What's the Value of an Ivy Degree to a Tea Party Candidate?

In politics, what is the value of any Ivy League education?

The answer this year might be: a certain ability to walk a very fine line.

Consider that two of the Tea Party's most potent insurgents, Joe Miller in Alaska and Ken Buck in Colorado, possess Ivy League graduate degrees. The progressive left's most interesting bomb-thrower, Rep. Alan Grayson from Florida, has one too.

Courting the energized wings of their parties and somehow making sure that middle-of-the-road folks aren't too put out requires a certain rhetorical and presentational sophistication. Buck, Miller, and Grayson have interview skills, spin skills, "wink wink, nod nod" skills ... an ability to keep insiders calm while keeping outsiders happy.

Two Tea Party candidates who lack presentational skills are Nevada Senate GOP nominee Sharron Angle and potential Delaware nominee Christine O'Donnell. These two can barely get through even a sympathetic interview.

This says nothing about the Ivies, or about the relative merits of these candidates ... only about the way they come off to people who aren't necessarily inclined to agree with them politically. Ivy League educations aim to groom their graduates to be among society's most productive, successful members. Getting a degree implies an ability to get along with elitists, even if you don't like them and think they're ruining the country.

Seven of the last 11 major-party presidential candidates (Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Bush 41, Dukakis), including all of the winners sans Ronald Reagan, have possessed an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard or Yale.

When the Republicans tried to paint Sen. John Kerry as effete, they used his Yale education as part of their populist attack. There is no way to really measure how the American public at large considers an Ivy League education when evaluating a candidate, other than to say that it probably does not matter much.

As America has become a multiracial democracy, Ivy degrees are becoming fairly mainstream achievements for middle-class, second-generation immigrant children, and for African Americans and American Indians. For the most part, these degrees are not a mark of white-skinned privilege. Ironically, they have achieved a stigma among whites of a certain political-geographical orientation.

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland uses two social groups, the Franklins and the Orthogonians, at Richard Nixon's college in Whittier, California, to describe how Nixon's famous "bundle of resentments" against Ivy Leaguers became a dominant trope of mainstream conservative populism, one that still resonates today. The Franklins were people who had it made, who thought they knew best, who valued their education over real-world experience; the Orthogonians (Nixon belonged to this club) were self-made, constantly being told they had to prove themselves, to better themselves. Part of the irritation stems from the perception that Ivy Leaguers look out for themselves and don't care about others. That they select from among their own and treat others poorly.

Jonathan Raban sees it as an American version of French Poujadism:

Contempt for metropolitan elites, fueling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.

It's common to whites in rural areas who think they are overtaxed and over-bothered by the encroachments of a cosmopolitan society.

Ironically, the folks most able to exploit this phenomenon are often products of the cosmopolitan meritocracy (autocracy?) that they purport to disdain, as even Bill Buckley, the man who said he would rather be governed by the first 200 names of the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty, said about 20 years after he graduated from Yale.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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