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MacIntyre: Mitch McConnell and the iron law of oligarchy
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MacIntyre: Mitch McConnell and the iron law of oligarchy

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proudly announced that sending billions of dollars to Ukraine was the “number one priority” for Republicans during a press conference in which he celebrated passing a massive $1.7 trillion spending package. The longtime GOP figurehead was one of the central players responsible for engineering the disastrous 2022 midterms after redirecting crucial campaign funds away from promising candidates like Blake Masters in Arizona because he was not content to parrot tired establishment talking points.

The Republican base has understood for a long time that McConnell is a disgrace, but despite Mitch's betrayal of GOP voters at every opportunity, he sits comfortably ensconced in his position of power. The Kentucky senator acts against the wishes and interests of conservatives on a regular basis without any fear of losing his seat or his leadership position. If popular sovereignty allows the people to hold leaders accountable, why is someone so reviled by his own base so confident in the safety of his power?

In his book "Political Parties," Robert Michels explored the behavior of representative governments and why their voters seem to have such a difficult time holding them accountable. The political theorist begins by making some observations that might seem obvious but for some reason are quickly forgotten whenever the pundit class starts debating the motivations of political actors.

According to Michels, no organization is ever ruled by the entire body of that organization. Be it a church, a bowling league, a business, or a political party, an organized minority of members always takes control of the institution. Even when organizations are earnestly constructed on the principle of democratic input and accountability to the body of members, a central group always emerges of leaders who actually guide the actions of the organization.

The natural fact of leadership is not itself an indictment of democracy. The emergence of a leadership class is a universal feature of every human endeavor, and the Founding Fathers were not blind to this fact. They organized the republic around representative and not direct democracy, understanding that in a nation the size of the United States, it was impossible to run the government without set of leaders who, at least for a time, dedicate their attention to operating the state in the interests of the people.

If over time, however, as the franchise expands and the democratic influence over the republic increases, the interests of the leadership class become less, not more, aligned with the interests of the average voter, then the feasibility of popular sovereignty may be called into question. If the democratic process inevitably leads to the installation of a leadership class completely insulated from consequences of that process, is democracy even possible?

As Michels studied socialist worker parties in Europe, the major democratic force of his time, he noticed a consistent pattern emerging. Average laborers with a gift for oration were consistently elevated by their fellow working-class party members to speak and organize on behalf of the collective. These trade-union organizers often had humble backgrounds and genuine interests aligned with those who elevated them. As the organization becomes more complex and its management more demanding, these gifted individuals had to become specialists who devoted their time to the operation of the party and leave their previous lives as daily laborers.

This change in vocation was their first break from the interests of the workers, but would be far from the last. These professional representatives quickly discovered that they could not achieve the ends their constituents demanded with the meager power they had, so the acquisition of additional power became the new goal. The interest of gaining more power was often at odds with the immediate interest of their constituents, but it could be justified because in the long term, the purpose of acquiring power was ultimately to deliver on the promises leadership had made to party members. The more expertise and power the representatives acquired, the more indispensable they seemed to the ends of the party, even as their own interests diverged more radically from those of the people they theoretically served. According to Michels:

The democratic masses are thus compelled to submit to a restriction of their own wills when they are forced to give their leaders an authority which is in the long run destructive to the very principle of democracy. The leader’s principal source of power is found in his indispensability. One who is indispensable has in his power all the lords and masters of the earth. The history of the working-class parties continually furnishes instances in which the leader has been in flagrant contradiction with the fundamental principles of the movement, but in which the rank and file have not been able to make up their minds to draw the logical consequences of this conflict, because they feel that they cannot get along without the leader, and cannot dispense with the qualities he has acquired in virtue of the very position to which they have themselves elevated him, and because they do not see their way to find an adequate substitute. Numerous are the parliamentary orators and the trade-union leaders who are in opposition to the rank and file at once theoretically and practically, and who none the less continue to think and to act tranquilly on behalf of the rank and file.

While it may feel odd for conservatives to relate to a European workers' party in the early 1900s, the description of how a leadership class separates from the interests of its voters should sound strikingly familiar. The situation for the Republican base is even more dire, as most of the base would be willing to replace McConnell, but the skill, power, and connections that he has acquired have made him all but invulnerable to the democratic process.

Instead of making himself indispensable to the GOP base, he has made himself indispensable to his fellow Republican politicians and, more importantly, to the donor class that funds them. Mitch McConnell has insulated himself by prioritizing the needs of the oligarchical class that actually drives the agenda of the GOP over the needs of the voters that legitimate the Republicans through popular sovereignty.

This phenomenon is not unique to Mitch McConnell, the GOP, or American politics but rather an inescapable fact of the human condition. That is why Michels sums up this natural tendancy of social organization as "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." Democratic systems, just like all human governments, will ultimately be led by an elite class capable of more complex organization.

The social scientist did not see this as reason to abandon the effort to reduce, as much as possible, the autocratic tendencies of human organization. It is instead a warning about a critical aspect of all societies. Every nation will be run by a set of elites, and forgetting this truth allows the ruling class members to hide the truth of both their power and their motivations. An elite will always emerge to lead in every civilization; the important questions are, "Do their interests align with the good of those they watch over, and can they be held accountable if the answer is no?"

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Auron MacIntyre

Auron MacIntyre

BlazeTV Host

Auron MacIntyre is the host of “The Auron MacIntyre Show” and a columnist for Blaze News.
@AuronMacintyre →