The New Power Elite
by heather gautney
oxford university, 336 pages, $29.95
In the annals of quixotic American presidential runs, the candidacy of Cornel West—the seventy-year-old academic, social critic, and activist—for the 2024 election is among the more fantastic. Though Americans have shown a willingness to vote for politically inexperienced candidates so long as they are practical men of business or war, the appeal of pure intellectuals does not resonate in the United States.
West is nonetheless hopeful. He has long played adviser to—and campaign trail surrogate for—progressive presidential candidates, but the case for his heading a ticket now rests on the failure of any other left-populist Bernie Sanders–type figure to enter the race. Not even Sanders himself will run, having already endorsed President Joe Biden for a second term. To West, Biden is but a “milquetoast neoliberal” unequal to the task of standing up to the “neo-fascist” Donald Trump and forestalling “the destruction of American democracy.” West’s bid is a call for a progressive transformation of the country through radical democratic action.
If you think you’ve heard this one before, well, you have. American left populism is a hardy perennial that has found new life since the Great Recession and particularly since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. This is not to say that left populists have had much influence on government policy over the past fifteen years. But they certainly have had a great deal to say about it and at considerable length and volume. Take Fordham University sociologist Heather Gautney’s new scorched-earth critique of American politics, culture, economy, and society. Titled The New Power Elite in emulation of fellow sociologist C. Wright Mills’s 1956 classic of similar title, Gautney’s book proposes “to expose the elites . . . and to understand the nature of their power.”
During the Eisenhower years, Mills argued that a centralized network of military, economic, and executive-branch state elites exercised all power in the United States. Ordinary people were locked out and progressively converted into a subject mass, controlled by the media and anesthetized by celebrity. Gautney finds that little has changed in the American polity, economy, or society since Mills’s day. If anything, circumstances have become worse. According to the book’s press release, “the trends Mills excoriated have intensified to a degree even he could not imagine.” Gautney’s key term is the well-worn “neoliberal capitalism,” which she defines as an overarching “class program” sustained by the leadership of both major parties, the military establishment, the financial sector, billionaires, media, and the entertainment industry. This program, for Gautney, concentrates power and wealth in the hands of the few, immiserates the many, terrorizes and imprisons racial minorities, destroys the possibility of social equality, and ultimately will destroy democracy as well.
Since the beginning of the neoliberal turn in the mid-1970s, American history has been in Gautney’s eyes an unrelenting parade of horrors. The “march of authoritarianism and the fascist Right” continues unabated not simply in the presidency of Donald Trump or the continuing power and influence of the bogeyman Koch brothers, but equally in the pro-charter school philanthropy of Bill Gates, the media empire of Oprah Winfrey, the ESG-crazed asset management fund BlackRock, and Barack Obama’s drone-strike “assassination program.” The American people are reduced to a feeble and piteous mass of reality-television-watching, consumerism-oriented, social-media-addicted, conspiracy-theorizing xenophobic drones “willing to accept as truth even the most absurd claims and clownish conspiracies, while a handful of moguls wield more power over the means of communication than any dictator has in world history.”
Gautney’s grim depiction presents her readers with two obvious problems of analysis. The first is the problem of neoliberalism. If American capitalism has been on a single (if accelerating) trajectory since Mills was writing in the 1950s, what then is the analytic purchase of the term? Gautney asserts that neoliberalism is a distinctive era of capitalism beginning in the 1970s and birthed through distinctive events: the Pinochet coup in Chile, New York City’s fiscal crisis, the Volcker Shock, and the electoral victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Behind all these events was a “new power elite,” pursuing a capitalist project that “suppressed social democratic alternatives and state planning.”
And yet in her desire to endorse Mills’s thesis, Gautney finds the neoliberal era to be quite the same as the Keynesian era that preceded it. Nixon’s tough-on-crime policies were a preview of Clinton’s mass incarceration. FBI surveillance of communists and the Black Panthers expanded into the post-9/11 Patriot Act. The “white nationalists,” “fundamentalists,” and “extremists” now taking over schools, the media, and state governments impose policies concerning race, abortion, and gender identity that sound equivalent to the strictures that obtained in the America of Mills’s day. In Gautney’s understanding of capitalism, there are no qualitative differences between the 1950s and the 2020s, only quantitative ones. As capitalism itself was already bad then, the modifier “neoliberal” simply means “really bad.” And as everything is always going from bad to worse, “really bad” capitalism eventually requires yet another intensifying adjective.
