Politics & Policy

Rotten Elites Give a Bad Name to Elitism

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Conservatives have a great deal to say about “elites” and “elitism” just now, most of it denunciatory.

We have a funny kind of anti-elitism, though, as men with every important politician on speed dial, men who have not seen the inside of a commercial airliner in decades, wax rapturous about the prospects of a Manhattan real-estate heir who is fond of playing the soundtrack from Cats at his campaign events. Perhaps playing “Memory” at high volume is a very subtle jibe at Mrs. Clinton, a political Grizabella if ever there were one.

Pat Buchanan, who practically grew up on Air Force One and hasn’t had an unpublished thought in 40 years, complains that “Republican party elites” are being beastly to that nice man Donald Trump. “There is a plot afoot in the Washington Post Conservative Club to purge Trump from the Republican Party before the primaries begin,” he wrote over the summer. In case you’re wondering, “Washington Post Conservative Club” means “George Will.” Will is something of a hate object for the populist Right at the moment, having had the bad taste to suggest that Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Reagan is a poor piece of work. “You’re a hack!” O’Reilly raged. O’Reilly, who attended private schools, holds a graduate degree from Harvard, and is paid $20 million a year to read aloud to his audience on Fox News, dismissed Will as an “elitist.”

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Perhaps “elitist” now simply means “Burn the Witch!” It is indeed difficult to think of a definition of “elite” that excludes Pat Buchanan, once a president’s right hand and still an enormously influential voice in public affairs, or Bill O’Reilly, the most prominent face of the country’s most successful cable news network. Sometimes “elite” means a person with ties to the formal leadership of the Republican party or to organs of government, which again would include Buchanan, a former Nixon aide, and any number of professedly anti-elitist tea-party veterans who are actual senators, representatives, and governors. Ted Cruz boasts that “Washington elites despise me,” which is awfully buttery rhetoric for a man who is, after all, a United States senator — one who very well may be the next president of these United States. If the Senate isn’t the establishment, there is no establishment.  

If today conservatives have become the partisans of a classless society, it may be because our elite institutions show so little class.

Conservatives haven’t always been quite so egalitarian — egalitarianism was in fact a conservative bugaboo from the beginning of time until about five minutes ago. “It is not a sign of arrogance for the king to rule,” as William F. Buckley put it. “That is what he is there for.” Considering Oliver Wendell Holmes’s relativistic credo — “I happen to prefer champagne to ditchwater, but there is no reason to suppose that the cosmos does” — the founders of this journal lamented: “We have come around to Mr. Holmes’ view, so much that we feel gentlemanly doubts when asserting the superiority of capitalism to socialism, of republicanism to centralism, of champagne to ditchwater — of anything to anything.” Russell Kirk in his conservative canons included among them the “conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’”

If today conservatives (or at least a faction of us) have become the partisans of a classless society, it may be because our elite institutions show so little class. Donald Trump is a terrific vulgarian, but at least he’s gilding the toilet fixtures on his own dime. The idiot children at Yale and Princeton — who are simply a variation on the Trumpkin outrage theater, suffering a different species of diaper rash — are being bought off by the cowardly administrators on those campuses with tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money.

#share#While taking a properly libertarian notice of the fact that these are private institutions and that what goes on between Princeton and its donors isn’t an inherently political question (I favor the legalization of prostitution), this is a bad sign for those of us who do desire the endurance of some kind of social order and the social hierarchy that order implies. If Princeton were run by people who actually believed that Princeton is an institution that deserves its place near the top of the heap, the administration wouldn’t have knuckled under to these half-pint hooligans — it would have had them arrested and expelled. A slot at Princeton is a valuable thing in a way that a slot at, say, the University of Missouri isn’t. But the closer you get to Princeton, the less credible that value proposition must seem — once you’re in the president’s office, the notion apparently evaporates entirely. This brings to mind Ezra Pound’s argument that there would have been less chaos in the Catholic Church of his time if the cardinals actually believed their own dogma.

The problem isn’t elitism per se. The problem is that at Princeton and Yale and in Washington and New York, our elites are rotten.

A society will have order, and there are two ways of achieving it: One is organically, through spontaneous order and the self-organization of systems of production and valuation. Harvard didn’t become “Harvard” — a byword for the best and most selective institution in a given field — because Washington passed a law ranking the universities. It became what it is because institutions that maintain high standards for a long time take on a certain burnish, which, as seems to be the case at Princeton, may in fact outlive the excellence that is its source. The second way a society may achieve order is through political force, the man with the gun declaring, “It shall be thus!” Or as Kirk put it: “If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.” One might think of such specimens as Professor Melissa Click, the journalist-assaulting journalism teacher at the University of Missouri, as little Bonapartes without the finesse or the courage.

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Thinkers as different as Kirk and F. A. Hayek understood that there are complex and subtle relationships between social hierarchy and social order, just as there are between property and liberty. But “elitist” has become a word of damnation as the spirit of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho stalks the campaign trail. But of course we desperately need a dose of healthy elitism at our colleges and institutions of higher learning, which have partly abandoned their intellectual standards and are entirely abandoning their standards of conduct. The boobishness of 2015 cries out for a return to a prudent contempt for the mob mentality that animates both the Bernie Sanders movement and the Donald Trump movement.

The problem isn’t elitism per se. The problem is that at Princeton and Yale and in Washington and New York, our elites are rotten — the rotten fruit of dying institutions and an unmoored culture whose commanding heights are populated by people who no longer believe in the values at their foundation. That is how we have come to conflate quality and celebrity and to spurn the life of the mind for the life of the hive. Order ultimately will reassert itself, and it will be uncomfortable.

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