Tag Archives: elitism

When David Brooks is Right, He’s Right

David Brooks can drive me nuts. He often comes across–at least to me–as a pompous moralizer, convinced of his own superior wisdom. But then he’ll share a perceptive analysis of…people who believe in their own superior wisdom.

A recent column begins with a description that admittedly fits yours truly, beginning with our answer to the question “why do people still support Trump?”

We anti-Trumpers often tell a story to explain that. It was encapsulated in a quote the University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington gave to my colleague Thomas B. Edsall recently: “Republicans see a world changing around them uncomfortably fast, and they want it to slow down, maybe even take a step backward. But if you are a person of color, a woman who values gender equality or an L.G.B.T. person, would you want to go back to 1963? I doubt it.”

In this story, we anti-Trumpers are the good guys, the forces of progress and enlightenment. The Trumpers are reactionary bigots and authoritarians. Many Republicans support Trump no matter what, according to this story, because at the end of the day, he’s still the bigot in chief, the embodiment of their resentments and that’s what matters to them most.

Brooks admits that he “partly” agrees with this explanation (I certainly do)–but he also recognizes that it’s a monument to “elite self-satisfaction,” and asks readers to “try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys. In fact, we’re the bad guys.”

Brooks says this story began in the 60s, when boys who had graduated from high school found themselves in Viet Nam, while others got college deferments. It continued in the 1970s, when students were bused from working-class areas, but not from upscale communities where privileged folks lived.

Over time, Brooks says, we’ve replaced the idea that we’re all in this together with a system in which the educated class inhabits a world “up here,” and everybody else is “down there.” Members of the educated class may advocate for the marginalized, but as he observes, “somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.”

The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation.

Daniel Markovits summarized years of research in his book “The Meritocracy Trap”: “Today, middle-class children lose out to the rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work. Meritocracy blocks the middle class from opportunity. Then it blames those who lose a competition for income and status that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.”

Brooks cites the journalism profession as an example, pointing to changes from when there were “crusty old working-class guys” in the newsroom, to today’s news staffs, dominated by graduates of elite colleges. (He ignores the dramatic shrinkage of journalism jobs thanks to America’s loss of newspapers, but his point is still valid.)

Like all elites, we use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others. Using words like “problematic,” “cisgender,” “Latinx” and “intersectional” is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells because they never know when we’ve changed the usage rules so that something that was sayable five years ago now gets you fired.

Brooks offers a number of other examples, and says it should be easy to understand why people in less-educated classes would feel “that they are under economic, political, cultural and moral assault — and why they’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class.”

Those who see themselves under assault see the Trump indictments as part of that class war.

Are Trump supporters right that the indictments are just a political witch hunt? Of course not. As a card-carrying member of my class, I still basically trust the legal system and the neutral arbiters of justice. Trump is a monster in the way we’ve all been saying for years and deserves to go to prison….

 We can condemn the Trumpian populists until the cows come home, but the real question is: When will we stop behaving in ways that make Trumpism inevitable?

It’s not that simple. There’s a great deal more to the story than Brooks’ analysis suggests.

But he isn’t wrong.

I Guess Indoctrination Failed..

I was reading a recent column by Dana Milbank--and appreciating the snark–when it hit me. Milbank was engaging in (very appropriate) takedown of several Republican high-profile opponents of those snobby American “elites,” and pointing out that all of them turn out to be privileged White male members of that same elite.

But the column brought to mind an even more annoying hypocrisy than the one Milbank was highlighting–the persistent Republican attacks on higher education for “indoctrinating” students with liberal ideas–accusations leveled by individuals who clearly escaped that supposedly inescapable indoctrination.

The charge has always been bogus, of course, for a number of reasons. As someone who taught at a university for more than 20 years, I can attest to the fact that just imparting facts–let alone inculcating ideologies at odds with those the student came with–is a lot harder than it looks. For that matter, the opportunities for “indoctrination” are pretty limited. As a recent column from the Palm Beach Post put it, most courses have nothing to do with social policy or politics. There’s no potential for “indoctrination” in algebra, construction management or chemistry.