Thus Gautney’s second problem of analysis, the question of fascism. If the United States has been balancing on the knife’s edge between democracy and authoritarianism for more than seventy years across at least thirteen presidencies, how is it that the country has somehow not fallen into fascist dictatorship—the very publication and dissemination of Gautney’s book being sufficient evidence of that fact? The answer is not just that Gautney uses “fascist” less as an analytic concept than as a word for “really really bad.” Following orthodox Marxism, she also maintains that fascism as it is known historically is simply the natural sociopolitical order of monopoly capitalism; as capitalism tends by its inner logic toward monopoly, its political order tends likewise toward fascism: the unification of state and capital, militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and charismatic dictatorship. The American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy popularized this view through the independent socialist journal Monthly Review, which he co-founded in 1949 and co-edited for fifty years. (Mills published in the journal and kept up a long personal correspondence with Sweezy.) And yet although the United States faces the constant threat of fascism, like tomorrow, fascism is always coming but never arrives. One can hardly begrudge Chicken Little’s audience for wanting to get on with their lives.
Gautney shows no interest in helping her readers grapple with either of these problems. The purpose of The New Power Elite is not so much to help the reader understand as to provoke the reader to emotional response. Gautney says nothing here that has not already been said better elsewhere. For a rigorous and intellectually serious treatment of contemporary American society from the left, one would do better to read David Harvey, Mike Davis, Thomas Piketty, Christophe Guilluy, Wendy Brown, Noam Chomsky, Jamie Peck, or Nancy Fraser. If a 228-page (plus endnotes) sugar high of righteous left-populist outrage is what you’re after, this book may be for you. I cannot think of another kind of reader who would enjoy it.
That being said, there is value in pondering The New Power Elite as a literary performance. Despite her academic credentials, Gautney writes not as an intellectual but as a pamphleteer. She is engaged in a popular version of what fellow sociologist Christian Smith has called the “sacred project of American sociology,” using social analysis to “expose, protest, and end through social movements and state regulations and programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, and constraint of, by, and over other humans.”
The same was true of her exemplar. C. Wright Mills’s critics frequently disparaged his journalistic style of writing. Philip Rieff noted Mills’s “partisan use of evidence” and how “he fatigues the reader with lengthy parades of tycoons in Washington, generals at ease in executive suites, and the new hybrid politicians, with business hearts and military heads.” Daniel Bell observed how Mills “takes statistic after statistic and clothes them with angry metaphors.” Even Paul Sweezy acknowledged in Mills “a certain intellectual sloppiness” at best and, at worst, “a hopeless muddle from the theoretical point of view.” Near the end of a career cut short by heart disease, Mills produced two polemical tracts offering little social scientific insight: The Causes of World War Three (1958) on the “irresistible” drift toward war between the superpowers, driven by the elites of both countries; and Listen, Yankee (1960), a defense of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. Law professor and diplomat Adolf Berle saw in these two works especially the degeneration of “a capable though rather left-wing opinionated professor of sociology into a ranting propagandist.” Though few intellectuals were impressed, Mills’s journalistic style made him popular beyond the dreams of nearly all other academics. His polemical works sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Both Gautney and Mills engage in especially depressive versions of the sacred project. Rieff found The Power Elite characterized by an “unrelieved gloom”; “he incites without hope; he offers not a single saving myth.” Here, too, Gautney follows Mills: Her anger and outrage coexist with a totalizing sense of powerlessness. Rather than “egalitarian advancements at home and abroad,” American elites have delivered “disinformation, human suffering, and despoliation.” Neoliberalism and fascism proceed unopposed. Because “no single social or political group or movement . . . can confront these behemoth forces on its own,” only comprehensive national resistance can possibly succeed. Yet even here Gautney deprives her reader of hope. The book’s conclusion is suitably despondent, predicting as the likeliest outcome “a world that is fundamentally not of our own making . . . dominated by powerful elites with little to no concern for human and planetary life.”
Such a tone seems strange for one so personally dedicated to the everyday work of left populism. Gautney is a woman of practical politics. She has worked as a congressional fellow in Bernie Sanders’s Senate office, a senior researcher on his 2016 presidential campaign, a senior policy adviser to the Senate Budget Committee while Sanders was ranking member, a senior policy adviser on his 2020 presidential campaign, and a co-chair of the 2020 Biden–Sanders Unity Task Force on Education. Yet perhaps the gloom of this book is the honest product of left populism’s failure to bear fruit. Sanders, of course, lost the Democratic nomination for president twice. Our Revolution, the successor organization (which Gautney once led) to the 2016 Sanders campaign, failed to remake the Democratic Party. The ambitious policy goals of Gautney’s 2020 task force—universal early childhood education, tuition-free public university education for all but the top 20 percent of the income ladder, sweeping college loan forgiveness (especially for teachers), a full-court press against charter schools—have been rejected by Congress and the Supreme Court. Wall Street threw its weight behind Joe Biden in 2020, not Donald Trump. The expansion of executive power through war, this time in more than $200 billion supplied to or requested for Ukraine and Israel, continues unabated.
