To the Bastille!
Aristocracy means rule by families. By that definition, America is becoming an aristocracy because we have allowed disproportionate power and wealth to concentrate in political and economic bloodlines—the much discussed increase in inequality of the last 40 years would be a very different phenomenon were it just about individuals. According to the New York Times this morning, 158 families have contributed more than half the money fueling the candidates for the 2016 presidential election—$176 million from 138 Republican and 20 Democratic families. What’s true of donors is also true of candidates. Of course there have always been prominent families in American politics, but the contemporary dynasties are different in a crucial way: you no longer have to excel to carry on a famous name. You just have to be born with one. Compare the Roosevelt or the Adams families with the Bushes. In lieu of one outstanding individual after another, you have from George Walker to Jeb a line of idiot princes worthy of the Bourbons. In politics as in education, the legacies have a leg up on the scholarship and affirmative action kids.
It is important to recognize that aristocracy in the West is not some historical leftover. It’s actually fairly recent—what we call the ancien regime in France wasn’t all that ancient and most of its elite were not nobles, if by nobles we mean members of very old lineages who derived their prestige from their military exploits. They were simply the caste of families that had made it, who had a heritable right to office and owned the lion’s share of the land. The English ruling class of the 18th Century also constituted a largely closed corporation—granted the power of local patronage, the smallness of the electorate, and the many rotten boroughs, the House of Commons wasn’t much more representative of the nation as a whole than the House of Lords.
In the run-up to the French Revolution, the Aristos were a lot like our pluto- and technocrats. They weren’t (yet) fossilized admirers of the past or sworn enemies of the Enlightenment. Like the neoliberals and neocons of our times, they thought they were the Enlightenment. I guess you could make a case that the Aristocrats of the reign of Louis XVI differed from ours in one respect. Perhaps they were a little less vulgar and still retained a sense of noblesse oblige so that it would have been possible to distinguish Edmund Burke and Donald Trump, at least in good light. Or maybe not. Power and privilege has always coarsened people more often than it ennobled them; and, on the other hand, even now you encounter the occasional decent billionaire.