The United States has thousands of small colleges and universities, many of them quite religious, that are less frequently accused of planting “socialist” predilections in their students than the Ivy League, elitist, hard-to-get-into universities. What about those hotbeds of “woke” philosophies? That’s where the indoctrination is occurring–right?

Um…not so much. Milbank brings the evidence.

He quotes Senator Tom Cotton who, during the confirmation hearings, said he “doesn’t want a justice who follows the “views of the legal elite,” (would that mean rejecting a nominee who pledges to follow precedent?) and later complaining that “a bunch of elite lawyers” such as nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson “think that sentences for child pornography are too harsh. I don’t and I bet a lot of normal Americans don’t, either.”

And where was this representative of “normal Americans” educated? Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

Then there’s Louisiana’s John Neely Kennedy, who routinely attacks the evil “managerial elite” of media, academics, bureaucrats and corporations. (Typical accusation: “This cabal think they are smarter and more virtuous than the American people.”)  This “man of the people” has a “degree with first class honors from Oxford University (Magdalen College),” and was Phi Beta Kappa at Vanderbilt. That was before he got elected by denouncing the “goat’s-milk-latte-drinkin’, avocado-toast-eating insider’s elite.”

Of course, we already know about Ted (“Do you know who I am?”) Cruz–who Bret Stephens recently described as a” one-man reminder of why sentient people hate politicians.” He graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law, and regularly inveighs against the “coastal elites.”

We’ve also seen more than enough of Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, formerly of Stanford University and Yale Law School. Hawley, as Milbank reminds us, fancies himself standing with the proletariat in “the great divide” between the “leadership elite and the great and broad middle of our society.”

Cruz, Hawley and Cotton are all contemplating presidential runs — where they might meet in the Republican primary another man of the people, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Trust the Elites,” and he rails routinely about “elites” trying to shove this or that “down the throats of the American people.”

Milbank has a number of other examples, and students of stunning hypocrisy will find his column well worth reading in its entirety. Whether you focus on the humbug of men who are obviously part of the “elite” pretending to be “just folks” or whether–like me–you ponder the abject failure of schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford to properly indoctrinate these strutting peacocks, a couple of conclusions are inescapable.

First, institutions of higher education are rather obviously failing to turn out graduates who’ve been successfully indoctrinated with a liberal philosophy. (For that matter, they don’t seem to be doing all that well instilling civility and simple honesty…Perhaps we should acknowledge that both sets of values come from a variety of sources outside the classroom.)

Second, despite how ridiculous they sound to many of us, these men aren’t stupid. They are promoting policies that they clearly know  to be dangerous and unfounded, and they are asserting “facts” that they just as clearly know to be out-and-out lies.

Stupidity is unfortunate, but inescapable and thus forgivable. A willingness to prostitute oneself for electoral advantage, a willingness to undermine democracy in order to appeal to an ignorant, frightened and angry GOP base– is not.


Elitism? Or Respect For Knowledge?

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic is that electing leaders who sneer at expertise and make war on science was a big mistake.

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis defended the federal bureaucracy, and pointed out how significantly the tasks they perform – from maintaining nuclear waste to  forecasting the weather–depends upon knowledge and training. In a recent interview, Lewis pointed to the Trump camp’s “glaring ignorance” of government’s responsibilities and the expertise required to discharge those responsibilities.

I’ve previously blogged about Trump’s effort to eject scientists from the federal bureaucracy–a fixation exceeded only by his determination to purge anyone responsible for oversight–but the excessive anti-intellectualism of this administration isn’t simply due to Trump. It’s the result of a longstanding Republican “culture war” strategy in which educated folks are demonized as “elitists.”

“Real” Americans don’t put on fancy airs, or point out when policies aren’t based on facts.

As the “Big Sort” has accelerated America’s cultural differences, the GOP has found it easier to sneer at the effete intellectuals who flocked to congenial urban neighborhoods.(I recently read that House Democrats represent 78 percent of all Whole Foods locations, but only 27 percent of Cracker Barrels.) Trump doesn’t understand much, but he does recognize that most of those remaining in the dwindling GOP- -whiter, older and more Christian than the country as a whole–don’t care about policy, or about voting what others might consider their own self-interest. They see themselves as an identity group under threat, and they’ll follow anyone who speaks to their sense of grievance. It’s easy to convince them that coastal “elitists” look down on them.