The book’s gloom culminates in Gautney’s failing to suggest any means of radical political transformation. Even her final chapter, devoted to “publics and masses,” describes elites in media and education who manipulate the people at will. Gautney’s implicit lack of confidence in the ability of the people to resist the power elite follows Mills’s own loss of faith in the labor movement seventy years ago. Now as then, popular forces seem to have chosen reaction rather than progress. Suffused with “mass apathy and bitterness” against neoliberalism, the white working class swung behind Donald Trump and “the nativist Far Right.” Though Democrats see the Trump phenomenon as their nemesis, to Gautney it is simply the manifestation of unrelenting neoliberalism—as, of course, is everything.
And yet it is “the march of authoritarianism and the fascist Right” that most animates left populists, far more so than does their supposed cause. Though Gautney decries Trump’s judicial nominees for being “pro-business,” she is just as concerned about their supposed lack of professional experience, their cultural values, and their positions on abortion. Trump is condemned as much for “disinhibiting hatred and xenophobia” and criticizing Covid lockdowns as for his tax cuts. Neoliberalism may be bad, but the ultimate bogey of Nazi Germany appears repeatedly in the text as the country’s looming fate.
Left populists’ decision to ally with neoliberals against right populists is among the key factors behind left-populist ineffectiveness and anger. Since the Great Recession, we see right-wing populism, not left-wing, sweeping across the developed postindustrial world. For every Syriza, La France Insoumise, or Bernie Sanders on the outside looking in, there are two Fidesz’s, Brothers of Italy, Sweden Democrats, or Donald Trumps wielding executive power. Yet rather than pursue strategic bargains with right populists in order to oppose deregulation, social spending cuts, and libertarian globalization, left populists consistently prefer the neoliberals they profess to despise.
Consider France. Since 2017 the country has been divided into three roughly equal political blocs: the populist left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon; the populist right, led by Marine Le Pen; and the neoliberal center, led by President Emmanuel Macron. Despite winning re-election just last year, Macron is deeply unpopular. His repeated resort to antidemocratic constitutional procedures to pass controversial legislation is both consequence and cause of his sinking poll numbers. Yet his agenda seems unstoppable. In October 2022 both populist blocs sought to bring down Macron’s government in the National Assembly by means of rival votes of no confidence. Le Pen’s party supported Mélenchon’s motion, but the left bloc refused to endorse Le Pen’s. One party leader in Mélenchon’s bloc went so far as to insist “we will never join a majority coalition with the RN [Le Pen’s party], and we will never vote for a motion of no confidence from the far right.”
One sees the same dynamic in the United States. For all the bluster about billionaires, elites, and neoliberalism, the populist left’s greatest fear is the populist right. Since the Green New Deal fizzled, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expends most of her rhetorical firepower on Supreme Court “authoritarianism” and on Christian Super Bowl ads and the 2023 Parents’ Bill of Rights as manifestations of “fascism.” Bernie Sanders announced this spring that he would not make a third run for president in 2024, and his rationale was revealing:
The last thing this country needs is a Donald Trump or some other right-wing demagogue who is going to try to undermine American democracy or take away a woman’s right to choose, or not address the crisis of gun violence, or racism, sexism or homophobia. So, I’m in to do what I can to make sure that the president is reelected.
Both American left-populist exemplars exhibit clear signs of a reconciliation with mainstream elite politics. Sanders even seems to have endorsed Hillary Clinton’s famous 2016 critique of his own campaign, in which she famously asked,
Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?
While Gautney condemns the concentration of executive power, left populists in Congress propose reforming the American immigration system by executive order. While Gautney condemns American militarism, left populists in Congress endorse the American proxy war in Ukraine. While Gautney excoriates billionaires, left populists in Congress urge billionaires to throw their financial weight behind progressive causes.
A fundamentally working-class movement might find ways of bridging cultural divides between left and right populism. But left populism is not an especially working-class movement in America (or in France). Its base of support is the lower professional class, especially state and state-funded nonprofit workers in health and education, as well as young aspirants to this class. This is in any case a much more secure base of support for a movement that supports state planning and opposes capitalist power. In his own day, Mills largely gave up on the working class as a revolutionary stratum. Near the end of his short life he gravitated toward young intellectuals as the “real live agencies of historic change.” Of course, the lasting influence realized by these agents of change was not radical democracy but the sexual revolution, which has its own affinities with neoliberalism.
Cornel West penned the lead endorsement on the dust jacket of The New Power Elite: “This powerful and profound text shows what the road to American fascism looks like.” Yet Gautney herself is not prepared to endorse West’s left-populist presidential run. Despite finding West’s platform and voice “vital,” she anticipates that he will eventually endorse Biden, as he did in 2020. “I trust [West] to do the right thing and to make the right calculation,” she says. The president may be a “milquetoast neoliberal,” but as Gautney’s book shows, that fact will not cost him any friends on the left. The world of practical politics demands compromise, and American left populists have made theirs.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?