and nationalism. In Codevilla’s mind, the ruling class hates America. It hates the idea that America is exceptional and awesome and better than every other country. This is bad, remember, because Codevilla is a neoconservative and America is not only awesome, it is so awesome that we should be colonizing other countries to spread our awesomeness. To be opposed to this colonialism of American awesomeness is to be “leftist” and “anti-American.” He says,
“Our ruling class does not like the rest of America. Most of all does it dislike that so many Americans think America is substantially different from the rest of the world and like it that way. For our ruling class, however, America is a work in progress, just like the rest the world.”
So there is a conflict between two groups of people. On the one hand there is this ruling class, made up of the Republicans and Democrats in power who think America is a work in progress. They are basically one and the same. They just want more power and more money and they think they are better than everyone else. On the other hand is the public, which resents the rulers for having a sense of superiority — and also resent the idea that America is not superior than the rest of the world.
Did you get the strange tension in the second class? — America in general? Superior. The ruling class? So not superior.
This public Codevilla calls “the country class.” Codevilla begins by stating what should be obvious: this country class is very hard to define: “Describing America’s country class is problematic because it is so heterogeneous. It has no privileged podiums, and speaks with many voices, often inharmonious.”
This makes sense since he originally argued that the ruling class was this Republican-Democrat hybrid of technocratic oligarchism. If that hybrid is the ruling class, then everyone else equals, literally, everyone. Who is not down with the current American form of technocratic oligarchism? Well, to name a few: liberals, conservatives, progressives, socialists, Marxists, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, black people, white people, and so on and so forth.
But again, Codevilla conflates categories. If the country class includes all these people, then there is literally no way to define the class apart from its opposition to the ruling class. But he just starts throwing definitions out there. This class, he argues, opposes higher taxes, bigger government, “social engineering,” abortion, etc. Its “distinguishing characteristics” are marriage, children, and religion.
“It defines itself practically in terms of reflexive reaction against the rulers’ defining ideas and proclivities — e.g., ever higher taxes and expanding government, subsidizing political favorites, social engineering, approval of abortion, etc. Many want to restore a way of life largely superseded. Demographically, the country class is the other side of the ruling class’s coin: its most distinguishing characteristics are marriage, children, and religious practice.”
This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some of these things are truly non sequiturs. Abortion? Where did abortion come from? That has absolutely nothing to do with technocratic oligarchism. In fact, abortion is one area where Republicans and Democrats do have significant differences. So once you bring something like abortion into the picture, the concept of a unified ruling class falls apart entirely.
But Codevilla persists. While he gives specifics about what the country class looks like, he most wants to emphasize its feeling of inferiority. What sets the country class apart from the ruling class, more than anything, is this feeling:
“Nothing has set the country class apart, defined it, made it conscious of itself, given it whatever coherence it has, so much as the ruling class’s insistence that people other than themselves are intellectually and hence otherwise humanly inferior.”
The most curious aspect of this feeling of inferiority, however, is part of that feeling comes from another feeling: that America is superior. See, the country class believes America is superior to the rest of the world:
“The country class actually believes that America’s ways are superior to the rest of the world’s, and regards most of mankind as less free, less prosperous, and less virtuous.”
So. Country class: Totally feels inferior. But absolutely knows America as a nation is superior.
Ruling class: Totally feels superior. But absolutely knows America as a nation is a work in progress.
Now Codevilla really starts pandering to the conservative Christian Republican world — which is really ironic. After stressing so much that the ruling class is a Republican-Democrat hybrid, he then argues that the country class rarely votes for Democrats and loves baseball and patriotism:
“Few vote for the Democratic Party. You do not doubt that you are amidst the country class rather than with the ruling class when the American flag passes by or ‘God Bless America’ is sung after seven innings of baseball, and most people show reverence.”
This no longer feels very bipartisan to me. And that feeling only increases. Codevilla goes out of his way to make the country class look Southern and conservative:
“Some parts of the country class now follow the stars and the music out of Nashville, Tennessee, and Branson, Missouri — entertainment complexes larger than Hollywood’s — because since the 1970s most of Hollywood’s products have appealed more to the mores of the ruling class and its underclass clients than to those of large percentages of Americans. The same goes for ‘popular music’ and television. For some in the country class Christian radio and TV are the lodestone of sociopolitical taste, while the very secular Fox News serves the same purpose for others.”
