This political cartoon (“America’s Ruling Class”) is in the best tradition of the genre. I think it is worth some consideration and so here goes. It can also be appreciated simply with a few seconds’ glance, a kind of thinking man’s version of the “meme” concept so influential in our era, but for me ideas only get firmly pinned down when they are put to the written word.
The artist: The cartoon is signed “BANFIELD,” for Elliot Banfield. I know nothing of Mr. Banfield except that his work is often published by the Claremont Review of Books accompanying essays or book reviews.
What follows here is commentary an analysis on what we see here, some interpretations of symbolism and more. There will be three sections: One on the hot-air balloon imagery, the people inside the balloon looked at individually, and a final “assessment” section.
The hot-air balloon
Our attention turns at once to the figures in the center, but with a moment we realize they are housed in a basket held aloft by a hot-air balloon. It floats high above the ground, disconnected and uprooted from the surface of the Earth. The people in the balloon (have to) literally look down on the mass of nobodies down below.
The artist chooses to put them in a hot-air balloon. I suspect the idea is to play on concept of “hot air,” which can mean “empty, exaggerated, or pretentious talk or writing” or “impressive but worthless” rhetoric. There are different degrees of talk/rhetoric going on inside the balloon, but we’ll get to that shortly. It any case, recall how these balloons work: The whole is held up by hot air.
The hot-air balloon also puts these Ruling Classers in a basket. Might the imagery of the basket itself perhaps a conscious homage to the “basket of deplorables” of 2016?
Another layer of symbolism is that the smoke in the background implies movement: “America’s Ruling Class” is literally “flying over” the faceless folks down people. I take this to be a representation of Middle America outside a handful of mega metro areas and leading power centers. Some wag once called 90% of so of the USA’s land area “flyover,” and here we have America’s Ruling Class literally flying over it, or floating over it.
But there’s a little problem: Two of the ten ropes holding the basket up, connecting it to the balloon, have snapped off.
We still have not looked into the basket at the visages of the inhabitants thereof, i.e., at America’s Ruling Class, but will momentarily. Before we do, notice how basket has a symbol with a representation of the US flag, in a shield-like design. A basically old-line patriotic symbol.
This is a visual reminiscent of yester-generation. Perhaps something from a Fourth of July in the 1950s, or 1920s, or 1870s, or earlier still. How closely do the denizens of the basket recall yester-generation?
A look at the subgroups of “America’s Ruling Class“
The following is a look inside the basket. We see seven identifiable subgroups as depicted in the cartoon:
(1.) In the center, standing tallest of them all, we see BIG TECH.
We note in passing that this term did not exist ten years ago. Google-Ngram suggests “Big Tech” was only coined around 2014 and really came its own by the late 2010s, surging in use in 2018 and especially 2019 (Google-Trends suggests its breakout followed closely after the Trump election, with a big jump in September 2017 and then a sustained big-jump in early 2019; but 2020 was really the year of Big Tech, and when on a timescale including 2020 the pre-2020 trends get obscured into nothingness).
In the cartoon, we see Big Tech decked out as a knight ready for battle, suggesting this is how Big Tech sees itself within US discourse.
Big Tech clutches a lightning bolt and stands poised ready to zap anyone, any time. He has antenna, suggesting he’s a-listening for signs a righteously applied lightning bolt is needed. The artist seems to be saying Big Tech, like Zeus, has veto power over the others in the basket.
The other arm rests on hip, striking a pose of power and self-satisfaction.
(I might add here that Hail To You was hit by Big Tech in about the Dec 2017 / Jan 2018 period, when viewership rates fell by around two-thirdse overnight, and they have never returned. Some posts do not appear on Google search indexes. This is remarkably easily achieved with the resources Big Tech has. Someone put us on some kind of hit-list, and it was done. Far fewer people since then have found this site by chance than did pre-2018.)
(2.) A figure who looks something like a self-righteous feminist stands in front a lectern labeled “LIVING CONSTITUTION.”
The speaker at the Living Constitution lectern looks somewhat like Elizabeth Warren. But really she is just meant to be a general type and not Warren specifically. That type is: smug, somewhat scolding, supercilious. She lectures you on what the Constitution really means in (insert current year).
If she were forced to take a truth-serum, she might say this: “And don’t you complain about the details, because it’s a living document, this Constitution. That means we, the good people up here, are allowed to consult our political tea-leaves to see what new rights or responsibilities are to be massaged away or massaged into existence, before first breaking the resistance of the faceless nobodies down there. Thanks for understanding.”
