History’s most famous example of ruling class arrogance is Marie Antoinette’s famous, “then let them
eat cake.“ It is not clear whether Marie was so divorced from the lives
of common people that she did not know that cake was even more expensive than bread or she was intentionally taunting the
poor. Either way, her arrogance was soon rewarded with a trip to the guillotine.
The modern day version
of this arrogant ruling class is the radical Republican right. The right has
gone beyond its efforts to enact its ideological agenda and has begun lording its power and political advantage over the rest
of society. Examples are becoming legion. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial
regarding the segment of the American population that makes between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars per year. Bad enough that the Journal was completely out of touch with the fact that these people can barely make
ends meet. But they went on to decry the fact that the working poor do not pay
taxes, and called them “Lucky Duckys” as a result. In Denver last April 15th one of the most elite
country clubs in town held a Hard Times Tax Relief Party where members came in tattered clothes, ate chipped beef on toast
and sang songs about how poor they were. No one seemed to realize that word of
the “class act” might get out.
The right is not
just lording its economic power, but also its political power over the rest of the country. Recently, Supreme Court Justice
Antonia Scalia was accused of a major ethics breach by going on a duck hunting trip with Vice President Chaney, who happened
to be, at the time, the primary defendant in a major case before Scalia’s court. But a Supreme Court Justice is answerable
only to his own conscience, and Scalia refused to recuse himself. When questioned about this by members of the press, Scalia
replied facetiously, “Quack, Quack.”
The recent Republican
National Convention was replete with symbols of arrogance. Delegates wore “Purple
Heart Band-Aids” to mock John Kerry’s war wounds. The Bush twins partied all night in Manhattan while their father
sent poor kids off to die in Iraq. And of course, Arnold. Arnold, the epitome of over-hyped, artificial masculinity calls
all of his opponents “girlie men.”
Why do they do it? Because they can. No one can stop them,
and the whole point is to demonstrate that no one can stop them. It is the exercise
of power for the pure joy of power. And the more outrageous the exercise, the
larger the joy.
The problem is that
arrogance contains the seeds of its own downfall. There is a huge difference
between exercising power in order to enact an ideology and the exercise of power for its own sake. In America, at least, whether you agree with a political ideology or not, the good-faith exercise of power
to enact that ideology has a moral legitimacy. The exercise of power for its
own sake has no moral legitimacy. Moreover, arrogance motivates the opposition
like nothing else. It raises emotions, prompts response and promotes sacrifice.
In addition, those who exercise power for its own sake break the precious civil compact that has made America so special. Our ability to interact civilly with those of other beliefs has made America the shining
city on the hill. Those who break that compact are fundamentally un-American.
Perhaps most importantly,
the arrogant use of power creates a heroic story line for the underdog. Americans
love movies where the underdog struggles against, and finally triumphs over, an arrogant villain. There is a basic scene in American westerns where the black hats have the good guy outnumbered. They taunt,
laugh and shoot at his feet (“I said ‘dance” partner”) For much of the past thirty years the “black
hats,” as portrayed in movies like Dirty Harry, have often been bloodless, effete government bureaucrats. Today, however, you can almost hear the black hats saying, “Quack quack” and calling the good
guy a girlie man (“Dance, you lucky ducky, dance”).
The result is imminent
downfall. Stripped of its ideological rationale, its moral legitimacy and its
mythic storyline, the arrogant class soon falls. The black hats lose the shoot-out
or the queen is beheaded. Arrogance is a tasty temptation for the American right, but just like for others throughout history,
it is a sure sign of impending downfall.