America’s Elite Class

Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:

Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”

I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.

Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:

Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.

Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.

The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.

Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”

Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.

Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.

As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.

And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.

The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?

Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.

I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)

The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?

What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).

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Why the Personal is not Political

President Obama explained why policy is such a poor instrument for addressing something as personal as race relations:

But this is always one of the challenges of politics: It can never capture all the complexity and contradictions in life. So you end up having to try to be true in a way that can be consumed for a mass audience, but you’re always missing some elements of it. You’re always leaving some things out.

And that’s part of the reason why race is such a difficult thing to deal with in politics, because the evolution of racial identity, racial relationships, institutional racism, is never similar. The trajectory, I believe, has been positive. But anything you say on the topic of race, there’s a counterargument, there’s an exception, there’s a nuance. There’s a, Wait, hold on a minute, how about that? And that’s part of the reason why, I think, it creates frustration. It’s also why it’s easy to demagogue. It’s also why situations that look ambiguous can lead to people dividing into camps very quickly.

Justice is one thing. Politeness is another.

Who’s Afraid of NSA?

What with the news and controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and Wikileaks an average American might think his privacy no longer exists. Everything we do on-line or by phone is closely monitored by people who work deed deep in the federal government’s deep state.

Have I got good news for libertarians. On the way to the airport this morning I learned thanks to the Federalist Radio Hour that the reason the Affordable Care Act rolled out so poorly was that feds could not verify personal incomes of people signing up for the new health care plan. Enrollees entered their digits and the government had to go through too many layers of records, and even then could not tell how much someone made.

Imagine that. NSA and Homeland Security and the Defense Intelligence Agency may know your caloric intake thanks to the Fitbit you are wearing, but they can’t even tell how much you make.

Is this a great country, or what?

It’s Fascist When You Exclude the Universities?

Michael Kinsley thinks Donald Trump qualifies technically as a fascist:

The game has several names: “Corporate statism” is one. In Europe, they call it “dirigisme.” Those two other words for it — “Nazism” and “fascism” — are now beyond all respectability. It means, roughly, combining the power of the state with the power of corporations. At its mildest, it is intrusive regulations on business about parental leave and such. At its most toxic, it is concentration camps. In the 1930s, a few Americans (including a few liberals) bought into it. Pearl Harbor ended that argument. Even for Trump, “fascism” itself now is a dirty word, not just a policy choice. Even Trump would not use it — least of all about himself.

Did Kinsley worry about combining the power of the state with the power and prestige (we’re the smartest people in the world) of universities? It’s not as if nothing could go wrong (beware the negatives):

Indeed, illiberal progressive elitism has only become more pervasive as the gap between the “educated and the ignorant” has widened.

With the rise of think tanks, research universities, and advocacy foundations and nonprofits—the vast, interlocking, insulated complex we’ve constructed to formulate, advocate, and execute public policy—we have only reinforced the barrier between the everyday voter and governance. In order to understand, much less engage in, today’s abstract, detached, and data-saturated discourse of public policy, participants require ever more specialized academic expertise. If a problem can’t be expressed in a statistical formula—with the obliteration of nuance, detail, and local variability this entails—then the problem simply doesn’t exist.

What we now call the “rise of the meritocracy” may have begun well over a century ago. But as it accelerates today, its costs are becoming more apparent. The meritocrats sort themselves out not only socially, but geographically as well, into coastal and university enclaves. There, in a contemporary bow to positive eugenics, they engage in assortative mating. Their children then follow the sheltered path from university day school to Princeton to a career in social entrepreneurship, convinced that they can “change the world,” as the slogan goes, without ever touching down in that vast swath of cultural desolation unhappily separating Nassau Hall from Palo Alto. The distance between the “educated and ignorant” grows ever larger, both literally and figuratively.

You could also call this “corporate statism” since the biggest and smartest universities in the U.S. are corporations whose assets tax collectors cannot touch.

It’s Only POTUS

Michael Brendan Dougherty echoes the point that presidential elections are destroying America (and so we should let Congress pick POTUS):

The length of our presidential campaign atrophies self-governance. Instead of citizens governing themselves, Americans increasingly define their political lives by their membership in one tribe, and their support for its candidates. Instead of electing a leader, we pledge fealty as followers.

The bulk of our attention flows to the presidential race. And because there is so much attention there, the process attracts candidates who are merely seeking attention for themselves and not high office. In fact, that may be why the primaries feel more and more like reality television, and produced a reality TV president. Each debate is a new episode, and the political press waits for the latest news about which contestant is eliminated.

Because our mode of engaging with politics feels tribal, and because the process takes two years, many people experience it as a crushing psychological and social blow to be on the losing side. Citizens who identify with the losing presidential candidate feel like they are no longer a part of their country. They experience the transfer of the executive branch from one party to the other as a regime change that threatens them. Remember the red and blue maps of Jesusland and America that appeared during the Bush administration? Back then there was heady talk of Vermont seceding from the union to become a bastion of tolerance. Fast forward a few years, and conservatives were the ones spreading stories about Texas’ secession. This is not healthy. But it’s going to continue if we don’t begin to tame the presidential election itself.

The presidential election increases our sense that all issues are national issues. Even people who say they are addicted to politics often have no idea what is happening in their state or county government.

Dougherty adds a point that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Jed Bartlet, the POTUS on West Wing, should take to heart:

One cause for the gigantism of our presidential election is the gigantism of the executive branch. The federal government employs more than 2 million people in the process of governing us.

Too bad that Sorkin doesn’t seem to recognize the monster that he fed (even if he did not create). His letter to his wife and daughters was typically hysterical (thanks to one of our southern correspondents):

White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate. Men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly, and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration struck a blow for misogynistic s‑‑‑heads everywhere.

But if POTUS were little more than a glorified dog catcher, would the stakes be so high?