What Do Conservatives Mean When They Attack the 'Ivy League'?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In Anne Applebaum's Washington Post column last week, she questioned the animosity of some conservatives toward the Ivy League. This isn't the fifties, she argued, and berating people for attending good colleges--deriding them as "elites"--is not only outdated but counterproductive. Michelle Obama may have attended Princeton and Harvard, but she hardly came from a wealthy, "elite" WASP family. Neither, added Applebaum, did Yale alumnus Clarence Thomas.

Since we covered the column, it's attracted spirited debate around. What, exactly do conservatives mean when they talk scornfully about "Ivy Leaguers"? And is Applebaum right to think those graduating from Yale and Harvard deserve, if not praise, at least freedom from derision?

  • Spare Us the Pity for Powerful Graduates  "For Applebaum," writes National Review's Jonah Goldberg, "the fact that the elite graduated from top-tier schools is all the proof she needs that these people deserve to be in charge." But his main problem is that "she doesn't seem to grasp, let alone acknowledge, that it’s only one subset of Ivy Leaguers that seems to bother anybody on the right: the lawyer-social engineers-journalist-activists they churn out by the boatload." In other words: the people who "think they are entitled to cajole, nudge, command and denigrate the rest of America." Neither he nor the Tea Party, he hastens to add, has any problem with Ivy League "engineers, physicists, cardiologists, accountants, biologist, archeologists," etc.
  • Well, Conservatives Could Acknowledge the Ivy League Conservatives, writes one of Goldberg's readers. The reader recalls arguing with any number of liberal professors in the Ivy League setting: "Every class, every discussion is stacked against us. And the only thanks we ever seem to get from conservative writers is to be rhetorically roped in with the people we spend all our time arguing against."
  • A Response from Applebaum  Goldberg defends "anti-elitist rhetoric" by saying that it is narrow, aimed at "the liberals, the Obamas, 'a very specific and very self-styled elite,'" responds Applebaum. "He should listen harder, because in fact the rhetoric is far more sweeping than that, encompassing not only liberals but anyone with higher eduction." She points to examples of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Christine O'Donnell making offhand remarks about the Ivy League. "There may be many things wrong with it," she continues, "but Harvard Law School is no longer 'elitist' in the traditional, landed-gentry sense of the term." Moreover, she adds, "perhaps it's not surprising that this issue has tied conservative intellectuals in knots": the National Review itself is shot through with East Coast elite pedigrees, starting with that of its founder, William F. Buckley.
  • 'Attacking the Ivy League Is ... Shorthand,' protests Jonah Goldberg--and a shorthand, he argues, with a long tradition.
When conservatives zing the Ivy League or the educational elite, they are no more offering an omnibus indictment of educational excellence than liberals are denouncing all Texans when they take potshots at George W. Bush's Texan roots. Similarly, when Yalie George H. W. Bush stuck it to Michael Dukakis for his views borrowed from "Harvard Yard," he was not offering a plenary indictment of academic excellence generally. Rather, he was speaking idiomatically about certain types of people who tend to hail from the Ivy Leagues. I find it simply bizarre that Applebaum cannot or will not grant the possibility that certain words and phrases in political discourse have a valence different than their black-letter meaning.
  • And William Buckley Was No Elitist  In fact, "he was practically born kicking against the establishment," adds fellow National Reviewer Jay Nordlinger. "What was his first book? God and Man at Yale. Not a valentine to Yale or the Ivy League."
  • Shorthand for What, Exactly?  "As Jonah explains," writes conservative black sheep David Frum, "when conservatives attack 'elites,' they do not mean to indict all members of such elites. They only mean to indict such members as disagree with them. Populist resentment in the service of an unstated ideology: What could be more straightforward or honest than that?"
  • Points on Both Sides  Applebaum, writes DougJ at Balloon Juice, "blithely accepts ...  the notion that our society is meritocratic--something that seems ridiculous for anyone in national media to do, given what a stagnant old boys' sewer it is--but she actually does make some good points." That said, he continues, "there's more misguided pseudo-intellectualism ... than overt anti-intellectualism among teatards, from what I can see." He mentions, for example, Glenn Beck, Ayn Rand, and "the strange fixation with Hayek." The way he sees it,
Modern conservatism is about wealthy, often elitely educated people getting what they want by playing head games with middle-class white voters. It's not about turning over any kind of social order, "meritocratic" or otherwise.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.