A Cartoon Elite

The voguish idea that America is run by a small group of brainy people is a wild exaggeration, but it has its political uses.

Cartoon of cartoon elite

 

POPULISTS used to hate the rich, but now they hate the elite. This shift has made possible the migration of populism from the Democratic to the Republican Party. At this year's Republican convention the elite took it on the chin in the acceptance speeches of both Jack Kemp ("They think they know better than the people") and Bob Dole ("Within the Clinton Administration [is] a corps of the elite who . . . never did anything real"). The conservative notion of the elite has some internal variations -- Dan Quayle's "cultural elite" isn't quite the same as Newt Gingrich's "corrupt elite." But at its core the notion is descended from two books published in the late 1950s by left-wing politicians on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy and Milovan Djilas's The New Class.

From Young came the idea that not long after a society institutes mass educational sorting based on the results of IQ tests, a distinct high-IQ ruling class will begin to emerge. Because of the tendency of people in this class to marry fellow students at highly selective universities and pass on their IQ-rich genes to their offspring, over time the meritocratic upper class will more and more resemble a hereditary aristocracy. If this class absorbs the left-wing views that prevail in the universities, then once it is in power, it will resemble the arrogant Communist bureaucracy that was the subject of Djilas's book. The emotional charge of conservative attacks on organizations like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, and on more-amorphous institutions like the news media, Hollywood, and the Washington establishment, comes from the idea that they are made up of superior-feeling, isolated New Class members who want to force their cultural mores on ordinary folks whom they despise.

Populism usually arises from a general discontent that precedes the identification of a specific villain. People feel that things are out of control, socially and economically. Men without higher education, especially, have dramatically lost ground over the past two decades. The idea that this is the fault of the meritocratic elite is an easy sell.

The pampered meritocrat has become the contemporary equivalent of the Organization Man of the 1950s -- a symbol of the age for purposes of middlebrow hand-wringing. A typical description of the type comes from an article by Michael Lind in Harper's Magazine.

 

The closer you come to the centers of American politics and society, the more everyone begins to look the same. . . . the people who run big business bear a remarkable resemblance to the people who run big labor, who in turn might be mistaken for the people in charge of the media and the universities. They are the same people. . . . most of the members of the American elites went to one of a dozen Ivy League colleges or top state universities. . . . They talk the same. They walk the same.

Christopher Lasch's last book, (published posthumously), limns the meritocratic elite -- which he called "the new aristocracy of brains," or "the knowledge class" -- but in a much more venomous way. In his previous book, The True and Only Heaven (1991), Lasch presented himself as the champion of a provincial lower-middle-class culture in which the highest good is community, not the fulfillment of ambition, and identified with a "petty bourgeoisie" of "small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen, and farmers," which he admired for "its moral realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress." In The Revolt of the Elites he did not change this position at all, but he directed his energies toward damning the people he disliked rather than praising the ones he admired. Also, although all of Lasch's books have a patchwork quality, The Revolt of the Elites especially does: it is a slim collection of reworked articles, and so careens from subject to subject. This, along with the strength of his animus toward his subjects, means that Lasch never patiently laid out a theory of who the members of the elite are and where they came from.

It's easy, though, to extract a picture of them from the book. They have a "growing insularity," they inhabit "an artificial world," they spend too much time talking, exercising, and going to restaurants, they are excessively mobile -- "at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort" -- and some partake of a sob-sisterish brand of social-issue liberalism,

 

a liberalism obsessed with the rights of women and minorities, with gay rights and unlimited abortion rights, with the allegedly epidemic spread of child abuse and sexual harassment, with the need for regulations against offensive speech, and with curricular reforms designed to end the cultural hegemony of "dead white European males."

The implication is that American life can be understood as a grand struggle between these people and the petit bourgeoisie: everything that helps the former hurts the latter. For example, "feminism's appeal to the professional and managerial class" is simply that it "provides the indispensable basis of their prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish way of life." Meanwhile, in the lower-middle class feminism doesn't bring gaudiness, but it does mean that the children wind up parked in front of the television set. The elite gets richer, and ordinary people lose ground economically. The elite migrates, and ordinary people remain in their deteriorating neighborhoods. The elite promotes cosmopolitanism, and ordinary people feel their steady, traditional, provincial civic life slipping away.

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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