Before I explain the role of elites, this is a good place to review some of the basic concepts I set in motion over the past few posts. Power is the fundamental force not only of politics but all of society. It is segmented into institutions where it is decentralized into organizations. An institution is a framework for a segmented part of society. Every institution has its own rules and traditions that define it. An organization will have more specific rules but will obey the basic institutional framework. Every family is different, but families resemble each other as a fundamental institution. The traditions and customs of society establish the framework for its institutions.

This conception of institutions means rules, customs and traditions become the institution. Moreover, the institution must be broad enough to allow for organizational freedom within its framework. The participation in this framework sets the stage for personal identity. While identity is a subjective construction, it is established through experience. Because our behavior is a large component of our experience, institutions have a major influence on personal identity. The shared experience within institutions reinforces an identity within the larger group. Moreover, the shared experiences that establish identity can lead to new institutions to reinforce the shared experience and to consolidate power within new organizations.

Elites lead organizations. “Political” elites may represent the state in the office of the President, Congress or the Courts. They may also represent a political party or an interest group. Economic elites may lead corporations, labor unions or may own their own business. Too often elites are only considered when they represent large organizations with enormous influence on the government. This does not reflect the dynamic nature of power.

For example, the power of the Presidency has changed over time. It is not enough to evaluate the power of the respective Presidents. The power of the Presidency as an institution and as an office has evolved over its existence. The self-imposed limitation of the Presidency to two terms by George Washington limited the power of the person of the President. But it increased the power of the institution and office. The Presidency of the United States has been a stable and powerful institution. Contrast this to the institutions Simon Bolivar created in Latin America. Because Bolivar refused to let go of power, he did not foster the creation of strong institutions. He was focused on his own personal power rather than the power of the institutions.

Institutional interests are not the same as the public interest. Nonetheless, their interests do overlap especially when they represent institutions fundamental to the creation of the state. It is difficult to know whether Washington was acting in the interests of the public or for the interests of the institution. His decision was able to benefit both. But it is important to circle back to a concept found in Rousseau’s Social Contract. In explaining the General Will, Rousseau distinguished the particular will and the institutional will. The General Will can be reformulated as the public interest. The particular will is the private interest. But it is important to recognize there is an institutional or organizational interest.

Personal identity is important because there is significant institutional overlap. Robert E. Lee is famous for his command of the Confederate forces. His decision was based on the secession of his home state of Virginia. His identity was based on his local state. Some Southerners fought for the Union because their identity was fundamentally American. This example is not meant to reduce the Civil War as a clash of fundamental identities. There were multiple layers to the conflict. The central conflict was about slavery.

But the personal identity of elites determine how they approach institutional conflicts. Eventually this will lead us to a discussion of patrimonialism, clientelism and the institutional supremacy of the state. But the role of institutions in forming personal identity has an immediate impact on social elites. These leaders help resolve fundamental conflicts between institutions that eventually allow for the formation and supremacy of the state and the rise of democracy.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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