Empty Hole

Can We Divorce Our Elites?

The nasty public divorce of the D.C. power couple Tony and Heather Podesta reveals a power vacuum we can fill, if only we get our personal lives together.

04.13.14 9:45 AM ET

They say Washington, D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people. And the biggest story splashed across the political tabloids is the now very ugly divorce of Tony and Heather Podesta, lobbyists extraordinaire.

It’s not ugly in the way we’re used to. This is a decoupling carried out with a conscious air of respect and admiration, tarnished only by the soulless machinations of lawyers that we have come to expect wherever nontrivial sums are involved.

No, it’s ugly because of the lifestyle being revealed around these rich and famous power-brokers.

And no, it’s not just a matter of the “museum-quality art” they collected, the “showcase home” for said art, or their routine travel to cities like Venice, which our power elite has reduced to fancy museums where one can inhale the entombed fragrance of true aristocracy.

Alas, unlike the aristocrats of old, who threw plates and screamed at each other in private, America’s power elite makes a mockery of their pretensions to grandeur by hiring attorneys, by leaking documents, by bitching out one another as a matter of public record.

An actual statement in Heather Podesta’s counterclaim against Tony: “As a married couple who both lobbies, they strategically cultivated their public image and worked to build the ‘Heather and Tony Podesta’ brand for the success of their shared enterprise.”

No wonder we hate these people. No wonder we dream of being rid of them.

But we have a problem. In our utopian dreams, we climb out from under the boot heel of the new-money jerks who live large by gaming the system controlling our lives. In our lamestream reality, however, we know that we’re stuck with democracy. We can’t exact some reactionary revenge on our all-too-relatable power elite. Europe might burn down its pampered class of bureaucrats and drag out its coats of arms. That’s not an option for us, even if we wanted nobility. And we don’t.

Even a jetsetter’s review of history shows us why.

In the age of aristocrats everything was subordinated to family bloodlines. The dynastic imperative used and abused the authority of piety, patriotism, and wealth, until those powerful forces lost the goodwill of the people.

Between the fall of Napoleon and the end of the First World War, the aristocrats watched their world disintegrate, fundamentally clueless as to how the masses had grown so disillusioned with their rule. Their dynasties had become a self-justifying obsession. Their network of super-elite inbreeding and strategic couplings had united the West in a deathly embrace.

At best, the aristocrats’ endless drive for generational continuity did nothing to stop their civilization from going over the edge. At worst, it hastened the end. By the mid-1930s, art, literature, architecture, finance, religion, and politics had all been sucked into the vortex of modernism that arose from the suicide of the aristocrats. The Russian Revolution summed everything up in an instant: in place of dynastic rule, absolutism of a different kind. Politics on a mass scale. Industry on a mass scale. Murder on a mass scale.

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Such was the fate of Europe. But in America, born free of any aristocracy, the arrival of modernism and egalitarianism was a far more gentle affair. Since there was no aristocracy to discredit family bonds by perverting them to any end, mass industry and mass politics seemed to ask little more of families than that they grant the factory and the union a greater claim over their husbands and fathers. Since there was no aristocracy to twist and debase religion for the sake of advancing the bloodline, American life ameliorated cultural trends that fueled European transgression and nihilism.

And since grand political families had always been rare and sporadic in America, elites like the Rockefellers and Roosevelts exercised potent control only for what, in the eyes of the old aristocrats, was a figurative blink of an eye.

Even today—contrary to cranky public opinion—the political influence of multigenerational families is weak and getting weaker. Among Democrats, the Kennedy clan has petered out. Chelsea Clinton is not being groomed to rule. Republicans know well that Jeb Bush has all the dynastic ambition of Karl Rove, and that Rand Paul now has practically no use for his father.

What, then, explains the public distemper? Simple: Though the names change, America’s power elite somehow remains the same. Old Boss introduces us to New Boss—no relation! Families that do build petty empires flame out, but the grand empire ruled by our churning elites burns on, evidently, forever.

But perhaps there’s more. Perhaps we’re beginning to realize, subconsciously, just what price there is to be paid for losing touch with the boring mores that protected us from Europe’s insanity. Our growing hostility to religion is radicalizing it, and the growing radicalization of religion is increasing hostility toward it. The complete freefall of marriage as an institution of commanding authority is mostly leading us into ever-deeper enmity, awkwardness, and distrust, not the comfortable, confident free love that many might seek.

Instead of feeling waves of relief when we see a thriving, large, observant, and happy family, we feel resentment, or we laugh incredulously, or we smell a rat, or we roll our eyes in expectation of a lucrative family branding campaign no less energetic that of the Podestas.

Yet we don’t know where to turn. As our personal lives becomes realms of “drama” and “issues” and “chaos,” all we know for sure is politics is a waste of time. As David Frum once suggested, you’re not going to be out in the public square in a Founder’s costume, brandishing the Constitution, if you’re busy trying to regain custody of your child from your psycho ex.

As the Podestas’ divorce reveals, two more harsh truths await. Not only does the failure of even humble families drive political power into the hands of a smug and self-entitled elite. As it turns out, our all-too-relatable elite is often Just Like Us when it comes to domestic life. Just as our grassroots efforts for Citizen Power fail as our families fail, so does governance by Power Elite break down as our stylish overlords fail to build family structures capable of bearing the responsibility of elitehood.

In the past, it has actually helped the cause of freedom that politics is mostly a pursuit for third-rate talents. We think there’s too much money in politics, yet live in comfortable ignorance of how much more money flows into mindboggling exertions like fielding a Formula One race team. We think there’s too much ego in politics, yet do our best to ignore that it’s Silicon Valley, not Washington, where first-rate megalomania flows.

The political game in America doesn’t just offer glamor for the not-so-beautiful. It offers intelligence for the not-so-brilliant. And it offers spray-on aristocracy for people who aren’t nearly as ambitious as they think they are. Using politics as a machine that spits out Prada shoes and enviable fêtes, they fail to realize that only centuries-old families understand what luxuriating in power really is.

Behind the flash and muscle of the Podestas, there’s a yawning power vacuum in America. That would be pretty great news for the rest of us—if the deadening sprawl of bureaucracy wasn’t spreading daily to fill the vacuum.