More broadly, this could symbolize “lawfare” generally, and/or paint the courts and justice system as elements of America’s Ruling Class, and decidedly not neutral actors.
The “Living Constitution” lady may also personify what Christopher Caldwell famously called America’s Second Constitution (of 1964). It replaced the original (of 1789), is somewhat free-floating, and dedicated to an aggressive promotion of equality (or, now, equity), mandated with never-ending search-and-destroy missions against racism and other “isms.”
The people most dedicated to this kind of thing are often identifiable out of a lineup, and often look a lot like the woman there, but really the whole ship of state is on board and is personified here more for artistic sake than to imply the individuals involved are guilty; in other words, it’s “systemic,” and is an element of the Ruling Class today.
(3.) Next is a bespectacled man in a lab coat labeled with a giant needle labeled “CDC.”
The man is frenetically engaged in shoving needles on the people down below. These enormous, terrifying-looking needles rain down on the faceless people below from all sides. The character vaguely resembles Fauci (the “Corona-Ayatollah”).
We see the latest launch is at the vicinity of a grouplet with a “Let’s Go Brandon” sign. (More on the “Let’s Go Brandon” sign below.)
This casting of a public health authority as part of a “ruling class” coalition is something genuinely new, far newer even that Big Tech. No one would have added a “CDC” character shoving scary-looking giant needles at people in 2019 or earlier. Then came Corona-Panic Year 1 (that’s 2020 in the Christian calendar).
Starting in 2020 large sections of the public now identify strongly with this imagery, either for or against. Obviously this particular political cartoon is against, but plenty are for the permanent empowerment of public health officials. (I call these people the Corona Pro-Panic side, slightly different conceptually from the category ‘Panickers.’ The organized Pro-Panic side is more political, and actively seeks permanent quasi-political power, even veto power, for public health bureaucrats.)
Put it this way: If we have an ‘estate’ system ala pre-Revolution France, and if each of these ruling class elements is an estate, effectively Public Health Experts were promoted to being a new estate, having a clear piece of regime power. This has held for two years, and may hold at least in part for a third and beyond, which wraps up the entirety of the “early 2020s.”
Opponents of the endless mandates and disruptions and masks and all of it (which I call the Corona Anti-Panic side) now see public-health officials and their allies in nominal political office as petty-tyrants as overt members of the ruling class, even as a kind of religious elite. Their diktats seem to be law. Someone proposed that Anthony Fauci existed as effectively an ayatollah, with veto power above the president.
The vaccines, and the needles used in this political cartoon, are symbolic of the general trend, which goes beyond the Pro-Vaxx vs. Anti-Vaxx slugfest.
(4.) Next we have a bored-looking, bald, somewhat-unkempt-presenting academic looking off in the distance from his books. He is scribbling something but looks distracted. The label “MARXIST THEORY” tips off what this unimpressive-looking character is up to.
We might interpret the shabby visage and distracted or bored look to mean true Marxist Theory is stale and unimpressive in the 2020s, nothing like the spirit it had in the 1920s, or even the 1970s.
Stale or not, it has a place in part because of the Soixante–Huitards (Sixty-Eighters, 1968ers) and their cultural triumph, which continues a half century after their supposedly glorious moments in the late 1960s and 1970s. Its role is passive, sitting in a quiet corner, the least conspicuous place in the balloon, really. It’s there.
In a broader sense this can represent academia, or a politicized academia. Not scholarship itself per se, but the kind of politicized work that goes on in academia which finds a way to seep out into wider discourse. It usually starts with unimpressive-looking, unattractive people people spinning theories on a college campus, functioning as a thought-bubble, and any conservative types dismiss it all as so much wasted time and energy on their part, not realizing these ideas often end up with surprising sticking power.
(See the two posts on Robin DiAngelo: biography [“Who Radicalized Robin DiAngelo?“] and the intellectual history of her “white fragility” idea, which followed a traceable ‘pipeline’ from extreme academic-nonsense-fringe to being promoted in the mainstream political Left and even in the political Center in 2020.)
The man personifying Marxist Theory, we might add in passing, just happens to be the most Jewish-looking of any of the characters presented. In any case, to borrow a Yiddish word, Mr Marxist Theory is a “nebbish” looking man, hardly the image of a ruling class member you’d expect. There are some in the basket with at least the aesthetic of a traditional ruling class, some of which we come to next…
(5.) Next we see three well-dressed people toasting each other, glasses of wine in hand. They are labeled “GEORGETOWN.”
