When “Best and Brightest” is Too Elitist

I listened–very briefly–to the Congressional hearings on the unfortunate, embarrassing roll-out of the federal Affordable Care site. The problems with that site have been amply documented, and I certainly don’t want to minimize what they tell us about the current level of bureaucratic competency–in this case, the ability of federal officials to adequately supervise and manage private-sector contractors.

What I heard of the proceedings didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the website’s problems, but they did provide an epiphany of sorts: when you elect as your Representatives people who are undistinguished by reason of either intellect or character, ¬†you get a legislature that is unequal to the challenges of the 21st–or any–Century.

There is nothing wrong with members of Congress not knowing much about the technical aspects of the Internet. But there is something very wrong when those same Congressmen  posture and grandstand as if they were experts.

The hearings were yet another dreary reminder of an all-too-common experience: a Senator–or more often, a Representative–pontificating about matters he or she clearly knows little or nothing about, citing “evidence” that is erroneous, non-existent or fabricated, in support of nonsensical positions increasingly divorced from the reality of a complex world. (During the recent government shutdown, this was a more-than-daily occurrence.)

What I want to know is, why? Why have we elected so many empty suits–self-important ciphers who are dismissive of science, slavishly attentive to the uninformed passions of their most extreme constituents, unschooled in basic economics, and contemptuous of education and expertise?

When did intellectual achievement become “elitist”? When did degrees from highly ranked schools become a source of ridicule from the right? When did rightwing pundits start dismissing those we used to call “the best and brightest” as “snobs” and “pointy-headed intellectuals”?

What prompted this latest eruption of American anti-intellectualism?

I can’t answer my own question with any assurance, but I can’t help thinking this sad phenomenon began in the early 1980s with the constant denigration of government as a mechanism for collective action–government as problem rather than solution. When government is seen as an inept enterprise–when “public service” becomes an oxymoron–how can we expect it to attract our most talented and public-spirited citizens?

The low esteem with which we view our governing institutions has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After all, why would the moderately competent, let alone “the best and brightest,” want to work with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann or Louis Gohmert?


  1. I am certainly not among “the elitist”, “the best and the brightest” or “pointy-headed intellectuals” but…I do know enough to expect a group of computer programmers – not working in unison – to test their finished product once they have connected all of their individual working parts. Would you buy a new car if you were the one expected to test drive it in traffic to see if it runs properly? The government should also have tested it for compliance and the ability to handle hundreds of thousands of applicants…is there a way to test this ability? How much did the reported millions effect the web site ability to respond? I have had simple petitions refuse my attempts to sign and forward or attempts to access a web site due to overload.

    I’m sorry but – being more jaundiced than Sheila could possibly be, to the point of being jaded in my dotage – I must return to the possiblity of sabotage. The GOP, Tea Party, NRA supporters have certainly done this blatantly with their misrepresentations, out of context, obfuscation and total lies, when referring to anything resembling health care for anyone…and on numerous other issues supported by President Obama and the Democratic party. Let’s look at the spying accusations – is there any thinking person in this country who is not aware that countries with the ability have spied on one another and their own contrymen since the ability became available to them? To what lengths is this acceptable and/or necessary…or is any of it acceptable. President Obama did not invent this capability or begin using it before any other American president and more than he initiated supporting health care for all Americans or presidential use of the tele-prompter.

  2. Agreed – government should responsibly oversee contractors. But contractors must also be responsible in exchange for the millions given them to perform. The ACA rollout is yet another example that while government has many faults of its own, the private sector is in no position to criticize.

  3. I’ve often thought for a while now that what the country needs is another revolution at the ballot box: Candidates from a third party that promise to behave like adults, rely on experts where appropriate, and look out for the best interests of the nation. People like Sheila and Nancy Pappas would fit into that category. Heck, even Dick Lugar once fell into that category–even though I didn’t always agree with him.

    But this is impossible today. A well-organized third party would need billions and billions of dollars across the country to run the campaigns, and they would be drowned out by the money spent by the special interests. Whether those interests are Freedom Works or the Koch brothers or Hollywood, until we get the money out of politics I fear we’re doomed to the continued bullshittery that masquerades as governing.

  4. How quickly Hoosiers forget about the tremendous success of super-manager Governor Mitch Daniels working hand-in-hand with the epitome of American private enterprise IBM when implementing that magnificent new computerized welfare system at FSSA. Good times, indeed!

