Politics & Policy

Toward a Better Political Elite

Portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph Earl, c. 1837 (Wikimedia)
The Founders show us a way to manage conflicts between the establishment and the people.

If you want to win an election in today’s America, call the other guy “elite.” The term is the kiss of death, especially if you’re running on the right. It mixes “out of touch,” “liberal,” “venal,” “hypocritical,” and “globalist” into a gelatinous mud perfect for slinging at your opponent. You, by contrast, must be the voice of the people.

President Trump is an obvious example of this kind of politician, but it is a mistake to think that anti-elitism began with him. In fact, trying to come across as “just a regular guy” has been a theme in the Republican party for decades. The trend started with George H. W. Bush, a Yale graduate, who was seen as “preppy” during the 1980 primary race, so he combatted this image in 1988 by traipsing around shopping malls and conspicuously driving semi trucks. In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by running as “the guy you want to have a beer with,” despite the fact that both he and Kerry had gone to East Coast boarding schools and then to Yale. Even the dress of recent presidents has displayed self-conscious egalitarianism: the younger Bush wore ill-fitting white tie despite obviously knowing better from his upbringing, and Trump wears loose, off-the-rack suits while taping the two blades of his tie together.

But we can go back even further, to the first champion of the common man in American history: Andrew Jackson. While everyone knows about the battle between Hamilton and Jefferson over their visions for the new country, Jackson’s revolution created the democratic United States of popular lore.

Jackson, whose defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 had made him a military hero, ran a stormy presidential campaign against incumbent John Quincy Adams in 1828. He attacked Adams for the monopolization of politics by a ruling class, which had been created by many of the revolutionary leaders and his presidential predecessors.

In this dispute, the legacies of Hamilton, John Adams, and even the radical Jefferson were united against Jackson as advocates of the natural aristocracy, a term appearing in the writings of many Founding Fathers to describe those who stand out for their special talent, virtue, or learning. They agreed that good government necessarily depended on the effectiveness of these natural aristocrats, whose role is to use their excellence for the public good. The Framers’ distrust of the people is often pointed out in relation to constitutional provisions such as the Electoral College and the indirect election of senators. Consider this famous passage Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 71:

It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the public good. . . . But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it….When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.

It seems fair to say that any Republican midterm candidate who quoted this at a debate would be heckled off the stage. Despite the conservative insistence on upholding the ideas of the Founders, this idea is no longer in vogue. In 2016, Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton by using what she touted as her experience against her: She looked like a disconnected governing elitist, and Trump appeared to many to be the in-touch, regular guy. It is no coincidence that Trump hangs a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office.

What is someone who agrees with the Founders on natural aristocracy supposed to do when faced with such a choice? Clinton had gone through the cursus honorum, but was an ardent leftist; Trump had many conservative positions but was a horrifying vulgarian. Many people (myself included) decided to vote for Trump despite his flaws because he was vastly more likely to advance the conservative cause, which his tenure has thus far borne out.

If the Founders’ desire for excellence, as exemplified in the concept of natural aristocracy, produced Hillary Clinton, that would be a discrediting failure. In fact, however, the natural aristocracy and the modern elite are not identical, and the differences are essential to understanding the Founders’ anti-Jacksonian leanings.

The distinction is best drawn by T. S. Eliot in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Members of the modern elite are individuals who gain their place by their personal achievements. They come from no common class and are united only by supremacy in their fields. Obviously, the children of the elite will not necessarily have the talent of their parents, so many of them will forego political leadership while a new elite of their generation rises up.

The problem with this method of social organization is that it produces no cultural continuity from one generation to the next. A political family such as the house of Adams, with its steadfast commitment to public service, becomes impossible. Consider: John Adams, having helped found a new government, raised his son John Quincy to take on the mantle when he came of age. Most of John Quincy’s childhood was spent with his father on diplomatic missions in Europe in the service of the Revolutionary government. John Quincy’s son Charles, in turn, having grown up while his father was serving as secretary of state, went on to become minister to the United Kingdom during the Civil War. His son Henry served the minister as private secretary and went on to have a prominent literary career.

Children in the Adams family for several generations were raised with the expectation that they would play a prominent role in society. Of course, it’s possible that these children might have earned exactly the same roles simply on their merits, and it is worth noting that hereditary aristocracy often gives power to people with no qualifications other than relation to a more competent ancestor. But since families are the primary transmitter of culture, some permanence of families in the upper class is necessary to preserve continuity. Eliot points out that the healthy system envisioned by the Founders is one in which the upper class and the elite overlap, improving and informing each other.

The goals that must be balanced are, on the one hand, ensuring that the most talented, most virtuous, most able people can rise to the top, and, on the other, ensuring that society maintain cultural continuity from one generation to the next. Elites such as Hillary Clinton’s elite is unrestrained by fidelity to past generations and have little concern for cultivating a tradition for future generations. Most people agree that we should strive to elect the most virtuous and capable politicians we can find, but many people have forgotten that the virtuous and capable politician should be not merely a tool for fixing today’s problems but a custodian of a political tradition.


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