The phrase “political elites” can conjure images of cigar-chomping power-brokers, meeting in secret to pull society’s strings. In reality, scholars use the term to describe lawmakers, judges, bureaucrats, police and military officers, local officials, business chiefs and cultural figures, most of whom will never coordinate directly, much less agree on what is best for the country.
Still, it is those elites who collectively uphold democracy day-to-day. Much as paper money only has value because we all treat it as valuable, elections and laws only have power because elites wake up every morning and treat them as paramount. It is a kind of compact, in which the powerful voluntarily bind themselves to a system that also constrains them.
“A well-functioning, orderly democracy does not require us to actively think about what sustains it,” Tom Pepinsky, a Cornell University political scientist, told me shortly after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. “It’s an equilibrium; everybody is incentivized to participate as if it will continue.”
But in a major constitutional crisis, when the norms and rules meant to guide democracy come under doubt, or fall by the wayside entirely, those elites suddenly face the question of how — or whether — to keep up their democratic compact.
They will not always agree on what course is best for democracy, or for the country, or for themselves. Sometimes, the shock of seeing democracy’s vulnerability will lead them to redouble their commitment to it, and sometimes to jettison that system in part or whole.
The result is often a scramble of elites pressuring one another directly, as many senior Republicans and White House aides did throughout Jan. 6, or through public statements aimed at the thousands of officials operating the machinery of government.