America’s failures, like those of any society, have deep roots. They can be traced to some fundamental misunderstanding of reality. In our society, one of these is a dissonant evaluation of elites. America’s elites are seen to be simultaneously all powerful and completely incompetent. When great and terrible events come—natural or man-made—politicians, social media magnates, university presidents, billionaires, and others are ascribed agency over events, and we expect that they should use it. Why haven’t they done everything in their power to prevent crisis? Yet when elites gather together to discuss how best to act, their forums become synonymous with malice and conspiracy. Blame assigned, the “realist” then proposes the elites be replaced, and the “idealist” that we shouldn’t have elites at all. The root misconception unchallenged by either.
The term “elites” has many connotations today, but early sociologists such as Max Weber or Vilfredo Pareto used it in a technical sense: the group of people that has a preponderant influence on society. They are those with power. A different use of the term “elite” can be found in phrases like “elite athlete,” which indicate someone at the top of a domain of skill. The two groups certainly overlap, but imperfectly. Narrowing our focus on the elites who endeavor to influence society, we notice that the standards by which success, and thus status as an elite, is measured are not universal. They vary with time, government structure, and other circumstances. Recognizing elites and navigating their world requires discerning the standards in play.
Those elites who exercise influence may be called the ruling class even though they are certainly not confined to government positions. The idea of an elite class implies selectivity and outsized social influence. The distribution of power in society probably looks something like the Pareto distribution—though not quite the same, because in a Pareto distribution there would be a single most powerful person who would be radically more powerful than the next most powerful person. Though this can be the case, societies can also be oligarchical, and in such systems, power levels between elites are much more evenly distributed. Discrepancies aside, in all cases the distribution of power in the total population does roughly follow a Pareto curve. Within the elite cluster, however, it depends on the shape of the society in question.
The Role of Elites in Society
Many view elites as by nature playing an adversarial role, the details in-line with the framework of one’s political views. While this is understandable, and many charges are levied rightfully in spirit if not in letter, it is too easy to confuse elite failure or dysfunction, even widespread, with a case against elites per se. In a time of failing institutions and frequent crises such as ours, it would not be right to exonerate elites from responsibility, perhaps quite the contrary. However, it is also worth noting that elites are not solely a negative influence on society, and in fact serve several crucial roles to its functioning. Without a functioning elite, we could not have a functioning society.
A society is best thought of as an ecosystem of mutually dependent institutions. Where those institutions are abundant, well-designed, and functional, we will find a flourishing society and civilization. Where they are few, poorly designed, or dysfunctional, we will find a broken and decaying society. Throughout history, the best institutions outperform others by many orders of magnitude—functional institutions are the exception. It is better to have one functional institution than one hundred dysfunctional ones.
Elites are necessary to marshal the requisite resources, talent, and enthusiasm to found new functional institutions and refound old ones. Nobody else has the influence and independence to do so. Founding an institution is very hard, founding a functional one much harder, and refounding a dysfunctional one perhaps the hardest of all. The difficulty is not just technical but also political. These tasks are hard enough for elites, much less you or me, and by succeeding at them, elites help create a flourishing society that benefits everyone. Furthermore, founding important functional institutions tends to rightfully make elites of those who found them. Without elites, we would have far fewer and far less functional institutions. A society without elites would necessarily decay and get worse for everyone in it.
Another important role that elites play is in the regulation of status and prestige within society. Not all societies in history have been motivated primarily by the same concerns. Some could be distinguished by their focus on economic concerns, others on scientific, martial, religious, or humanitarian ones. But all of them had a system of awarding, regulating, and seizing status and prestige and, in fact, that system is the engine that drives a society to concern itself with something or other beyond its mere survival.
Elites have the power to direct status and prestige to one activity or another, as Elon Musk assigns status to rocketry and space exploration today, or as many monarchs and leaders assigned status to scientific or artistic endeavors in the past. The assignment of status and prestige to one field or another will directly affect how much effort is put into it, and thus how much a society achieves in that field. America’s successful mission to the Moon began with an influential speech by JFK less than a decade earlier. He didn’t have to make that speech about landing on the Moon, but he did. Without that direction to beneficial ends, a society will simply achieve less.
All that said, it is also worth examining where elite power comes from in the first place. There are three major sources: formal positions within or proprietary knowledge of strategically relevant institutions, personal or professional connections to other elites or groups with which elites need to interact, and—simply—talent, like the “elite athlete.” When considering elites with influence on society, this usually means talent at persuasion, organizing, or strategy. It’s possible to become extremely influential in society through any of these means, but it often takes a combination of all three. Elites are fundamentally strategic, responding effectively to their environments and to other power players. Conventional signs of power, such as wealth, are usually derived from successful strategic maneuvering in one of the above three areas.
