opinion | Republicans and Democrats have switched roles. A new left manifesto from the 1950s helps explain this.

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American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1960.
American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1960. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

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One of the perplexing features of modern American politics is the sense that party identities have been turned on their head. Since when are the Republicans in charge critics of the FBIthe national security state and military leaders? And since when are Democrats the ones who warn against domestic subversion and coordinate with big corporations to control the expression?

The relationship of both parties to traditional sources of authority is changing. Like Yuval Levin from the American Enterprise Institute observed: “Today’s right implicitly sees itself as an outside party, oppressed by the powerful and banging on the windows of institutions. Today’s left implicitly sees itself as an insider who enforces norms and demands conformity.”

President Bidens speech Thursday’s denunciation of political opponents who threaten “the foundations of our republic” while Marines lurk in the background was a clear example of this insider-outsider dynamic.

To understand how the populist right sees the world, it helps to go back to the last time the left ‘pounded on the institutional windows’. The post-World War II era was a period of strong political consensus in America, challenged by a “new left.” There are clear parallels between today’s populist right and the new left movement that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s.

C. Wright Mills, a sociologist at Columbia University, was the spiritual godfather of this movement. Consider a passage from his 1956 bestseller: “The power elite’, a polemical attack on the structure of American institutions that would inspire a new generation of left activists:

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“[The power elite] dominate the great hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the state machine and claim their prerogatives. They run the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure which now house the effective means of the power and wealth and fame they enjoy.”

Today, that passage could easily appear in a right-wing populist publication like that of the Claremont Institute American spirit, which denounces the liberal “regime”. If it’s voiced on Fox News or Newsmax, it might be condemned as an example of conspiracy or misinformation that sows discord and undermines trust in institutions.

Mills, who died in 1962, did not use the term “deep state,” but irresponsible bureaucracy was a major concern of the new left philosopher. “It’s in the executive chambers and in the agencies and authorities and commissions and departments that stretch beneath them” where much politics is done, he argued, “rather than in the open arena of politics.”

Those who make decisions were not elected by ordinary voters: “Once upon a time, most men who made it to the top of politics got there because the people voted them into the hierarchy of office,” Mills observed. “But lately, in a more administrative age, men are becoming politically great because small groups of men, self-elected, appoint them.”

These criticisms should be familiar to anyone who has followed conservative attacks on the administrative state or public health during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the meantime, it has become alien to modern liberalism, which increasingly relies on respect for recognized experts.

The threat to “democracy” for Mills was not that election results were not respected – it was that elections did not affect governance on the most important issues. Americans “feel they are living in a time of great choice; they know they don’t make them,” he wrote. That was the purview of a ruling class in American business and the executive branch.

Whether Mills’ satisfactory diagnosis reflects reality is debatable, just as the nature of elite power is disputed today. Political movements can (and have throughout American history) alternate between claiming insider and outsider status as expedient.

What matters is that today’s new right, like the new left before it, is confidently animated by a sense of exclusion from what Mills called “the higher circles” — including in universities, professional organizations and the national security state.

In his 1960”Letter to the New Left‘ Mills dismissed a smug view of American life which he said predominated among intellectuals: ‘that there are no more real problems, or even problems of great seriousness, in the West. Mixed economy plus welfare state plus prosperity – that is the formula. … It’s very complex everywhere now, let’s not be complacent, there are big risks.”

Mills saw this consensus as dumbing down and undemocratic, much like how populists on the right have rebelled this century against the post-Cold War trade and globalization agenda in both parties. The pathologies of populism are well documented, and its threats to undermine elections require vigilance and rejection.

But is the magnanimous defense of “democracy” now put forward by the Democratic Party and its powerful allies really a plea for greater participation in governance? Mills’ account of America’s institutional hierarchies is a reminder of why many voters might wonder if liberals are just as interested in ensuring their continued dominance of today’s power elite.

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