How the Elites Became Tea Party Enemy #1

September 19th, 2010 at 11:55 pm David Frum | 131 Comments |

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Angelo Codevilla’s American Spectator essay, “The Ruling Class,” has now been released in book form, with an introduction by Rush Limbaugh. The essay has been only slightly expanded. It has been padded to 147 pages by appending the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to fill 50 of them, and adding a suggested reading list to fill 6 more.

On the other hand, if you missed the essay the first time, the new paperback offers a convenient way to read it. And it should be read. Rush Limbaugh is right to call “The Ruling Class” one of the most important books of the year.

Which is not to say that “The Ruling Class” is a good book. It’s not. It 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.

Good book or bad book, however, “The Ruling Class” takes us as deep as we are ever likely to get into the minds of Tea Party Americans. It is important not for what it argues, but for what it reveals.

Here’s what it does reveal:

1) The central concept of the Tea Party is the division of the nation into two parts: the legitimate and the illegitimate, “real America” vs unreal. This is the idea behind Sarah Palin’s speeches. Arthur Brooks adds a social science apparatus to the concept in his new book, The Battle. But it’s Codevilla who advances the concept in its boldest form.

The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from each other than did the nineteenth century’s Northerners and Southerners …. Our classes’ clash is over whose country America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. (p. 7)

2) The dividing line between “classes” is not wealth. You can be a multi-millionaire and yet still be excluded from “the ruling class.” The dividing line is formal education, and the values and attitudes typically absorbed by highly educated people. You might almost say that the class struggle as defined by Codevilla is waged between people with more money than education, and people with more education than money.

Today’s Ruling Class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. 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. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters – using the ‘in’ language – serves as a badge of identity.

3) Despite the Tea Party’s slogans about limited government, the divisive issues are not truly economic. Indeed, despite the worst economic crisis since World War II, Codevilla has little to say about economics, and what he does say is shallow and perfunctory. His main economic idea is to cut the federal budget (pp. 81-83), and there he seems to imagine that eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will achieve a great part of the job.

The issues that most intensely exercise Codevilla: same-sex marriage, home schooling, abortion, and religion in public life. Cranky old man complaints – bad renditions of the national anthem at football games; cars too complicated to fix by yourself without a mechanic – get equal space with the Obama health plan and financial reforms.

Many pundits have remarked that the Tea Party pays relatively little attention to social issues. This statement draws the line too neatly. What Codevilla shows us is that the divide is not a divide about issues, but a divide about identity. As much as he dislikes abortion and taxation, what most fundamentally offends him is “the Ruling Class’ fundamental claims to its superior intellect and morality.” (p. 78)

4) A fascinating subtheme of The Ruling Class is how much of the author’s rage is directed at the Bush administration – but how difficult it is for Codevilla to say so out loud. In its style and attitude, the Bush administration belongs to good America. But as to its substance, Codevilla has this to say:

Because our Ruling Class deems unsophisticated the American people’s perennial preference for decisive military action or none, its default solution to international threats has been to commit blood and treasure to long-term, twilight efforts to reform the world’s Vietnams, Somalias, Iraqs and Afghanistans, believing that changing hearts and minds is the prerequisite of peace, and that it knows how to change them. The apparently endless series of wars in which our Ruling Class has embroiled America, wars that have achieved nothing worthwhile at great cost in blood and treasure has contributed to defining it, and to discrediting it – but not in its own eyes. (p. 23)

The Ron Paul movement is migrating from the periphery of the right-wing world to the defining center of the Tea Party – and while George W. Bush still cannot be criticized by name, he can be repudiated by implication.

Click here for part 2 of David Frum’s review of Angelo Codevilla’s “The Ruling Class”.

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131 Comments so far ↓

  • Posting From Fake America


    What are your thoughts on defense spending and the wars abroad? If you are truly a staunch advocate for smaller and limited government then surely you would target defense spending (which is the largest expenditure in the budget) for some serious cost-cutting. I think its interesting that you mentioned Rome as a society whose collapse parallels our decline. It seems that the English, Spanish, and Roman empires (and well just about any other glorious empire) collapsed once the cost of maintaining their empire grew so much that it outweighed any benefits, material or otherwise. These governments lost credibility when people saw their money being spent to support military and infrastructure projects abroad while the economy at home struggled.