I presume this represents two things:
[5-a.] Broadly, GEORGETOWN here refers to the remnants of an old upper class, plus that element of nouveau riche which have embraced the old aesthetic, often with recent personal origins in other elements of the Ruling Class, say elite academia, law, elite military (officers who reach high rank and testify before Congress and get comfy think tank jobs after retirement), or indeed Big Tech.
There is no label that quite fits this group. We might list some general prerequisites without quite reaching an adequate working definition. Attending an elite school is nearly a prerequisite. Having a degree of money. Social standing and knowing the right people is key.
The old term “limousine liberal” comes to mind, though many of these people will vote Republican, few indeed would have dared back Trump publicly and expected to keep their social standing.
[5-b.] Narrowly, GEORGETOWN here refers to a specific sub-group of the broad elite which are “Inside the Beltway” (hence Georgetown, the Washington, D.C. neighborhood considered to be elite; other neighborhoods could be substituted, and sometimes you’ll hear the neighborhood where the Obamas bought a large luxury-mansion compound with a skyhigh pricetag, Kalorama; there are many possible contenders. Charles Murray’s “Super ZIPs” might do in a pinch for [5-a.], but Georgetown is name-recognizable and best suits [5-b]).
The important distinguishing feature of [5-b] is the connection, by one or two steps, to the central (“federal”) government specifically.
We see the people in this “Georgetown” grouplet are interested primarily in each other, in keeping up appearances and looking good to each other. They pay relatively little heed to either their companions in the rest of the “America’s Ruling Class” balloon, nor to the vast faceless people down below.
I would also note that this “Inside the Beltway” set includes much of the D.C.-based media. But what we understand as “the media” is really dispersed in several elements of the seven.
(6.) Next we see a “Woke Capital” man handling an enormous sack of money.
Woke Capital’s moneybag is full to the brim and even overflowing somewhat, with coins and bills seeming to fall onto the faceless masses below.
Perhaps Mr Woke Capital has even intentionally tilted the sack to disperse some free cash on the pitiful, faceless, Earth-bound masses down there, to show he’s not such a bad guy. Per his ideological commitments a large share of this will be reserved for races and ethnic groups and genders whom he favors. But alongside the falling coins are also those terrifying giant needles.
Notice that the cartoonist does not use “Capital,” but “Woke Capital.” This is a phenomenon not exactly brand new in the early 2020s, but which ratcheted up in a way impossible to ignore. For any who were unaware r hoping it was a passing fad, summer 2020 removed doubt.
(A note for posterity: “woke” referred to left-wing politics of a specific kind whereby White-Christian-males were, as a class, designated class-enemies or even public-enemies, and by which someone’s morality was re-defined, after said person gets woken up, to oppose the aforementioned class-enemy element of the population.)
Non-Woke Capital is not in the America’s Ruling Class balloon.
(7.) Rounding out our clockwise trip around the balloon basket, we get to “Woke Military.”
Three puffed-chest, uniformed men — ohh, correction, people, people in uniform. (One or more could be Trans; we must solemnly honor their struggle. Uniformed people.)
The Woke Military men are confident-looking, clutching their banner with panache, if maybe a little pompous and self-important.
Given the company they keep in this balloon — the scold at the lectern, the unkempt Marxist Theory professor, and some of these others which do not at all make one proud to serve — we might also call them “clueless.” That would be unfair. They know what they’re doing.
The Woke Military here really represents the senior officers and the culture of the military. Since late 2019, the senior officer in the U.S. armed forces is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who beclowned himself denouncing White Racism at the U.S. Congress and all the rest, in effect declaring himself for the Woke side. Few even knew the names of most previous Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, but Milley became a household name in 2020-21.
Placement within the balloon: the Woke Military is positioned just below Zeus-like BIG TECH; both of them have martial appearances, though Big Tech is depicted as even more powerful and dominant than the Woke Military.
The positioning of the Woke Military may also suggests they exist as a praetorian guard doing the bidding of Big Tech, and other elements of America’s Ruling Class. Notice the Woke Military is in the balloon, not down below among the masses of people. We are reminded naturally of the militarization of Washington with unnecessary call-ups of national guard for show, while crime surged and there was a record-setting illegal immigration crisis.
(Others.) There are other characters in the balloon in the background, in the shadows, harder to see and partly concealed, perhaps deliberately concealing themselves.
I would interpret these to be small interest groups not otherwise classifiable here under one of the seven labeled groups. Often these groups in the shadows want to hide behind one or more elements out front, like Big Tech, Woke Military or Woke Capital. They are historically neutral-seeming institutions — though I don’t think they’re particularly seen as neutral anymore.
