There’s an old joke in the newspaper business, now immortal on the Internet:
“The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country. The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country. The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country. USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don’t really understand the New York Times. They do, however, like their statistics shown in pie chart format. ... The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country, and they did a far superior job of it, thank you very much. ...”
And so on. The list gets updated from time to time, and it usually includes, “The National Inquirer is read by people trapped in line at the grocery store.” You get the point.
But the joke is on us. You see, no one is running the country.
I don’t mean that as a knock on President Barack Obama. No president “runs” America because the government doesn’t run America, and the president barely runs the government. He can scarcely tell his own employees what to do. Civil service laws and union rules make it darn near impossible to fire even grossly incompetent employees for anything short of pederasty or murder.
I don’t have the space to rehash the Federalist Papers, but at the federal level there are three branches of government and each one monkey-wrenches the other, all the time. Meanwhile, do you know how many local governments there are in the United States?
Time’s up, and you probably guessed too low. There are, by the Pew Charitable Trust’s count, just over 90,000 of them (90,056 to be exact).
What the joke gets right is that lots of groups think they should be running the show. But they all resent the fact that they’re not. From Ivy League eggheads to Wall Street fat cats, everyone talks like a backseat driver to a driver who isn’t there.
In recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to get to know some famous .001-percenters. Guess what? Not only do they not run the country, but they’re often desperate to find out who does.
For instance, listening to the Democratic Party or, say, the editors of the New York Times (tomayto-tomahto, I know), you’d think the Koch brothers owned America. Of course, if they did, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on elections, would they? Also, if the Kochs were half as evil and powerful as some claim, nobody would be criticizing them.
Meanwhile, for every rich conservative out there, there’s a rich liberal cutting checks, too. In other words, the 1-percenters who supposedly run everything aren’t some homogenized class of economic overlords; they are, in fact, at war with each other. And, trust me, Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess no more think they are running the country than liberal super-donors Michael Bloomberg, George Soros and Tom Steyer do.
The notion that there’s a class or group of people secretly running things is ancient. It was old when the Roman consul Lucius Cassius famously asked, “Cui bono?” (“To whose benefit?”)
The reason is that we seem to be hardwired to assume there are no accidents, that the world is the way it is because people — hidden people — want it that way. The more extreme expressions of this cognitive reflex take many forms, whether anti-Semitic (Who benefits? The Jews!) or Marxist (Who benefits? The ruling classes!) or comedic (“Colonel Sanders with his wee beady eyes!”).
Today, on the left, such thinking has become institutionalized. When the champions of social justice can’t find an actual culprit, the villain becomes systemic racism or sexism or white privilege. But there is always evil intentionality lurking somewhere, like a ghost in the machine. The right has its bugaboos, too. For instance, there are many who think the mainstream media is biased (it is) and that its bias is somehow centrally orchestrated like a scheme by some Bond villain (it isn’t).
I think some people are scared of the idea that nobody is in charge, in part because they want someone to blame for their problems. Others don’t like this notion because they have an outsized faith in the power of human will. If villains aren’t to blame for our ills, then some problems cease to be problems and simply become facts of life.
Me? I like knowing no one is running things because, for starters, it means I’m free.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a columnist for Tribune Media.