    I just noticed your list above and it does not mention defense spending. About the only thing on that list that would even put a dent in the budget would be phasing out SS, which at this time doesn’t even appear feasible.

  • CentristNYer

    Saladdin // Sep 20, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    “Cut spending by 20%/yr – From where? SS? Medicare? Defense?”

    Sal, you don’t actually expect details from these tea party yokels, do you? Don’t you realize that they only know how to argue their case in vague generalities? These folks are good at shouting slogans, not so good at actual governing. [See: Palin, Sarah, half-term governor of Alaska]

  • MSheridan


    And what societies(y) have remained prosperous, peaceful, and stable over the long term?

    I can’t immediately call any to mind, actually, barring ancient Egypt, which had centuries of stability between its times of upheaval. I don’t believe private property or the rights of the individual were emphasized there.

    I’d have added in Rome and ancient China, but you did say peaceful (and China didn’t have much regard for the rights of the individual either).

    As an aside, your several references to the glories of Rome seem rather jarring from someone whose preeminent concern is freedom from tyranny. The Romans were really, really good at authoritarian rule.

  • WillyP

    the budget is up significantly more than 20% in the last few years. so i’m pretty sure it can be cut back down to size. matter of fact, in 2008 spending was $2.9 trillion. in 2010 it was $3.7 trillion. in 2005 it was $2.5 trillion.

    as far as why i don’t have 12,000,000,000 pages in front of me listing different government programs and budgets, it’s called… a job. and a life.

    we elect representatives to figure out the details. why is it that libs can and do go around chanting “single payer!” as if it would “fix” healthcare, but conservative can’t say we want to reduce spending?

    hey you mindless nitwit libs: how would “single payer” work? I want details.

  • MSheridan

    See Canada? Details.

  • WillyP

    ah yes, land of waiting lines and crossing the border for timely care. great… thanks for that.

  • MSheridan

    Barring a calamitous birthrate drop, the budget will always go up. More people, more expenses. Ben Franklin’s Postal Service was a lot smaller than the one we have today, because it didn’t need to be bigger.

  • drdredel


    My Wife (who is Canadian*) can’t believe that Americans are willing to live in a society where at any moment they might get sick and have to worry about “HOW” are they going to be treated. Given her Canadian citizenship, we (she and I and our kids) have this fallback, that we can flee to their “horrible land of lines” to get treatment if something really terrible happens.

    Most Americans don’t have such a luxury. Oddly, it is largely American fools (like yourself) who have a lot of negative things to say about the Canadian health care system… Canadians themselves are largely pretty positive about what they have going.

    *and HOT!

  • MSheridan

    You mean as opposed to not getting care at all, the situation tens of millions of Americans have found themselves in? Funny how free market forces haven’t fixed that. Oh wait, they can all go to emergency rooms…

  • Watusie

    4) Replace income tax with a flat national sales tax, simplifying the tax code

    This is the close cousing to the balanced budget amendment ruse. Propose something tremendously complex to implement which would take years to put into effect rather than just use a tool which you’ve got right at hand – i.e. PAYGO, returning to the Clinton era tax rates.

    5) Phase out Social Security through privatization
    And, in the process, great the mother of all asset bubbles and another trough for the swine of Wall Street to gorge themselves at. It would make Bush’s real estate bubble look like a little hiccup.

  • PracticalGirl


    End the Department of Education? How, then, will the majority of children be educated? Do you want to leave this all (funding, standards etc) to the states, most of which are broken? What is the purpose of this demand-to make sure that our society becomes more and more striated and more elite-based?

  • Saladdin

    the budget is up significantly more than 20% in the last few years.

    Think this may have had something to do with 2 wars? Also, aren’t there more people in the US? As far as I’ve read, most economists (including the one advising McCain) stated that ARRA was absolutely necessary to stave off a depression. I understand Libertarian philosophy in re to allowing banks to fail, but as I live in the real world, having all the banks fail at once would have been disastrous. Politics is not a game, there are real world consequences. BTW, what are your opinion on the Bush Tax cuts? This may be the last true test for fiscal discipline…

    Extend the cuts and you increase deficits, cut them and job growth ceases (apparently).

