Elites and the Tea Party

by Conor Friedersdorf

There is no single impulse that explains the Tea Party movement, but among its various catalysts, this one is noteworthy:

Our new meritocratic masters have been more conspicuously smart than wise. They know a lot, but don't know what they don't know. Their self-regard as the modern Americans who are the "natural aristocrats" Jefferson looked for has left them with an exaggerated sense of their own noblesse, and a deficient awareness of their corresponding oblige. Their expectation that the rest of us will be deferential to their expertise, like citizens of European nations that are social but not especially political democracies, has triggered the Tea Party backlash, and the resurgence of the "Don't Tread on Me" spirit.

As a result, eloquent promises about how government can be expanded to the benefit of all while taxes are increased only for a very few, and how ingenious new programs can make health care simultaneously more extensive and less expensive, are setting off alarms. These assurancesthat when common sense tells us that something isn't possible while expert analysis tells us that it is, our common sense is the thing that needs to be adjustedsound ominously familiar. Wasn't it just the other day that brainiacs with MBAs were telling us that, no, it was not dangerous for people with modest incomes to purchase expensive houses with zero-down, adjustable-rate mortgages? Since we didn't go to Wharton and weren't conversant with the esoteric innovations in financial derivatives and securitization that had taken the risk out of taking risks, we didn't know enough to set aside our unfounded fears that all this highly leveraged borrowing would end badly.

This critique ought to be extended. The rosier predictions regarding the Iraq war and the notion that we're always on the side of the Laffer curve that enables costless tax cuts are as much examples of smart meritocrats defying common sense.

William Voegeli goes on to write:

It's when the people running the country are both disrespectful and ineffectual that folks get angry.That anger will culminate in the replacement of America's "entire political establishment," Herbert Meyer, an intelligence official in the Reagan Administration, recently argued on the conservative website, American Thinker.

A lesser conservative writer would've stopped there, but Mr. Voegeli gives us this astute assessment of how difficult a project the Tea Party is actually taking on by his lights:

...it's not clear that America has a relief establishment warming up in the bullpen. The country's last establishment swap saw the replacement of what the journalist Nicholas Lemann called "the Episcopacy" with the meritocracy. It was, importantly, a revolution from above. "From the 1880s to the 1960s," in David Frum's useful summary, "the American governing elite was drawn from the distinguished families of New England and New York, promoted by friendships and family connections to the high offices of the land." The Episcopacy had a strong sense of its social obligations, which culminated in the realization that its aristocratic position in a democratic nation was anomalous and ultimately untenable. As recounted by Lemann in The Big Test (1999) and Geoffrey Kabaservice in The Guardians (2004), the Episcopacy's final public service was to commit mass-suicide. It intentionally transformed famous colleges from finishing schools for gentlemen into institutions that vetted bright, talented kids from throughout the social order, then equipped them with the training and, equally important, the self-assurance necessary to handle the country's highest responsibilities. As a result, writes Frum, today's "governing class is a meritocratic elite. For most members of this elite, the decisive event in their lives was the arrival in the mail of an acceptance packet from a great university."

If the Tea Party movement wants a new establishment to replace the Achievatrons, it's going to find that the current establishment, unlike the Episcopacy, is not the least bit conflicted about its right to run the country. As the late Christopher Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites (1995), "Meritocracy is a parody of democracy.... Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit." The Eternal Valedictorians don't suffer fools gladly, and are quick to conclude that anyone who disagrees with them is a fool. Questions about their judgments are challenges to their intelligence and expertise, which, in turn, form the entire basis for their vast self-regard and the privileged, powerful lives they lead...

Unlike the Episcopacy, then, the valedictocracy will not go quietly, and it will not groom its successor. Before settling on the convulsive course of evicting the Achievatrons from their positions of power, the Tea Party movement would be well-advised to continue reflecting on whether America's problem is this establishment or an establishment. An alternative reading of what the Tea Party movement does and should want is not a better establishment but a less autonomous establishment, subject to the checks and balances of a re-engaged citizenry and a re-invigorated Constitution that constrains its discretion.

There's a lot to grapple with there. Here's one succinct way to put the question to Tea Party leaders: if we're choosing our ruling class the wrong way now, what alternative do you recommend? I'd actually love to hear Helen Rittelmeyer weigh in on this question, as I know she's done a lot of deep thinking about it.