Not only does the country class now sound like Nascar-loving, Fox-watching, good ‘ole southern Christian Republicans, but suddenly homeschooling is the very definition of what it means to be a member of the country class. Homeschooling is in fact the “characteristic cultural venture” of this class:
“The country class’s characteristic cultural venture — the homeschool movement — stresses the classics across the board in science, literature, music, and history even as the ruling class abandons them.”
Facilitated by the Internet, homeschooling creates “like-minded” communities and creates a “biological identity.” Which is good, in Codevilla’s mind. Like-minded communities — and “retreating into private associations” in order to “save their families from societal influences” are important. Key to countering the ruling class is being pro-family, and pro-family in a very conservative Judeo-Christian way:
“America’s pro-family movement is a reaction to the ruling class’s challenges: emptying marriage of legal sanction, promoting abortion, and progressively excluding parents from their children’s education. Americans reacted to these challenges primarily by sorting themselves out. Close friendships and above all marriages became rarer between persons who think well of divorce, abortion, and government authority over children and those who do not.”
The country class is also very stereotypically evangelical:
“The ruling class’s manifold efforts to discredit and drive worship of God out of public life — not even the Soviet Union arrested students for wearing crosses or praying, or reading the Bible on school property, as some U.S. localities have done in response to Supreme Court rulings — convinced many among the vast majority of Americans who believe and pray that today’s regime is hostile to the most important things of all. Every December, they are reminded that the ruling class deems the very word ‘Christmas’ to be offensive.”
In fact, the country class is so stereotypical evangelical — and Codevilla so thoroughly conflates these categories — that the evangelical persecution complex somehow becomes legitimate and rational and applicable to religions other than Christianity. He argues Republicans and Democrats both hate religion in general so much that anyone identifying religiously now gets labeled an “American Taliban” trying to create a “theocracy”:
“Every time they try to manifest their religious identity in public affairs, they are deluged by accusations of being ‘American Taliban’ trying to set up a ‘theocracy.’ Let members of the country class object to anything the ruling class says or does, and likely as not their objection will be characterized as ‘religious,’ that is to say irrational, that is to say not to be considered on a par with the ‘science’ of which the ruling class is the sole legitimate interpreter… Aggressive, intolerant secularism is the moral and intellectual basis of the ruling class’s claim to rule…”
In summary, then:
Angelo Codevilla believes that what happened with the 2008 bank bailout brings into focus the existence of a ruling class. While the people who are ruling are both Republicans and Democrats, the differences between them are negligible — hence they are a class. Everyone in power in America today has a unified perspective about humanity’s origin, proper governance, and a desire for social engineering. While the people in power believe themselves superior to the rest of America, the rest of America considers the ruling class to be hostile. The class arose during the 1850s through the ideologies of Darwin, Hegel, and Marx, and led to the Progressive movement. One of its major victories was how the Scopes Trial made Christian fundamentalists look like “ignoramuses.”
The goals of the ruling class are many and specific: economic redistribution, the subversion of traditional and family values through culture wars, the undermining of parental rights and the advocacy of child protective services, and subtle rather than outright persecution of Christians (by making belief in God “uncool”). In contrast to the ruling class is the rest of the America, the “country class.” While supposedly vast and varied, this class has a surprising uniformity as well: opposition to bigger government, higher taxes, social engineering, and abortion. Its distinguishing characteristics are marriage, children, and religion. Because of these characteristics, it gets made fun of by the ruling class and thus it feels “inferior.” This class, despite including everyone opposed to the bank bailout, rarely votes for Democrats. It also appears Southern and conservative, and its characteristic “cultural venture” is homeschooling. Homeschooling seems to appeal to this class because it aids in creating like-minded communities. Since this class is allegedly against gay marriage, abortion, and public education, this makes sense.
The conflict between these classes is becoming significant, as the ruling class is persecuting the country class more and more, through “arresting students for wearing crosses,” an insidious war on Christmas, and calling all religious people an “American Taliban” trying to create a “theocracy.”
This is Codevilla’s argument. More importantly, this is the argument that somehow “made sense” of Jack’s life experiences.
Analysis of Codevilla’s thesis
I have two sets of problems with Codevilla’s argument. One set includes problems with how he constructs the argument. These are problems of accuracy, consistency, and logic. The other set is a singular problem, and it is a problem with the essence of the argument itself.