  • drdredel

    to extend the cuts == to cut
    to cut the cuts == to not cut
    I think we should cut extending the cut cutting extensions. (or maybe the opposite, I’m not entirely sure).

  • Unsympathetic

    1) Repeal and Replace Obamacare

    With what? Why? Obamacare was created by the Heritage Foundation and is exactly what was implemented in Massachusetts by Romney.. a Republican. You may not *like* it.. but you’re wrong, not the bill.

    2) Cut spending by 20%/yr

    86% of the federal budget is tied up in 4 things: Military, interest on the debt, Social Security, and Medicare. Which of those four are you cutting?

    Don’t forget, your precious Paul Petersen foundation got shot down hard when they attempted to fabricate “support” for cutting SS.

    3) Cut business taxes

    Why? Business already has record amounts of cash-on-hand.. the reason they’re not hiring is because there is no demand – there is no consumer. The Bush tax cuts should not and will not be extended.. because they did not generate the results claimed. There have been no new jobs.

    The unfunded Bush tax cuts did, however, increase the income of the top 0.5% of America!

    4) Replace income tax with a flat national sales tax, simplifying the tax code

    Hope is not a plan.

    5) Phase out Social Security through privatization

    Ah, so your mission is to give more unearned money to Wall Street. Got it!

    6) End the Department of Education

    2010 DoEd budget: 46.7 billion. 2010 US national budget: 3.55 trillion. You’re 1/20th of the way towards your goal of a 20% cut! But wait: With no DoE, states will have to increase taxes to set up their own departments. Oops! Sorry, but this is a failure.

    7) Cut the EPA’s budget in half

    2010 EPA budget: 10.5 billion. 5.25 billion is half. This is 1/80th of the way towards your 20% cut!

    8) End bailouts for banks, auto companies, unions, states, and GSE’s

    I support this also. However, you do realize that Wall Street has run both parties for years, right? If you ran on a platform of this and only this, you’d win.

    9) Swap $1 trillion in printed money for underwater mortgages

    What? Why? This is precisely contradictory to (8) above. This is a bailout of the banks who hold those mortgages. They should be allowed to fail. Free market means you are free to win – AND FREE TO LOSE.

    All those banks which hold bad loans.. should be allowed to fail. 100% of them. Regional banks exist which will not go under. Banker made a loan to someone who can’t repay? It’s simple: The bank writes it off. That’s it.

    Besides, this was already tried by your Republican overlords. This is literally TARP. It failed to do anything useful because the black hole of underwater loans is larger than the GDP of the world. Additionally, this is stealing from me and other taxpayers to pay off already-rich bankers who made a bet they knew was bad simply to increase their own bonus.

    I find this amazingly hilarious because you’re ranting about the “free market” yet refuse to let the free market do its job when people you support make mistakes.

    You want a free market? Stop supporting bank bailouts.

    10) Allow bankruptcies to occur; allow foreclosures to occur en masse

    I thought you were against statists. This is precisely the condition OF a statist corporatocracy. Foreclosures are stopped in court because the large corporations don’t have their chain of title. I thought you supported individual rights? The reason foreclosures are not occurring is because corporations are attempting to walk over the rights of individual citizens.

    If you want BK’s to occur, you would not have proposed #9. The economy will not improve until the top Wall Street firms are BK’d. There are plenty of investment banks, plenty of depository institutions in this country.

    11) Announce a debt repayment plan

    What’s the point of this? See the last two.

    12) Exile the Democrat leadership

    And with that we come to the fundamental point of the Tea Party. It’s just business as usual .. but with extra crazy.

    You claim to support reducing the deficit yet it’s OK in your mind to throw trillions of dollars at Wall Street? How Republican of you.

    News flash, Tea Party troll: You are simply wrong. Your views are not based on any fact other than your own delusion, and bizarrely entrenching yourself by repeating talking points will not somehow “make” you correct.

    In short, America is not like Rome. Rather, the Republican party is Rome.

  • midcon

    Posting from fake… I believe if you check the 2010 budget you will find that Social Security is $677.95 billion, while the Department of Defense is $663.7 billion. While defense comes in a close second, it does not happen to be the largest expenditure in the budget. Other mandatory programs come in at $571 billion (subsidies and other things) and Medicare at $453 billion. The reailty is that mandatory programs far outweigh defense when it comes to the budget.