None of these secondary and minor elements could keep the balloon aloft on their own, which makes them mostly decidedly second-tier elements of America’s Ruling Class. We ought not neglect their influence just because we don’t see them clearly, but also understand they exist in symbiosis with the rest.
The Non-Ruling Class
(Down Below.) Turning to those down below. Outside the balloon.
We see a faceless mass, lots of people. They easily outnumber the balloon people, but are an anonymous mass. We see none of their faces clearly. Their facelessness in the medium of political cartoon represents their voicelessness.
There are five signs held by lower-dwelling people. Four are incoherent, again symbolizing the lack of firm axis of legitimate political identity for those outside America’s Ruling Class. One lone sign is legible. It says “Let’s Go Brandon.”
Note to posterity: “Let’s Go Brandon” was a protest line against President Joe Biden, who reached surprising levels of unpopularity in 2021 after a disputed election and multiple crises or problems. There was a foreign policy humiliation in Afghanistan and multiple domestic problems running parallel with crime, illegal immigration, inflation, public-health mandates and disruptions, and more.
In fairness to Biden, people’s anger is not at him personally so much. It’s more at Biden as a symbol of America’s Ruling Class, most of which now seems openly hostile to Middle America White-Christians.
These people down below seem as leaderless and rudderless as they are faceless. But look closely again at the ropes connecting the balloon and the basket in which America’s Ruling Class carries on. Two have already snapped…
America’s Ruling Class, the cartoon version here, when taken as a whole seems a little absurd, or pitiful, doesn’t it? All political cartoons tend to do that. It’s in the nature of the medium. It’s satire. It’s hyperbolic. Except a lot of it here feels worryingly non-satirical, and not high on the scale of hyperbole.
The gaggle of interest groups and social-political currents personified in the cartoon seems almost pitiful, maybe, but rest assured their power is considerable.
Or is it?
Take the “Georgetown” element. The main business street of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., itself was one the places hit by mobs of looters and vandals in mid-2020. The extremely expensive police foce was under strict stand-down orders. Some ruling class!
This same ruling class was behind the Corona-lockdowns and all that followed. In a never(-yet)-posted essay, I asked what the Corona-Panic social-political phenomenon means for U.S. regime stability, and it doesn’t seem to be anything good.
There were “class” elements pro-Lockdownism and also “ideological” elements — including but not limited to the pressure from the newest actor in the balloon, the public health experts and their auxiliary of public-health commentators, officials, and bureaucrats. People who formerly got minimal or no attention at all (like the truly odious CoronaPanic-fanatic Eric Feigl-Dingle), but who are now a legit part of the ruling class, at least as long as the Corona-Panic New Normal lasts.
In other words, as many were saying from near the start, a Corona Coup d’Etat accompanied the Corona-Panic, but also galvanized other elements of America’s Ruling Class, and the whole of it net-benefitted despite the many inconveniences to them individually.
One thing that followed the embrace of the Corona-Panic by most of America’s Ruling Class was an angry and frustrated racial-political movement which burst out of nowhere in mid-2020, led by bored and stir-crazy youth subject to months of bizarre lockdowns over a flu virus.
Few if any with legit seats in the “balloon” criticized the riots and looting, and some even cheered them on; few are willing even to criticize the now-eighteen-months-worth of unprecedented crime spike, in which many even Ruling Class-heavy major urban cores are seeing crime back at their 1970s-1990s levels.
Then we come to internal narrative-policing and regime-compliance-enforcement. Any of the balloon dwellers who even dreamed of criticizing the riots at their peak in mid-2020 would’ve been liable to get zapped by Big Tech’s lightning bolt. And, really, the same for the masses down below. They are all easy prey for a skilled wielder of the lightning bolt.
In the end, a lot of these are just not very impressive people.
Although I’ve approached this task via analysis of a political cartoon, I do think regime-analysis is one inevitable path to understanding the complex and fascinating topic of the Corona-Panic, a self-imposed, (thank-God-)limited-scale civilizational disaster so irrational one wonders what’s really going on.
The initial wave of the Corona-Panic, which was wrong from the start, allowed Public Health Authorities to enter the scene. As I say, maybe most interesting thing about this cartoon, drawn as it is about Q3 2021, is that “CDC” would never have appeared on the same kind of political cartoon at any time in any era of U.S. history from the age of Plymouth Rock up to 2019. The other elements of America’s Ruling Class basically all embraced it and we have a new equilibrium.