First, problems of construction:
At first blush Codevilla appears to be constructing a rather common libertarian argument against technocratic oligarchism. In fact, the Foundation for Economic Education has pointed out that he “initially seems to echo this libertarian analysis.”
If the problem is that Republicans and Democrats are working together to undermine the Constitution and institute some level of statism, then Codevilla is right to point to a ruling class that is bipartisan. And he does this to some extent: “Professor Codevilla paints a very grim (and very true) picture of the complete breakdown of the constitutional form of government in America, under the assault of the modern statist ideology.”
Traditional conservatives and libertarians would agree with Codevilla up to this point. I would argue that liberals and socialists would agree with him as well, though for different reasons respectively. One blogger points out that, “Codevilla’s critique of meritocracy is a hardly a conservative insight.”
Meritocracy cuts all ways, and Codevilla loses significant accuracy points by playing favorites with whom he classifies as part of the “ruling class.” Even conservative superstar Ross Douthat identified this problem in Codevilla’s narrative: “The meritocratic elite is not as left-wing, nor the ‘country party’ as principled in its conservatism, as Codevilla wants to believe.” A somewhat similar critique of meritocracy and technocratic oligarchism has been offered from the other side of the political spectrum by Glenn Greenwald.
But we already know what Codevilla is: he is a pro-war imperialist who believes in American exceptionalism. So it is obvious that he is not going to take his thesis in the direction that any of those groups want him to. The fact is, he is neither pro-constitutionalism nor anti-statism. This is obvious from his constant referencing of Abraham Lincoln in his essay, and his praise for Lincoln’s transformation of the Republican Part into a big government, nation-building, anti-states rights party. As the Libertarian Standard pointed out,
“One cannot in the same breath be a supporter of states’ rights and an admirer of the man who practically abolished states’ rights in the form they have existed in the Constitution as originally adopted, together with the compact theory of the federal government upon which those very rights (and the Constitution itself) were based.”
Instead of taking his essay in the direction of critiquing technocratic oligarchism and targeting the proper individual and groups, Codevilla instead identifies “just the same old right-wing bugbears: the judicial branch, academia, government bureaucrats, pop culture and mainstream media.” Which is ironic, because he himself “never held a job in the private sector, working his entire career in either government or academia.” Yet “he criticizes people like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whom he claims (incorrectly) has never held non-government job.” Yes, as Mitchell J. Freedman says, Codevilla “is a professor at an elite school, Boston University, a member of a corporate funded think-tank, the Claremont Institute, and an editor for a political journal read by…elites. I guess it’s a nice theory fit for a soundbite: Ruling Class and Country Class”
So here Codevilla loses significant consistency points.
As James Hamel pointed out, “Undoubtedly, our ruling class has its problems.” But that ruling class does not exist in the way that Codevilla argues. “The system that Codevilla criticizes doesn’t actually exist,” a system where the U.S. is “ruled perniciously by alien elites.” This us vs. them mentality is simply not convincing, and for two reasons: (1) As T. Greer points out, the “them” identified is not even what actually does dominate, namely, “the Oligarchy of Good Intentions.” Rather,
“[Codevilla’s ruling class] is but the traditional conservative caste of villains: the snobbish English professor indoctrinating the youth, the worthless philanthropist surviving off charity of others, the faceless technocrat ‘managing’ the citizenry, and of course, those devils that admire President Woodrow Wilson.”
And (2) As Arnold Kling from the Library of Economics and Liberty said, “Manichean, confrontational politics is a dubious project.” Or to put this another way, “Republicans should focus on positive ideas for reform rather than creating delusional narratives about ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’”
Looking at reality from a non-Manichean perspective would actually be far more fruitful. As T. Greer says, the metric of what he calls “the Oligarchy of Good Intentions” cuts across party lines:
“The original metric gives us a better view of the hands grasping for the levers of power. The California farmer? What is he but the beneficiary of one of the largest – and long standing – subsidies found within the United States? The Texas oil man is hardly better; the oil industry is awarded some of the largest royalty reliefs offered by the federal government. And those evil humanities professors? There are not ten universities in the nation whose humanities and social science departments have not been downsized in favor of business, science, and tech over the last decade. And their funding? It too comes from the taxpayer’s pocketbook.
