How Ivy League Elites Turned Against Democracy

Some of the best-educated people in the country have overseen the destruction of their institutions.

Red, blue, and green college pennants with one of the words in the phrase "Stop the Steal" on each of them
The Atlantic

Updated at 11:59 a.m. ET on January 5, 2022.

One of the most indelible images from the January 6 Capitol riot was of Josh Hawley, junior senator for Missouri, graduate of Stanford and Yale Law, raising his fist in support of a riotous mob that would shortly endanger his own life and the life of the institution to which he belonged. Almost immediately after he encouraged the rioters, he found himself in a secured room, being defended from them.

​At that moment of supreme crisis, Hawley represented one of the deepest mysteries of the current American predicament: why some of the best-educated men and women in the country, the most invested in its power, the luckiest, have overseen the destruction of their institutions like spoiled teenagers smashing up their parents’ house on a weekend bender.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” Abraham Lincoln asked in his Lyceum Address. “I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” America is approaching the fulfillment of this calamitous prediction. But Lincoln could never have predicted that America’s destruction would come from its most privileged people, that it would be a suicide of the elites.

​American populism has always been something of a misnomer. For one thing, Donald Trump never won the popular vote. For another, populists tend to be economically left-wing, and the policies of Trump’s government did nothing to restrict corporate interests or the tech monopolies. His inner circle was every bit as much a part of the American elite as its opponents—Steven Mnuchin (Yale ’85), Ben Carson (Yale ’73), Wilbur Ross (Yale ’59), Stephen Schwarzman (Yale ’69), Jared Kushner (Harvard ’03), Steve Bannon (Harvard ’85), Mike Pompeo (Harvard Law ’94), and, of course, Trump himself (University of Pennsylvania, ’68). Trump’s inaugural Cabinet had more Harvard alumni than Obama’s. In the aftermath of January 6, many of the strongest supporters of the stolen-election theory have been Ivy League graduates. Ted Cruz (Princeton ’92)  was one of the first to challenge the election’s certification, and Kayleigh McEnany (Harvard Law ’16) actively spread fraud claims as the president’s press secretary. Elise Stefanik, who graduated from Harvard in 2006 and is the youngest Republican woman elected to Congress, has described Donald Trump as the “strongest supporter of any president when it comes to standing up for the Constitution.”

​Trump’s most remarkable ability as a leader was, and is, his capacity to convince elite people, the people his vanity demands he hire, to destroy their reputation and their career in his service. No fewer than 11 Trump supporters who ran his presidential campaigns or his administration have been indicted, yet he never lacks highly educated and successful people to work for him. The death drive has entered American politics.

​The icon of this period is not Trump but Oregon State Representative Mike Nearman (not an Ivy Leaguer, to be clear), who opened the back door of the Oregon legislature to rioters after posting a video saying he would let them in, calling it “Operation Hall Pass.” The crazy part isn’t even that Nearman promoted the vandalism of his own institution. The crazy part is that, after Nearman opened the door at the back of the legislature, he walked around to the front entrance, to await the violence that he had encouraged. In that folly, Nearman represents a generation—one feeding the rage that will eventually consume it.

​The Josh Hawleys and Mike Nearmans of this world embody an inherent contradiction. They are trying to be government representatives for anti-government patriots. They are attempting to be the elite of the anti-elites. In 2020, Joe Biden won 60 percent of college-educated voters. Biden-voting counties were responsible for 70 percent of the GDP. America’s less-educated and less-productive citizens drive anti-government patriotism, both in its armed and elected wings, but they mostly, despite themselves, pick their representatives from the ranks of the Ivy League and other similarly elite institutions around the country. Even in their rage against elites, the anti-elitists fall back on the deep structure of American power.

​Despite the hyper-partisanship that is roiling the United States, Ivy League dominance transcends political affiliation. And many of the most prominent people fighting to keep American institutions alive come from the Ivy League, too. But what I’ve described so far—GOP elites turning with petulant ferocity on the institutions from which they derive their power—is new. The failure of the elites who have always run the country—on the left, in the middle, and on the right—is not. The greatest study of the failure of American expertise is still David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest; it was written before I was born, but the process it describes, in rich detail, has been more or less completely replicated twice in my lifetime. Institutionally approved people, the top men and women, with the best intentions and the fullest education and access to the best available information, create elaborate policies that misunderstand the most basic facts about the world, leading to immense suffering for ordinary people. That is the Ivy League way— “brilliant policies that defied common sense,” in Halberstam’s phrasing.

