I had the privilege of studying with the late E. Digby Baltzell, the premier sociologist of the American ruling classes. Baltzell is best known for the idea of a WASP class, the class of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants from which the ruling groups in the United States were long drawn. Baltzell thought that every society will have a ruling class, which is necessary to lead the principal institutions of society and to hold the whole together. Simple egalitarian leveling is not an option, and those who attempt it merely end up paving the way for tyranny.
Baltzell said that there is a crucial distinction between an elite and a ruling class. An elite is made up of individuals; a ruling class, of families. Elite individuals rise to the top of the various institutions and pyramids of power in society. A mere elite, though, cannot really run society. The interests of the elite individuals and the institutions that they run conflict with one another too much. Countries with only elites break down into corruption and chaos. A ruling class of families moderates the conflict of elites by binding the individuals together with ties that go beyond their institutional concerns and personal power. A ruling class has an interest in looking out for the stability of society as a whole, because the class itself – unlike the individuals within it – endures through the generations.
A ruling class of families, when it is working well, absorbs individuals who have risen into the elite. The traditional way of doing that is through ties of marriage. The ruling class in many societies, even in one as large and diverse as the United States, forms a “cousinage” of people connected by kin ties, often real, sometimes, of necessity, fictive. The core of a functioning national ruling class, though, will be an interconnected set of families which is continually replenished by absorbing rising individual members of the elite.
The obvious danger of a ruling class of families is that they will become a closed caste, excluding whole categories of elite individuals, and becoming content to marry one another. The opposite of a caste, Baltzell argued, is an aristocracy – which literally means “rule by the best” – which continually replenishes itself by absorbing elite individuals. Baltzell’s own work was about how some parts of the American ruling class excluded Jews in the middle of the 20th century. In the dynamic, competitive ecology of American society, they reaped their reward: the families, and the sectors of the ruling class, which excluded Jews tended to fall out of the national ruling class. That struggle is largely over, and the inclusive aristocracy of America is thoroughly shot through with Jews and the descendents of Jews, some religiously observant and some not.
The great and shaming example of caste in American history was the exclusion of African-Americans. We fought a great war in the 19th century, and then waged a great ethical struggle in the 20th century, to break the back of this caste idea. Anti-black racism is by no means dead in America, but it is clearly declining in significance. The ruling class is absorbing elite black individuals through many channels, including marriage. Our country is now enjoying another great wave of immigration which is bringing the most diverse collection of elite individuals into various halls of power. As I see it, the American ruling class has been very effective in absorbing these new elites.
The ethnicity and religion of the American ruling class has changed and is changing all the time. But the basic family dynamic remains the same: strong families rise, weak families fall. This includes families made by “new men” and “new women” from groups not previously included in the ruling class.