Oligarchy is not restricted to the political left. For every leftist among our ruling class you will find a man of the right to match him.”
Codevilla is right in this: that the halls of power are less demarcated than simple identity politics want to suggest. When power shifted from the Republican Bush administration to the Democratic Obama administration, for example, many have pointed that neoconservativism — an ideology to which Codevilla is ironically an adherent — remained popular.
Not only does Codevilla not have truly conservative, libertarian principles in mind, he also does not have progressive, liberal principles in mind. This is obvious because he defines the “good side” as the country class, and “the key characteristics of this group are its members’ (conservative) attitudes toward ‘marriage, children, and religious practice.'”
But note, those are defined by him according conservative Christian values, not conservative values. Conservative values would invoke smaller government — in the same vein of libertarianism, which is originally what Codevilla seems to get promoting. But according to a libertarian analysis, the real problem in America today is the overvaluing of power — period. While that overvaluing is applicable to a wide variety of political perspectives and parties, Codevilla inconsistently claims “that cultural identity has as much to do with the membership and agenda of the Ruling Class as political and economic power—if not more” (emphasis added).
Finally, Codevilla loses significant logic points.
As I said earlier, Codevilla engages in equivocations and generalizations that are truly sloppy and illogical. He is trying to conflate far too many things — American exceptionalism with libertarianism with conservatism with evangelical Christianity. To the point that you could probably take any member of the so-called “ruling class” and find plenty of ways in which that member does not fit the class description because “they’re not the same thing.”
I think what is really happening is that Codevilla is attempting to equivocate between the country class and his own personal cultural preferences. He has blinders on, as he wants to “shoe-horn the dangers facing the Republic into the narrow prism of the social conservative canon.” By doing that, he ends up employing these silly, constricted stereotypes that do not advance intelligent arguments. Rather, they just reduce the complexity of the world for the sake of identity politics:
“He conveys his comradely solidarity for traditional parents whose rights have been restricted but not gay couples who want to adopt kids of their own, for the fellow who wants to use a high pressure shower head but not the fellow who wants to use a bong…He just leaves them out, as though the set of citizens who make up the country class is indistinguishable from the set of citizens whose lives reflect the author’s cultural preferences…When you describe your political foes as though they’re a single stock type and in effect do the same thing to your allies, you run the risk of reducing a broad-based cause to identity politics, with cultural solidarity supplanting serious challenges to the nature and distribution of power.”
The sad part is that, in so overvaluing his own preferences and engaging in identity politics, he completely and ironically undermines what could have been a good point: that both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, can be a part of the ruling class. Instead of taking that to its logical (and potentially insightful) conclusion, he just starts dousing the whole argument with nothing but culture war references. “There are dubious digs at Darwinism, glib legal arguments, and sweeping statements that do more to flatter right-wing resentment than to describe the world as it is.” In the end, that is what he is left with: fanning the flames of, rather than extinguishing, the culture war.
“It’s the mirror image of those folks on the left who’d rather scold someone for being politically incorrect than advance the interests of the underclass. Already we’ve seen Spectator editor-in-theory R. Emmett Tyrrell dragging Codevilla’s thesis into the most inane culture-war controversy of the year: the outrage over Park51, a proposed Muslim community center near the site of the old World Trade Center…”The Country Class,” he wrote in an August editorial, ‘has come down against the mosque,’ while ‘the Ruling Class wants to place a mosque at the site of September 11.’ So much for defending the voluntary sector; on with the ginned-up outrage of the month. That’s where the culture war will get you.”
I think this explains why “the article was initially catapulted to public attention by populist conservative radio-host Rush Limbaugh” and “the article was then widely commented and publicized in the blogosphere, primarily among radical libertarians, paleoconservatives and other ‘fringe’ elements of the conservative movement.” And yet “no major conservative outlet commented on it.” Libertarians, paleoconservatives, and all the “fringe” (read: not the Establishment) probably found it appallingly lacking in good analysis. Major conservative outlets probably understood that it was simply a screed. And the two people who loved it the most were Gary North and Rush Limbaugh — which, in my mind, is not a badge of honor. This mixed reception is really explained by the fact that Codevilla is pro-military, pro-Republican-establishment, pro-Machiavelli, pro-Plato, and pro-Lincoln.