  • WillyP

    “9) Swap $1 trillion in printed money for underwater mortgages

    What? Why? This is precisely contradictory to (8) above. This is a bailout of the banks who hold those mortgages. They should be allowed to fail. Free market means you are free to win – AND FREE TO LOSE.”

    You miss the point. We’ve already swapped the $1 trillion for underwater mortgages. I want to reverse this process.

    Don’t you know what goes on? This is old new. Geez

  • easton

    WillyP, do you even have a job? I post here between University classes so I have an excuse. I am truly curious to know how you can survive being evidently unemployed?

  • WillyP

    moreover, “hope is not a plan”

    You’re telling me!

  • mickster99

    Will the real conservatives please stand up. No, not you Frum. The real ones. Palin, Angle, Joe Miller, Christie, Beck, Limbaugh, Savage, Levine. You know, the smart ones not the RINO’s. Frum you’re just too liberal. This is the conservatism that can win again. Unsympathetic’s comments above: now there’s an agenda that Stalin could embrace. Purge the oppostion, then have one party, run by the wealthy commanding a military second-to-none, and just enough taxes to maintain 15 carrier battle groups, 50 combat divisions, several hundred air wings, and a second-to-none surveillance state to keep it power. Now that’s teabaggin’ conservatism.

  • pnumi2

    Footnote to letting bankrupt banks fail.

    Imagine what happens to the commercial real-estate market when all those banks with their multiple branches go under. Ditto all the bank employees and unemployment insurance. And what about the entities that loaned the failed banks money? They’re going to have to cut back some of their spending.

    Last but not least, the Treasury through the FDIC would have to start writing checks for a quarter of a million bucks to a lot of citizens.

    How many quarters or years would all this delay the recovery? Isn’t the whole point of a recovery for it to happen as soon as possible?

    So how much have we really saved by letting the banks fail?

  • WillyP

    it’s clear you aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. there is a system which doesn’t allow anything to fail, maintains 100% unemployment always, and provides for a guaranteed income. it’s called socialism.

    study business cycle theory. the economy was not properly structured to meet our needs. this eventually showed up in accounting. we then faced a decision: own up, acknowledge accounting, and let failure occur; or, paper over losses, print money, and keep alive the zombies corporations. we chose the latter.

    the market always wins, however. delaying the inevitable is temporary. the banks simply moved their debt to the public. that’s why they have $1 trillion in cash on hand, and the Fed has $1 trillion (or more) of “toxic mortgages.”

    it’s been, what, 30 months since bear stearns collapsed? don’t you think, you know, we should be in recovery mode, not flatlined?

  • pnumi2


    I guess in Willy’s world, Sarah from Alaska and Christine from Delaware are real razor blades.

    You sound like someone who doesn’t have as much as he would like to have and blames it on the socialists.

    Too bad, Willy. You were born into a Ponzi scheme world and you’ll probably end your days there.

  • easton

    pnumi2, it should be obvious in the way in which WillyP avoided a direct question as to whether he is gainfully employed that he lives in some kind of strange fantasy land financed by dear old mummy. I can understand retirees, college students, college Professors, etc. having a fair amount of time to waste here and I can also understand people who post a little during slow times in the office, but this guy has had to have spent untold hours on this one thread alone, so ergo, he must either be a student, a retiree, or a bum. He is too immature to be a retiree, so maybe he is a young pup who should spend more time studying his subjects or he is just a bum. I doubt he has the courage to fess up to his true nature. I don’t understand why not unless he were ashamed.

  • pnumi2

    Easton: I think your ‘young pup’ theory may be right.

    I think he is a precocious 11 year old who has mastered the art of Googling. I advise you not to let him know where you live. He’d probably toilet paper your trees.

  • drdredel

    I believe if you check the 2010 budget you will find that Social Security is $677.95 billion, while the Department of Defense is $663.7 billion

    Hang on a second… Someone who knows, chime in… Isn’t it that we pay for most of that social security in our pay checks (through the deduction that is marked SS)? If I understand correctly that figure (that I’m quoting) is very misleading. The DOD comes from the general federal tax pool, while the SS is only subsidized by it by whatever amount it exceeds what people are currently paying into it. Are you saying that we’re paying 677 billion on TOP of the SS collected?! I would find this incredibly difficult to believe. If it’s true, then maybe it really is time for death panels.