  5. Considering the events and processes that have transpired over the last 40 years, it appears that the society is running on fumes. While there have been numerous lessons from history to show the consequences of that sort of behavior, some folks are so narcissistic that they believe the same thing can’t happen to this society. I just watched an episode from Civilization: The West and the Rest, with Niall Ferguson on Public TV. He contrasted the last years of the Ottoman Empire with the reign of Frederick the Great. Without the video, you would have thought he was talking about the U.S. when he referred to the stupidity of the Ottoman Empire. The folks in the Ottoman Empire were mystified why the rest of the world was passing them by while they were enforcing religious fundamentalism and an anti-intellectual mindset which restricted freedom of thought and access to ideas. The Tea Party folks would have felt right at home, just given a few tweaks in the situation.

  6. The dumbing down in government did not happen by accident. The last thing the military/industrial/congressional complex wants is an informed, intelligent electorate. Reagan was the harbinger of the new assault on everything associated with FDR and Eleanor’s historical bend toward economic equity in this nation. Every vestige remaining is under constant attact and will remain so. The entire nation has had its knickers in a knot over Obamacare. Threre’s something missing here. The ramifications of ACA pale in comparison to the slow and steady repeal of state and federal inheritance taxes but you never heard a word. As we speak, they are being systematically phased out. The Irsay girls will get every dime their father was able to take from this community and it won’t get a dime of it back. Return those taxes to the FDR rates of some 90% and you’d wiitness a lot of changes in a lot of different places. But you haven’t heard a word of protest about it. College kids aren’t in the streets after a decade old war. And do you know why? Ask Gannett Publishing. I’m saying this thing is much larger than who marries whom or voter IDs. This oligarchy intends to ride this pony into the ground and if the people don’t like it; time for the 101st Airborne! That’s right. Don’t think it won’t happen? Check out Blair Mountain.! The one thing to save America is alrady fast afoot. Want to see it? Go to your nearest Walmart. The decisive factor will be who the 101st shoots at! The odds are it will be us!

  7. Here’s a poser for you: A blind man could see that Dick Lugar should have been a shoo in for reelection, but what happened? They did what has come to be known as ‘primaried’ him, a feat which should have been impossible in this state. I don’t blame the GOPs for his defeat. They have all jumpd on the short bus, but they told the community what they were going to do. I blame the defeat on the gross stupidity of the Democrats! I voted Republican for the first time in my life for Lugar. I’ll bet I’m the only Democrat in Indiana who had the sense to do so. He should have won handily because there were no dire issues on the ballot. But the stupid party leaders couldn’t see past a party line. It gets worse: Now they have to deal with an incumbent. Smart move,eh? But we are blessed with leaders with room temperature IQs

  8. My many signed and forwarded petitions asking for the removal of Michelle Bachman from the Intelligence Committee have evidently fallen on deaf ears, blind eyes and those room temperature IQ Committee members who accept her as one of their own. She still sits on the Committee, staring blank-eyed into her own nether world while we sink deeper and deeper into the GOP abyss of confusion and pointing fingers. I once saw a bumper sticker stating, “Doo-doo occurs”; never more true than the on-going non-action of Michelle Bachman, Ted Curz, Rand Paul, Louis Gohmert and too many others to name. We are up to our nostrils in their doo-doo, but our eyes and ears are still open. 2014 seems so far away; too far away to resolve today’s dilemma of useless elected officials with more money than sense. Poor us; poor, poor us!

  9. U.S. Navy lauches new 7 billion dollar destroyer. Says it can hit an Iraqi basketweaver at 63 miles! Congress cuts 36 million from food program for the poor. You do the math.

  10. Every Democrat, (with a upper case D), should give serious consideration of dthe events of the past few years. We are good at having short memories and then repeating things. Today, we subscribe to the note that the signature event of this administraton is the ACA. We have misplaced the fact that the caampaign was not based on health care but rather on the unfunded wars and Gitmo. Obama ran on these factors because they are two things easilly changed by Commander in Chief. No matter how Congress may fund or defund, the CIC, by one simple order, can remove all troops from a zone. Should he give an order that all troops have to vacate Diego Garcia in 90 days. That’s it and over a million a day goes back into the treasury. It works. JFK tried it. (See what he got!)

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