​​Once, after Lyndon B. Johnson rattled off the list of experts who were helping fight the Vietnam War, his friend Sam Rayburn replied, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” The Afghan and Iraq Wars were a consensus policy among both Republican and Democratic elites in the civil service, in the political class, and in the media. The repetition poses an important question: Given that America has been let down, repeatedly, by members of the same expert class, why does it keep relying on them?

​The answer lies in the specific nature of Ivy League elitism, which is an aristocracy of networks. Ivy League graduates make up 0.4 percent of the country. They are significantly overrepresented in Fortune 500 C-suites, in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, in academia, and in the media. Biden/Harris was the first presidential ticket in 44 years without an Ivy League alumnus on board. For a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court consisted of nothing but Ivy League graduates. And these entities are exclusive and self-perpetuating. Legacies at Harvard are accepted at a rate of nearly 34 percent, compared with just 5.9 percent of ordinary people. Being born to it isn’t the only way in: Buying admittance is the simplest. (Charles Kushner gave Harvard $250,000 a year for 10 years to guarantee admission for his meritless son.)

​Whoever attends has been established in the architecture of power before they have had a chance to do anything, and that is key: The network gives power. The aristocracy of the network provides opportunity and security, both materially and spiritually. The network cradles and protects. None of the politicians or journalists or intellectuals who set in motion the past 70 years of failed wars faced any significant consequences for their failures. Quite the opposite. Those who resisted those wars demonstrated that they weren’t part of the network and therefore remained excluded even after they were proved right, while those who failed showed that they were reliably part of the network and therefore remained inside. The network responds to external threats by tightening. As long as you belong, you’ll be fine.

What the Ivy League produces, in spades, on both the left and the right, is unwarranted confidence. Its institutions are hubris factories. At the bottom of the current collapse of the American political order is a very basic, very widespread distrust of all kinds of institutions, and that distrust is based on ordinary Americans’ distrust of the hubristic people who run those institutions. Can you blame them? The same people who told Americans that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction are now telling them to get vaccinated. Mistrust is inevitable.

​For Republicans, the power of the network explains, at least in part, the perverse psychology of the suicidal elites. The network gives them meaning, and to be cast out of that network is to suffer meaninglessness, so they do whatever it takes, become whoever they need to become, to stay inside the circuits of power. Their behavior appears paradoxical from the outside—Josh Hawley, senator, raising his fist to support the ravaging of the Senate—but from the inside, the logic is immaculate: The clearest way he can keep himself in the Senate is to promote its ravaging.

​In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon could not decide on the ultimate cause of the empire’s destruction. Was it the result of individual failures, such as those of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Caligula? Or were trends beyond anyone’s control, such as the rise of Christianity and the geographical limitations of expansion, to blame? In the case of the United States, the deeper trends are clear—the hyper-partisanship rendering the country ungovernable on a federal level, the high levels of vertical and horizontal inequality, the environmental degradation. But the truth is that no country can survive when the leaders of its institutions actively work toward the destruction of those institutions. Mike Pompeo graduated first in his class from West Point and served as editor of the Harvard Law Review. When a man of those advantages oversees the hollowing out of the State Department, allows the president to fire inspectors general who displease him by their inspection, uses his position to cultivate donors for his party, and consistently bends the norms and destroys the traditions that have lifted him to power, what hope can there be for his country? If he cannot manage to keep faith with the system, who can?

​The response to the January 6 riot is a surer sign of political breakdown than the riot itself. Almost half of the men and women whose lives were threatened refuse to participate in the commission to investigate the violence against themselves. Obfuscation and diminishment of the event have become the standard Republican position at this point—held on to by Ivy Leaguers and others with equal capacity for motivated forgetting. Neither the most sophisticated education nor common sense seems to make much difference. They cannot bring themselves to defend government even when their physical security is at stake.

Lenin famously said that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” He didn’t get it quite right. The enemies of the United States have nowhere near as much capacity to damage its interests as do its most educated and most celebrated citizens. Nobody needs to sell Americans rope; they are braiding it themselves.

This piece previously misstated that Elise Stefanik is the youngest woman elected to Congress.