I think most people saw through the ruse and understood this was just an atrocious example of scholarly writing. As conservative Republican analyst David Frum humorously points out, Codevilla’s writing “reads like the grumblings of a grumpy old man, if grumpy old men smoked a lot of marijuana: grand unsupported generalizations, paranoid fantasies, utter forgetfulness that one said exactly the opposite thing just a few months ago.” Not only that, it seems uncomfortably close to racist. Frum’s conclusion is spot-on:
“If we were dividing America into segments, perhaps this would be as good a division as any: between those who live in the closed information system served by books like ‘The Ruling Class,’ and those who live in more open systems, where assertions must be corroborated, and where generalizations must rest on evidence. That divide seems to gape especially wide these days, judging at least by the enthusiastic reception of this embittered polemic by so many who call themselves conservative.”
And I would like to point out something interesting: liberals and “Leftists” let Codevilla’s essay and book go without hardly any comment. The people that were most outspoken in their criticism of his essay and book were conservative Christian libertarians. Yes, it was the libertarians — and particularly the conservative Christian ones — that were taking Codevilla to task for his faulty thinking.
And who is not allowed in Jack Crabtree’s Rightist counterculture? Libertarians.
In the end, really, there is nothing that special or interesting about Codevilla’s basic argument, that Republicans are just as much of the “Establishment” problem as Democrats. Even people on the Left make the same sort of argument. Socialists, for example, have the same complaints about Democrats. In the same way that conservative Christians wish Republicans would be more conservative and Christians, people who vote for Democrats “as a lesser evil to the Republicans wish and hope that the Democrats could be made into a consistently liberal party.”
These are the problems of construction. But what is problematic about the argument’s core message?
The essential problem with Codevilla’s argument is the neoconservatism. The argument — as constructed — inherently assumes that America is superior to the rest of the world, and that this superiority ought to the be the dominant system in world affairs and at home. The fact is, there will always be a ruling class, and that ruling class will always think of itself as on a different level than the ruled class: “There was never an age when the governing class thought themselves the equal of the governed: They’ve always thought themselves smarter and better.” And to say this does not apply to America’s Founding Fathers “not only grossly exaggerates the attitudes of the current elites but confuses the flowery rhetoric of our Founding elite with their actual attitudes.” The Founders were very clear about intentions to engage in various forms of social engineering, taxation, and expansion of power.
The question is, therefore, not whether there ought to be a ruling class, but what that ruling class ought to be and what it should value. The neoconservative perspective advanced by Codevilla is very clear: we need to embrace American exceptionalism and superiority, and we need to imperialistically advance the values of the past — namely, White Protestant values. This was the dominant system that was put into motion during colonial America and continued to be privileged through the founding of the U.S. and through the 1850s, too. I would argue it continues to be privileged to this day. But whether or not you believe it ought to be privileged or not, you need to understand that Codevilla — as much as he rails against a sense of superiority by rulers — is simply upset that he perceives what those rulers consider superior is different from what he considers superior. So the basic objection I have to this ruling class/country class paradigm (and Jack’s superior class/inferior class paradigm) is that it is disingenuous.
It is not an objection to the class warfare itself. It is an objection to the feeling of being on the losing side of the warfare.
Marx’s Tea Party
Now that we are talking about ruling classes and which side ought to be superior, that brings us to the next foundational assumption of Jack’s paper.
Both Codevilla’s argument for the ruling class as well as Jack’s argument for the superior class rest on the same thing: that the current system of dominance dictates the worldview of the people. And once we are talking about ruling and superior classes and systems of dominance and dictating world views, we are talking about Marxism.
In fact, in writing about Codevilla’s essay for the American Conservative, Anthony Gregory wrote a piece aptly titled, “Marx’s Tea Party.” Gregory points out that Codevilla’s essay “made waves in conservative circles for its compelling treatment of the minority ruling class” because it “broke down the class conflict in simple terms.”
These are straightforward Marxist ideas. Here is what Marx said about ruling classes when he invented the idea:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.”
This brings us directly to Antonio Gramsci.
To be continued.
5 thoughts on “This Is How the World Ends, Part Four: Angelo Codevilla and the Neoconservative Fantasy”
I’m still working through this, it’s a lot to unpack. Great work, Ryan!
Thanks Chris! It’s a lot to write, too. I’m still working on Part Seven, which is taking forever.