Politics & Policy

Our Bipartisan Elite Is Stuck in the ’90s

(Photo: Ghadel/Dreamstime)
And other problems of the ‘mainstreamers’

I don’t know how it happened. And I’m quite sure it was an accident that will soon be corrected. But over the past year I’ve become the type of person who gets invited to hear important mainstream figures speak at private, off-the-record retreats. These are the sort of events where the pre-Trump players try to find the limits of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, or conjure up a few ideas for saving the whole dang liberal world order. Like I said, important stuff.

The people usually belong to the centrist ends of their respective center-left and center-right parties. They’re real mainstreamers and insiders. Well, they were insiders. They believe in the free movement of capital, goods, and labor. They believe in the European Project and expanding NAFTA. I’m pretty sure that when Alex Jones succeeds Trump as Commandante and Supreme Reality-TV Host of America — a role formerly known as president — he’ll probably discover a document with all our names on it, and I’ll be outed as another conspiring globalist cuck and sellout. Then you all can tell my family I loved them.

Despite my differences with mainstreamers, I happen to think these kinds of meetings are useful and probably contribute something to the peace and stability of our world. Even if it is just getting people comfortable with one another. And the reason I’m invited is that the usual players are trying to understand the so-called populist wave across Western politics. They think I might offer some thoughts on this in language they understand. Usually the rule is that while you’re not allowed to blab indiscreetly about who said what, you can take what you learn into your work. So if they think I can help them understand the populist moment, I thought I’d try to help my dear readers understand the mainstreamers.

Mainstreamers still believe they deserve to be in charge. There’s some hand-wringing about mistakes that have been made during the financial crisis or in the Middle East, but on the whole they believe Brexit and Trump were unfair and unjustified rebukes. One formerly high-ranking official explained that Brexit was failing, just a little over a year after the vote to exit; we could see this because of the (mild) depreciation of the British pound. Therefore mainstreamers needed to stop scolding themselves, make their case to the public, and retake the positions they’ve lost. Why the depreciation of the pound justified putting back into power a mainstream that bequeathed us the Iraq War, a Libyan disaster, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and galloping social inequities was not obvious.

Mainstreamers are stuck in the ’90s. Many of the senior foreign-policy advisers in the Western world are in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s. They often began their careers near the end of the Cold War. They often adore their mentors, from whom they took a sense of self-importance, a belief that every person in the world sleeping in peace owes it to them and their wisdom. They entered their prime in the ’90s, when everything seemed to be basically working. New governments in Central and Eastern Europe signing up to the liberal program and institutions, then thriving. Peace in Northern Ireland. Prosperity across much of Europe, with the introduction of the euro. Trade with China pulling scores of millions out of poverty. Free trade, free movement, American leadership, Russian retreat, political integration. Their program was working everywhere. Everyone who objected was an idiot.

They believe all these issues could have gone the other way if the wrong decisions had been made. Their regrets are always about where they didn’t intervene: Rwanda.

Mainstreamers do not feel comfortable talking about social issues or the quality of social life unless it is decorated in numbers. Bringing up religion, or making observations about the quality of social relations, is almost forbidden unless it is grounded in statistics or at least longitudinal polling: number of people deemed radicalized, diagnosed instances of depression among children without fathers. Quality of education is assessed entirely with reference to measures such as the number of dropouts. This leads to a flatness of conversation. It is also a function of their liberal convictions, which rob them of a vocabulary for understanding or leading in these areas.

European mainstreamers want more leadership (and money) for their projects from Germany. And they are getting as annoyed at the deals they struck with the peripheries as the peripheries are getting with their leadership. Irish tax rates, once thought to have reversed two centuries of underperformance, now irritate them. The full voting rights of “New Europe” grate: We are paying Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, so why can’t they get with the program?

American mainstreamers are dominated by an America that existed 40 years ago.

American mainstreamers are dominated by an America that existed 40 years ago. There are a few people of older WASP stock hanging about these kinds of meetings. But there is almost nobody from the post-1965 wave of immigration in their ranks.

Relatedly, because at least the pretense of meritocracy must be preserved, American mainstreamers give off a deep sense of being overworked and undercultivated. Their desire for quantifiable studies on social issues is also partly explained by the felt deficiencies of their liberal education. They don’t trust their judgment, and so they overrely on research. Younger American mainstreamers are almost universally products of just a handful of colleges.

Also, mainstreamers know inequality and immobility are a problem, but they think about it in extremely narrow terms. Mainstreamers see inequality primarily as a threat to the consent for continued mainstream rule. If it gets too bad, mainstreamers worry, the people will throw the mainstream out and enact reforms that hurt overall prosperity. But they might also notice that a lack of social mobility secures mediocrities in their class and prohibits outstanding talent from entering into it. It prevents new ideas and observations from entering elite consciousness. In other words, it doesn’t just threaten the consent they need to govern; it weakens their capacity to govern when in office.

Mainstreamers are desperate for reliable information from the Trump administration. And why wouldn’t they be? They are civic-minded people who have spent their careers dedicated to public service. They are used to knowing people in both parties who circulate among the top ranks of official Washington. It makes them nervous not to be in the know.

Also, their lack of insider knowledge makes them less valuable in the market. Nearly every mainstreamer who leaves public office and the think-tank world joins or starts a firm that manages capital or consults with firms that do. Knowing what the executive branch really thinks is part of their market advantage.

And that is the great paradox or downfall of the mainstreamers. They are public-spirited, and their egalitarian convictions run deep. But their public-spiritedness doesn’t express itself in personal asceticism and fear for appearances. They believe they are working ceaselessly for the betterment of the world and deserve the rewards.


The Strange Traditionalism of the Liberal Elite

How Elite is the American Elite?


The Latest