Paul Nitze: In Aspen and everywhere else
June 29, 2011
Aspen’s first Ideas Festival, of a sort, was the Goethe Bicentennial in 1949. Among the headliners was the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, who made his name with a book called “The Revolt of the Masses.”
Ortega’s big concern was that popular political movements on the right and the left threatened Western civilization. He wrote: “Mass man is without direction, self-satisfied, and preoccupied with his own well-being.” Not exactly devouring the great books. In 1949 he had been back in Madrid for only a year, having spent most of the previous two decades exiled by revolution; his preoccupations were well-forged.
Ortega was a small-“c” conservative who played well to the industrialists and intellectuals in attendance in 1949. The Americans in the group had been mostly insulated from the political turmoil in Europe (some made their fortunes from it), but they weren’t blind to history. Part of the founding impulse of the Aspen Institute was to keep the flame of Western culture burning while political storms raged.
Nowadays, it looks like the threat identified by Ortega peaked soon after he published his book. It’s the elites, not the masses, who are in the driver’s seat. He’s been dead for awhile now, but my nominee for the Ortega of this year’s Ideas Festival is Christopher Lasch.
Sixty years later, the Ideas Festival is a juggernaut – in a good way. Paul Andersen wrote thoughtfully in Wednesday’s paper about the “Great Conversation” that happens in Aspen. If the goal is to get a lot of bright, accomplished people to mingle and share ideas, this weekend scores high. There’s a frankness to the conversation that’s refreshing. Where else can you hear Colin Powell stand up to Karl Rove in public?
But I have a sinking feeling all this mixing and mingling and sharing isn’t doing the country much good. The reason for that is the people doing the voting have zero trust in the people in Aspen doing the talking. As a country, we’re pretty well stocked with ideas, but our broken-down democracy is barely capable of turning those ideas into action.
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Lasch makes this case in his last book, “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” published in 1992. Among other things, “Revolt of the Elites” is a slap to liberals who think they could fix most of our country’s problems by defanging the rich. It’s not (just) about the money, he argues.
If you’ve read a few of my columns, you know I tend to think reducing inequality is the secret sauce of a healthy democracy. Build up the middle class, stop the likes of David Koch and Sam Wyly from buying elections, keep a lid on the banks, and boom: pragmatism and political progress.
Lasch doesn’t discount inequality, but he makes the case that the country has swallowed a lot of inequality for a long time, even during periods when our government seemed responsive. He argues that it’s more important to look at the other ties that bind elites to those lower in the pecking order.
Do they live in the same places? Do they go to church together? Do they ever mingle in places, like a school or a club, where status doesn’t have much to do with wealth? How about elites’ wealth – are their economic fortunes lumped in with everyone else?
If these are the benchmarks that determine whether the elites gathering in Sun Valley or Aspen or Palm Springs are trusted by everyone else, then we are in deep trouble. For all of the dissemination practiced this weekend – think Evan Williams and Biz Stone firing off tweets – there’s a fishbowl quality to it.
Aspen has never exactly embodied the communitarian ideal. And that’s even if you play down the materialism of the place, the rustic fortresses lining Red Mountain. The Aspen Idea was to bring a thin slice of society here for hiking, immersion in Western culture, and reasoned gab.
That thin slice used to be better integrated into their neighborhoods and charitable institutions and corporations back home. Now they are mobile, as is their wealth. Their ability to drive change in the private sector remains pretty strong. But when it comes to politics, they are deeply resented, because they’re alien to everyone else.
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