Philanthropic captains, progressive crews

Mar 4, 2024

Jeffrey E. Paul’s new book about the authoritarian strain in American academia—including where it came from and what its effects have been, in politics and policy—uses an easily understood, nautical analogy to describe an emerging oligarchy, its financiers, and their role.

Jeffrey E. Paul’s fine Winning America’s Second Civil War: Progressivism’s Authoritarian Threat, Where It Came From, and How to Defeat It, new from Encounter Books, begins by tracing the harmful authoritarian strain in the progressive thinking of American academia’s social scientists to that of the late 19th Century German professoriate’s domination by state socialists. These scholars believed, and taught, that individuals had no natural rights, only privileges granted to them by government.

Risking oversimplification of Paul’s book-length description, these beliefs migrated with their American students to the U.S. and formed the curricular basis of early and influential graduate-level Ph.D. programs here—many confidently created and sustained by support from large establishment philanthropies, something about which, among others, Daniel Bessner similarly well-researched for and reported on in 2018’s Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual, too.

A curious phenomenon, with a twist

In Winning America’s Second Civil War’s penultimate chapter, “America’s Emerging Oligarchy and Its Financiers,” Paul notes what he calls “a curious phenomenon over the past few decades” in the progressivism borne of these academically credentialed beliefs—“the growing numbers of the very wealthiest Americans in, and influencing, left-wing political parties and campaigns.” Paul cites David Callahan as observing the same circumstance in Callahan’s 2010 Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America, specifically in the context of Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign.

“There is another twist to this story—a cohort of what Callahan called wealthy ‘left-wing heirs of the sixties generation’ who have established foundations that have organized and funded left-wing causes,” Paul continues, quoting Callahan. They have built what Callahan calls “a funding machine that has transformed activism in the United States, nurturing a vast universe of social change groups that might not otherwise exist.” 

Looking forward, Paul continues to quote Callahan: “in the name of redistributing wealth and power, a tiny group of the most privileged members of U.S. society will help decide which social justice groups—and causes—will thrive in the next half-century and which will wither.”

More largely, again risking oversimplification, Paul sees an emerging political order in which government interferes in the lives of individual citizens to achieve that which it considers egalitarian ends, while the very richest maintain protections against any such interference in the privileges they’ve secured and maintain in ways that other cannot. Not egalitarian; oligarchic. 

These privileges, of course, include property and wealth, and the tax advantages accruing to both. These tax benefits, moreover, would include ones incentivizing the placement of their wealth in philanthropy.

Another, different, oarless aristocracy

“There is a deep irony here,” according to Paul in the chapter. “Academic progressives in this country and elsewhere in the Anglo-American world have long imagined themselves as the future aristocracy in a radically revised capitalism. It hasn’t worked out that way. They are not captains of the ship that they constructed; instead, they comprise the crew.”

To “clear-eyed Americans on the left,” Paul writes, “the gradual capture of their political project and the Democratic Party, its instrument, has also sunk in. … [W]ealthy ‘liberals’ and their heirs are the captains of the progressive ship … and legions of journalists and academics pull the oars in the galley.

Here, Paul cites Alvin W. Gouldner’s 1979 The Future of the Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, in which Gouldner writes, “In all countries that have in the twentieth century become part of the emerging world socio-economic order, a New Class composed of intellectuals and technical intelligentsia—not the same—enter into contention with the groups already in control of the society’s economy, whether these are businessmen or party leaders.”

Aspirational cession, superceded

“In the United States,” according to Paul, where essentially personal income is the source of most government revenue and capital is not, this allowed any number of multimillionaires and billionaires—including the likes of” Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, and Warren Buffett, “as well as Callahan’s wealthy ‘heirs of the sixties generation,’” all of whom are heavily engaged in philanthropy—

to forge alliances with, and ultimately regulate the affairs of … the left-wing Democratic Party. This party’s long-lived pretext for power, the alleged exploitation of the working class by “Big Business,” has been superseded by any pretext that seems handy—race, sex, climate, and a cluster of resentments promulgated by universities, the media, and internet companies.

Paul helpfully concludes the “America’s Emerging Oligarchy and Its Financiers” chapter with a concise summary that helps lay a basis for his recommendations about how to defeat progressivism’s authoritarian threat. (He advocates “a universal tax on the sales of goods, services, and financial assets.”)

“The appetite of intellectuals to regulate the affairs of others led a generation of post-Civil War Americans, trained and inspired by Germany’s academic socialists, to propose a society in which prestige, status, political influence, and even power would be ceded to them, their students, and their students’ students,” he writes at the end of the chapter. “Unfortunately for the academic descendants of the original progressives, it is ultimately their wealthiest capitalist students who have assumed oligarchic control of their political vehicle, the Democratic Party.”

Neither egalitarian nor really even very democratic.