Formal Positions as Stepping Stones
Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, makes a good example of an elite whose power derived primarily from a formal position within a strategically relevant institution. While in office, Greenspan regularly made media statements that affected the economy by influencing market confidence, a tactic known as strategic communication management. This power was greatly enhanced by the fact that he had economists on speed dial to help select the right talking points. He also had direct access to government officials and top business leaders, and so could influence them personally and directly. And all that’s not even counting the direct political power over economic policy that he possessed.
But Greenspan’s public influence cannot be taken at face value. He has admitted that his remarks to reporters were sometimes intentionally nonsensical; his press conferences were mere efforts to look accountable, without any intention to impart real information. This illustrates a distinction between the formal reality, and the actual reality. The formal reality is that the Fed chairman is holding a press conference to inform you about the state of the economy. Acting under this assumption, journalists will disseminate his remarks whether or not they personally believe him to be speaking in good faith. The actual reality is one where the press conference has to be held as a matter of course, but where accurate information on the state of the economy couldn’t be shared while retaining the position.
This is characteristic of modern Western elites, selected for their ability to advance a narrative, or, at the very least, obscure challenges to it. What looks like idiocy or confusion can often be tactical, especially in a “transparent” and televisual era where something has to be said. Donald Trump’s weaponized distraction is now well-known; but while his style is unique, the chaos that results is not. Nancy Pelosi is known for being intentionally confusing in remarks to the press, obscuring her next move. When dealing with the statements and actions of elites, one must be careful not to automatically take them at face value. The ability to get away with making seemingly “bad” decisions is often an indicator of power, as one might hypothesize in the cases of Donald Trump, Kanye West, or a multitude of other celebrities.
Networks and Strategy
Elites tend to be very good at defending against attacks and at self-presentation, either publicly or interpersonally. This brings us to the second source of elite power: the ability to easily identify allies and close ranks against rivals. As with institutional position, exceptional ability can feed into this source of power. For example, being very good at understanding what people want and helping them get it can allow one to build and maintain a quality elite network. It is also important to understand where the lines are drawn—who is really on whose “side,” and which disputes are more performative than substantive. This requires an ability to distinguish form from substance in complex social situations.
It also means keeping track of shifting elite coalitions–people and factions change sides depending on their interests, and as new elites are introduced. Pareto emphasized the necessity of bringing in “newer and more capable elements from the underlying population” for a functional elite class. In a world with multiple centers of power, distinct elite classes arise and the balance of power shifts. Participating in an elite circle means identifying the power landscape, the players in it, and the players’ objectives.
This is not a task that can be accomplished merely with reference to image, credentials, position, and style. After identifying the interests of power, the task for those who would participate in elite circles is one of aligning with those interests. For example, the Queen of England’s power derives from staying above the fray: it would be a mistake for her to try and increase it by revealing more of her personal beliefs to the public, despite the path to celebrity this often provides. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have recently and famously learned that increased public exposure correlates with decreased royal prestige.
However, there are ways to acquire an elite network without having conventional social skills, especially during crises or unusual situations. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet during the American Civil War, often distorted into a story of bipartisan compromise, actually describes a very interesting case of this dynamic. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was not one to just go along with things, to put it mildly: he had a volcanic temper. He was known to be extremely insulting and disagreeable; even, allegedly, to Lincoln himself, years before the war.
But with Lincoln’s sociable first Secretary of War dogged by corruption allegations, Stanton’s disagreeableness induced the public to place trust in his fidelity to the public interest. They knew he wasn’t easily socially influenced or concerned with looking good. His immense administrative and intellectual talent made him indispensable to the war effort and his personality allowed him to convincingly play “bad cop” to Lincoln’s “good cop.” Some believed him hostile to Lincoln, but this was largely performative or a temporary, impersonal outburst.
Another elite strategy is adhering to a predefined strategic role, such as a hereditary monarchy rooted in historical continuity. It has been said that Queen Elizabeth II’s responsibility during World War II was the same as that of every British citizen: to be unbroken, to provide a symbol of stability, to be equanimous in the face of any hardship. Her personal talent at fulfilling this role so gracefully is not the source of her elite status, but it increases her power and helps preserve it. A general understanding of elite dynamics allows other elites, especially rising elites, to tailor their advice and strategic alignment to specific situations.
Queen Elizabeth obviously wouldn’t be well served by adopting Donald Trump’s Twitter style, since the monarchy’s legitimacy currently rests on the unifying purpose of being “above it all,” and especially above political strife. She certainly has political opinions; developing opinions is an occupational hazard in her position—she’s seen state security decisions, national policy, and law made for 70 years—yet, we don’t know them. This ambiguity is an intentionally crafted state of affairs that she has maintained for 70 years.
