This provocative and groundbreaking book challenges accepted wisdom about the role of elites in both maintaining and undermining democracy in an increasingly authoritarian world. John Higley traces patterns of elite political behavior and the political orientations of non-elite populations throughout modern history to show what is and is not possible in contemporary politics. He situates these patterns and orientations in a range of regimes, showing how they have played out in revolutions, populist nationalism, Arab Spring failures to democratize, the conflation of ultimate and instrumental values in today’s liberal democracies, and American political thinkers’ misguided assumption that non-elites are the principal determinants of politics. Critiquing the optimistic outlooks prevalent among educated Westerners, Higley considers them out of touch with reality because of spreading employment insecurity, demoralization, and millennial pursuits in their societies. Attacks by domestic and foreign terrorists, effects of climate change, mass migrations from countries outside the West, and disease pandemics exacerbate insecurity and further highlight the flaws in the belief that democracy can thrive and spread worldwide. Higley concludes that these threats to the well-being of Western societies are here to stay. They leave elites with no realistic alternative to a holding operation until at least mid-century that husbands the power and political practices of Western societies. Drawing on decades of research, Higley’s analysis is historically and comparatively informed, bold, and in some places dark—and will be sure to foster debate.
John Higley is emeritus professor of government and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the Jack S. Blanton Chair in Australia Studies. His books include Elites, Crises, and the Origins of Regimes; Elites after State Socialism; Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy; The Endangered West: Myopic Elites and Fragile Social Orders in a Threatening World; and the Palgrave Handbook of Political Elites.
Epilogue: The American Preoccupation with Non-Elites
John Higley, one of the key figures behind the revival of elite theory, convincingly argues that the current crisis of populism, nationalism, and resurgent authoritarianism is rooted in a decades-old overselling of the promise of liberal democracy. Western policy makers, and the academics who shape their world view, persistently downplay the role of elites, pretending instead to ground political institutions in mass public involvement. Elite theory helps us understand why US liberalism is in crisis and facing repeated disappointment, whether it be the Arab Spring or nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
John Higley, long one of our greatest experts on elite politics, offers a powerful analysis of how our failure to grasp the realities of elite and non-elite roles in politics has undermined liberal democracy in the West and led to futile efforts to encourage non-elite uprisings around the world. His clear-eyed political realism offers a provocative path to putting democracy on a sounder foundation and avoiding the false utopias that bedevil world order.
In John Higley’s most comprehensive and philosophical work yet on elites, he offers a disquieting assessment of modern democracy and its vulnerabilities. Early elite theorists argued that elite domination was inevitable or that democracy was a sham. Higley pioneered the arresting argument that elites play the decisive role in democracy. How elites behave—whether they fight or unite, whether they inflame or dampen wider social conflicts—is the single most important factor determining transitions to democracy, democratic stability, and democracy’s collapse. In an exploration Higley labels ‘political realism,’ he argues that it is failures at the elite level that are now threatening even well-established democracies like the United States.