  • drdredel

    it’s clear you aren’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

    Willie… given this analogy you’d have to agree that in this drawer of yours you’d be a plastic spork.

  • WillyP

    uh right.

    as i said before i work for medical schools. i used to work for morgan stanley. and to top it off, i am an alum of the same school as tim mak. go figure.

  • Unsympathetic

    Willy, you are more fascist than Obama is socialist.

    Giving away more of my future productivity to bankers will not solve anything.. other than increasing the divide between the top 0.5% and everyone else. Giving tax breaks to the rich (aka removing their SS contribution) is simply shifting the tax burden onto the middle class. Your idol Ronald Reagan raised taxes multiple times — deal with that fact. If he’s your idol, you should be promoting the raising of taxes, not the removal of them.

    Of course we should not be recovered – recovery can only happen with a fully functioning middle class, and the middle class consumer does not exist any more. Want recovery? Actually create jobs, actually increase wages. Republicans had the 2000′s to test their Laffer Curve theory.. unfortunately for you, the Laffer Curve is an epic fail. And you actually wonder why the Republican party is not the party of ideas? You’re still trotting out the same old idea when it’s been proven to be a failure.

  • WillyP

    you’re an untutored fool who wouldn’t know economics if it ran over you in a bus. grow up and recognize what’s going on. we’re in the fight of our political lives.

    “unfortunately for you, the Laffer Curve is an epic fail. ”
    you even talk like an internet dope. “epic fail” grow some man, and own up. stop the bullshit politics and look at what sort of debt we’re in now.

  • MSheridan

    Willy, ad homs prove nothing but a lack of substantive response. The Laffer Curve (so called, Art Laffer didn’t invent the concept) is very relevant. If you are concerned about a massive deficit and debt (and you have said repeatedly you are), only five things can be done to fix the situation:

    1) Cut spending (*but see footnote 1, below)
    2) Adjust tax rates (*see footnote 2, below)
    3) Increase tax collection by cracking down on evasion (*see footnote 3, below)
    4) Growing the economy via investment in infrastructure (e.g., Eisenhower’s interstate highway system or the previously discussed transcontinental railroad ) (*see footnote 4, below)
    5) Monetizing the debt (*see footnote 5, below)

    *1) Spending cuts must not negatively impact economy to the extent that tax income shrinks more than savings realized
    *2) Rates must not be so high as to choke economic growth to the point that revenues actually decrease (there you go, a nod to Laffer and the many economists before him who have made this same point)
    *3) Easier said then done
    *4) Even when done right, doesn’t work quickly
    *5) A “cure” that can be worse than the disease (perhaps the only opinion we hold in common)

    You, on the other hand, have only proposed: cutting spending (1) in economically important areas (education? Really?) that would realize minuscule savings and shrink the economy at immense human cost; cutting taxes (2) on the country’s wealthiest with zero proof that current marginal tax rates are currently on the right side of the “Laffer Curve”; ignored (3) altogether; and are actively opposed to (4) and (5).

    Is it even possible for you to respond to this post without falling back on “socialist,” “statist,” “communist,” “Marxian/Marxist,” or other such buzzwords?

  • WillyP

    I have responded in deep substance for months. I’ve cited, in this, Mises, Hayek, Bastiat, Reagan, Keynes (for other reasons), de Tocqueville, Goldwater, Lincoln, Aquinas, Aristotle, Locke, Adam Smith, Carl Menger, George Reisman, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Henry Hazlitt, Walter Williams, Jesús Huerta de Soto, Michael Novak, etc etc etc… in other words, a canon of influences on modern conservatism and fellow warriors for freedom. Note the litany of brilliant economists. I think I understand economics fairly well, wouldn’t you say?

    Now the time is to reject those who are unwilling to get on board. I know what I believe and WHY I believe it. Now is the time to rally supporters, men of good will. We must not waste our breath with disinterested debate any further. The election is upon us.

    Don’t lecture me on erudition. I don’t see you citing any scholars or great philosophers.

    It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff. You ain’t no wheat.