The GOP’s constant assault on knowledge, professionalism and education has had a predictable effect on trust in all the institutions necessary to democratic self-governance.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on the degree to which the erosion of trust has made us more vulnerable to this pandemic, and noted that Trump is “merely the apotheosis of a political approach that has animated much of the conservative movement for a half century or more: undermining trust in the media, science, and government.”

For America to minimize the damage from the current pandemic, the media must inform, science must innovate, and our government must administer like never before. Yet decades of politically-motivated attacks discrediting all three institutions, taken to a new level by President Trump, leave the American public in a vulnerable position.

Trump has consistently vilified the national media. When campaigning, he called the media “absolute scum” and “totally dishonest people.” As president, he has called news organizations “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” over and over. The examples are endless. Predictably, he has blamed the coronavirus crisis on the media, saying “We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media.”

Science has been another Trump target. He has gutted scientific expertise and administrative capacity in the executive branch, most notably failing to fill hundreds of vacancies in the Centers for Disease Control itself and disbanding the National Security Council’s taskforce on pandemics. During the coronavirus crisis, he has routinely disagreed with scientific experts, including, in the AP’s words, his “musing about injecting disinfectants into people [to treat COVID-19].” This follows his earlier public advocacy for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, also against leading scientists’ advice. Coupled with his flip-flopping on when to lift stay-at-home orders, the president has created confusion and endangered people.

Finally, President Trump has consistently demeaned essential government agencies, labeling them part of a “deep state.”

An article originally from Salon looked at the history of empiricism and its importance:

What Galileo established as separating science from other types of “revealed” truths was this: facts and the ability to make testable predictions mattered. There weren’t anymore your facts and my facts, neither were there facts and “alternative facts“. There weren’t revealed facts or aspirational facts. Facts came in only one flavor — observable. Observations, experiments, and reasoning based on reliable data became the only acceptable methods for discovering facts about the world.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt summed it up:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Since at least the 1960s, the GOP has waged a sneering assault on “elitists” who respect empirical inquiry, and pursue facts, knowledge and expertise. The result is that today’s Americans occupy alternate realities. Denigrating knowledge, however, is equivalent to a demand that we disarm the front-line soldiers fighting our wars.

That is no way to fight a pandemic–or run a country.

The War on Elites

Anti-elitism has become a conventional explanation for what is motivating the electorate in 2016 .

Let’s think about that.

An online dictionary defines “elite” as “something prestigious or the best of the best. An example of elite is an Olympic athlete. Another definition is “The group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.”

The use of Olympic athletes as an example is particularly ironic; right now, millions of Americans are glued to televised Olympic competitions, and I’d bet a considerable amount of money that none of them is rooting for our teams to demonstrate less “elitism.”

In fact, I think there are two pervasive–and very different– American attitudes that get lumped–improperly– into the “anti-elitist” category.

Americans are increasingly critical of the misuse of money and power to the detriment of democratic processes that might otherwise ameliorate or solve our social problems. This attitude powered Bernie Sanders’ campaign; it explains the large following that Elizabeth Warren has amassed. It is not anti-elite, however; it is anti-corporatist, anti-oligarchy. It offers a critique of the current power structure that is likely to grow and eventually trigger policy changes that will improve the life prospects for poor and middle-class Americans.

The second attitude that is routinely lumped into the anti-elitist narrative is anti-intellectualism–an attitude that has long been America’s Achilles heel. Suspicion of “pointy-headed” intellectuals has ebbed and flowed through our country’s history; that attitude is responsible for a widespread rejection of science, the arts, and the humanities, among other negative consequences.

An article in Psychology Today addressed Americans’shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science have been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”…

Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”

When a society elevates anger over understanding, shows contempt for knowledge, dismisses the importance of competence, and prefers entertainment to substantive discussion, we wind up with political candidates like Donald Trump–and a government that no longer functions in the public interest.

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?