his new book
Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000, the historian Charles
Tilly confides that, despite his use of the term “democracy,” he knows of
“no European national regime, past or present, in which a small number of
rich and well-connected men -- I mean men -- did not wield disproportionate
influence over the government.” This judgment concerns the countries of
Western Europe; the former communist regimes may well be included in it,
with just a little qualification for the word “rich.” Tilly continues:
I regard my own American regime as a deeply flawed democracy that recurrently de-democratizes by excluding significant segments of its population from public politics, by inscribing social inequalities in public life, by baffling popular will, and by failing to offer protection to its citizens.
The ongoing presidential race is the most blatant example of de-democratizing now taking place in America. To many foreigners the contest appears as a genuine political fight in which the future of the American foreign policy plays a significant role and stands to be changed for the better. To most Americans the election offers for choice radically different candidates; one of them will win due to a perceived superiority in charms, prospects, and plans.
These are electoral illusions. Foreigners may worry about increasingly violent manifestations of American power abroad and hope for a more collaborative administration; Americans may be sharply divided on numerous issues and anxious to reach workable compromises. But their hopes are not justified. Since Ralph Nader has only a small chance to win, the political arrangements in America have already narrowed the options of the public to very little choice. The differences between the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties are minimal and cosmetic. Moreover, and unique in the history of the U.S. presidential elections, the two main candidates are closely bound to each other by private commitments made long time ago.
George W. Bush and John F. Kerry have pledged allegiance forever to a small group whose symbol was once used by pirates and is now printed on the labels of poison bottles. As a Yale student (class of 1966) Kerry was co-opted, “initiated,” and immersed in the Skull and Bones society, the most secretive of all Yale fraternities. With fourteen other Bonesmen (as they are known on campus and in popular lore), he co-opted next year’s crop, who, in turn, co-opted Bush among the Skull and Bones members of the class of 1968.
This is, briefly told, the youth link between Bush and Kerry. They are political actors who publicly play opponents - but privately are closely associated. To dismiss their Skull and Bones membership as an insignificant aspect of this electoral campaign or, worse, as a conspiratorial speculation unworthy of attention, displays lack of interest in the American political process.
The narrow and self-centered mystique of a small group who have acceded to so much power may harm the U.S. in unpredictable ways. The people entangled in these connected networks should come under scrutiny. Throughout history, Americans have asserted much more vigorously their right to associate with each other than their right to inquire into the purpose of associations.
The best description so far of the Skull and Bones society was given by Alexandra Robbins in her 2002 book Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Robbins, herself a Yale alumnus, wrote a candid and detailed account of the roots, history, and workings of the fraternity. It may be revealing to enumerate some practices that bear directly on the work of the U.S. president. Bonesmen go to any length to exonerate their colleagues of responsibility, even in criminal situations; they protect the incompetence of their fellows regardless of the consequences; they pool money for their common ventures, but are completely uninterested in benefiting the community; they blackmail and threaten journalists who look into their dealings and connections; most importantly, they use a web of reciprocal links of loyalty to promote and establish themselves in positions of influence and power. One Skull and Bones member told Robbins that membership in the society entails “the greatest allegiance in the world.” The greatest applied to the U.S. president unambiguously means that the allegiance to the club is greater than the allegiance to the U.S..
Bonesmen are not equally attached to their group. Nor do all of them maximize the advantages of membership. How closely Bush and Kerry are associated with Skull and Bones needs detailed examination, not to be provided here. Suffice it to say that both have multiple connections with the society; Bush excels in nurturing and taking advantage of them. Robbins enumerates at least eight Bush relatives and many close friends who belong to Skull and Bones, making the secret society look even more like a Bush family gang than the Republican Party. Many Bush appointees in key positions of the U.S. government also belong to the Skull and Bones.
Inside this organization that hosts a Bush tribe, Kerry has his own clan; his wife, ex-wife, sister, and daughter are all related to the Skull and Bones. He has been an insistent recruiter and observes total silence whenever questioned about the society.
Kerry’s dalliances with a shadowy and mostly conservative group de-legitimizes the mainstream opposition to the current reactionary government in America. Liberals’ advocacy of democratic virtues belies their unquestioned support for Kerry. They must be reminded that, from inception, the aim of the American republicanism has been to provide the people with means to restrain any exclusive group of overambitious individuals.
The success of Skull and Bones comes just as web sites dedicated to it are mushrooming on the internet and the printed information about it is expanding and becoming easily available. It is natural to ask: What goes on every year with fifteen youngsters, so that it transforms them from ordinary students into paragons of business, media, and politics? And why has their success surged, lately?
Bonesmen undergo rituals that are necessarily ridiculous. Robbins quotes an accidental witness to a society’s ceremony: “If that’s what they do in Skull and Bones, all those leaders of the free world, then we’re in deep trouble. I’m sixty-two years old and I don’t think in my entire life I have ever been so stunned like that. It was all just too bizarre.” In his book The Secret Parts of Fortune, Ron Rosenbaum corroborates such accounts. But no matter how absurd, the Skull and Bones formalities cannot be stranger or more exceptional than countless secret or not-so-secret rituals performed in old and new societies across the world.
If the ceremonious side of the Skull and Bones experience cannot make much of a difference, maybe something special goes on inside these people’s skulls. Their manifest canniness suggests that they have gained a particularly effective mindset focused on the public life, probably consisting in a controlled ruthlessness unabashedly used in confluence with the institutional prestige conferred by Yale. This proves to be a uniquely powerful combination and reflects on the weakness of alternative paths to power in America.
That a large country with dynamic social and economic life draws its ultimate contenders for the most powerful office from a sect-like coterie of operatives is an unmistakable sign of political diminution. It is difficult to assess whether the whole American political process undergoes rapid degeneration, but it is obvious that an ultra elitist group attempts to gain an oligarchic grip on the political establishment. This political involution will become apparent to many only when ripple effects will touch other spheres of the public life.
Bonesmen enjoy rosy prospects, but their success may become their undoing when the conquering projects to which many are dedicated will falter. Too powerful to feel the fear descending into their bones, they will still see the shame overwhelming the prestige.
As front men for the club, Bush and Kerry differ slightly in some of their views but have similar interests and overlapping political connections. Kerry’s mildly critical rhetoric toward Bush is no more than the frowning of a brother. A northerner and a southerner, they speak as if they grew up together. They certainly matured inside the same Tomb.
That old structure on the Yale campus is forbidden even to the New Haven police. And better not enter it because, according to the rare outside visitors, it contains proofs of numerous criminal activities. Inquiry, however, may well go on from outside the bland walls, driven by curiosity, for the public interest. Robbins tells us that, inside the society, Bush was given the name “Temporary.” It is an immense irony that the nickname appears to have been misplaced.
John Vorasangian is an independent researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.