The Double Standard That Lets Elites Survive Even Catastrophic Failures

To be taken seriously, those who critique the powerful must be flawless, whereas society forgives the most egregious errors in judgment of the elites themselves.
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If my friends and I were billionaires, we'd probably throw a party for ourselves at least once a year. Boy, would it be more fun than gathering in tuxedos at a hotel ballroom for a rack-of-lamb dinner, frat-boy jokes, and a lame amateur talent show. That's what happens at the annual group dinner of Kappa Beta Phi, where typical attendees include "many of the most famous investors in the world, including executives from nearly every too-big-to-fail bank, private equity megafirm, and major hedge fund," says journalist Kevin Roose, who snuck into the event in 2012. 

The group included "many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy ... and they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark," he wrote, noting that one skit was "a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA's 'Dancing Queen' called 'Bailout King.'" The night "amounted to a gigantic middle finger to Main Street," he added, concluding that Wall Street plutocrats are divorced from reality. "No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles," he declared. "Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis."

He sounds more shocked than I would've been. The night was obviously in terrible taste. But was it any worse than President Obama joking about killing the Jonas Brothers with a drone? Or a Dick Cheney roast featuring jokes about his war crimes? Depraved humor can be harmless at times, too. Hang around a bunch of firefighters or doctors or teachers long enough and you'll hear tasteless utterances. 

What isn't harmless are the subset of villains on Wall Street, the havoc that they wrought, or the socialized losses they imposed on us. Reminded of their misdeeds, Rod Dreher wonders why America seems to be back to business as usual:

Those elites get away with it because we either don’t know what to do about them, or can’t muster the political focus and will to do anything at all about them. After the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we couldn’t even get a proper Pecora Commission. Then again, Pecora got to be Pecora because the American public of the 1930s demanded it. Us? Not so much. Why not? ... What has changed about American culture to make us so unserious about these things?

By way of an answer, I want to challenge the premise of the question. The financial crisis triggered substantial grassroots movements on the right and the left.

The Tea Party reshaped the United States Congress. Occupy Wall Street inspired tens or hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets, and many thousands to camp out in the centers of numerous U.S. cities. The people behind these populist protest movements were earnest in their civic concerns and serious enough to spend time and money on organizing the like-minded. 

Why have their protests been ineffective so far?

There are so many reasons, and some of them involve flaws in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street themselves. I've written myself about their various shortcomings.

But their shortcomings should never have distracted us from their most valid critiques, any more than scattered "Bush = Hitler" signs at 2002 anti-Iraq War rallies should've distracted us from the fact that invading the country was bad geopolitics. 

There are a lot of reasons that elites keep their place at the top even after being party to catastrophic failures. One reason is their success in delegitimizing their critics. There's often a lot of material to work with. If you spent any time at an Occupy Wall Street camp, you met a lot of great people, a number of ignorant protest groupies, and committees that chose the least workable form of group governance imaginable. Tea Party rallies were filled with both competents and crazies too. As were anti-war rallies.

The public was right to be wary of flaws and excesses, but anyone who dismissed these groups entirely because of them was part of the problem. And that was pretty common. For some reason, the press is complicit in a system by which groups challenging elites are deemed unserious due to the presence of any incompetent or radical fringe ... whereas, say, presiding over 9/11, and then responding with a radical program of torture and a catastrophic war gets a president reelected and celebrated; and a Wall Street meltdown is followed by a bailout and record bonuses. To be taken seriously, those who critique elites must be without flaws, whereas the elites themselves are forgiven their most egregious errors in judgment. 

A similar dynamic is playing out with Edward Snowden.

Higher-ups in the NSA have retained their jobs despite perjury, an unprecedented theft of U.S. data due to inadequate security procedures, international embarrassment, furious legislators, and numerous constitutional violations. Yet many side with the NSA rather than Snowden because, as they explain it, he fled to Russia, took more documents than he absolutely needed, and sounds arrogant. They wanted a whistleblower like Mary Poppins: practically perfect. 

Well, the people who critique elites are seldom perfect. Let's stop making that a deal-breaker. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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