How Rising Elites Join the Ruling Class
How are Pareto’s “newer and more capable elements from the underlying population” brought in to join the elite class?
Typically, elites search for assistance from people who are, in plain language, useful. There are many ways for a rising elite to be useful. One could provide a rare or valuable resource, as in the case of Michael Bloomberg, whose first big success was in selling financial data through the Bloomberg Terminal. One could provide a crucial skill, as in the case of Robert Clive, whose military abilities during the conquest of India lifted him from an unremarkable East India Company clerk to become a major-general and governor of Bengal. One could provide the ability to make deals on behalf of a non-elite class with whom one is influential, as in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., whose ability to broker compromises with sympathetic elite factions gave him the leverage to transform America’s racial politics.
Since existing elites are defined by their ability to secure and maintain power, being sensitive to power dynamics is key to forming connections with them. A rising elite must possess such an understanding in order to offer useful advice or assistance to elites: if they miscalculate, they will be a liability rather than an asset. They must also demonstrate that they have the judgment and loyalty not to use any information they may be given against their elite counterpart who provided it. In other words, both the ability to provide value and demonstration of loyalty to an elite’s interest—a mutual interest—must be established for collaboration to make sense.
How does a rising elite gain access to begin with? The role of elite universities and other elite institutions in networking and ladder-climbing is well-known, but a simpler way is to directly exchange knowledge. This could come from requesting advice, if done in the correct way. Benjamin Franklin, an archetypal example of a rising elite in colonial America, described how asking a rival in the Pennsylvania state legislature to lend him a rare book proved to be a good way to end their rivalry. Why should granting someone a favor increase your regard for them? More even than receiving a favor from them! Such a seemingly irrational outcome has been termed the “Ben Franklin Effect” by contemporary psychologists. Rather than assuming irrationality, I find an alternative explanation more convincing: the giver of the favor is examining what you might achieve with it. Favors are overtures towards partnership that require follow-up on the part of the rising elite. Were the receiver of the favor not as driven Ben Franklin, I doubt it would have had the effect in question.
A different approach is to make information that elites will find useful public, then hoping they see it. This can be especially valuable in niche areas, where there is, by definition, less competition. It also involves an element of generosity and a lack of clear short-term benefit. Elites are used to being approached by people who want something or allegedly have good advice, and they’re used to getting out of such conversations, so gestures of goodwill and trust like this give them a reason to keep listening. For example, in intellectual fields, the communication and data made available by the internet allow for elites to find capable collaborators outside of traditional institutions. Extensive research can now be done from anywhere, not only by people with access to archives and databases at universities and libraries. This transformation of the information ecology has led some elites to try new approaches, and this may intensify in coming years.
Once a rising elite gets a chance to present their case, they must make sure they understand the situation and desires of the person they are interacting with. Institutional analysis serves as one useful way to do this. An example of this sort of analysis would be to look at all the seats the Queen of England currently occupies—all of her institutional positions—and figure out how to improve her position. What hasn’t she thought of yet? Which institutions and players would stop her from pursuing such action? To discuss such sensitive information, a rising elite would have to earn a great deal of trust. This is difficult, but achievable with skilled and careful action.
What kind of information would elites likely appreciate? A rising elite might identify areas of interest to the existing elite and determine what might advance their efforts. They would want to demonstrate that they have the missing piece of a larger puzzle: this may induce an existing elite to share information to see if the rising player can infer something from it that they cannot. This would not necessarily be because the rising player possesses superior intelligence or knowledge of the particular matter, but because they are coming at the issue from a different perspective or background. They could identify a flaw in the established elite’s institution or approach, or suggest an overlooked improvement. They could identify an institution that would make a valuable acquisition, but that the existing elite hasn’t considered pursuing. They could spot a gap in their elite network, and even fill that gap with an introduction to someone with the connections or abilities they lack.
Elites hold preponderant influence over society, but are not necessarily fully coordinated. There can be stray individuals, incomplete networks, or mutually competing networks that might have imperfect information about each other, possibly leading to elite conflict. A rising elite that has put in the legwork to study existing elites can be very helpful in filling in gaps of this sort by spotting elites with complementary abilities or connections. Elites may also have preferences for or aversions to working with people of certain types of personality, style, or areas of interest. These may not be easy to discern at first, so a rising elite must watch carefully for patterns. This incentive for rising elites to create greater coordination does in fact produce more coordination, thus allowing elites to spend more time cooperating and less time battling each other, with positive results for society as a whole.
The inner workings of elite networks, whether existing or rising, are often opaque, but ripple throughout society. Only by coming to understand, empathize with, and analyze these inner workings, and by understanding these dynamics of elite behavior and strategy, can we make sense of society at all—and by engaging its real dynamics, reshape it.