PC Culture

Brett Kavanaugh and the Limits of Social-Class Privilege for Conservatives

Brett Kavanaugh testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary committee regarding sexual assault allegations on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 27, 2018. (Gabriella Demczuk/Reuters)
Why are Ivy League elites trashing the judge for college habits they shared? Take a guess.

While the political class waits with bated breath for the conclusion of the seventh FBI investigation of Brett Kavanaugh, we’ve reached the point of the debate where thoughtful people are asking questions about the Larger Meaning of the moment. As Ross Douthat notes in an insightful piece today in the New York Times, “The Meritocracy against Itself,” the enduring, seething resentments of the tip-top of the American elite are exposed.

It turns out that it’s not just hard to escape high school, it’s hard to escape your freshman dorm. If you never really get over your insecurity at prom, you also don’t truly get over your insecurity at belonging to a perceived out-group at Yale.

If you haven’t attended an Ivy, these resentments look ridiculous. If you have attended an Ivy, you know these resentments are ridiculous. The social battles of the elite college represent the squabbling of men and women at the tip of the privilege spear in the most powerful nation in the history of the planet.

But as real as these petty resentments were and are, they pale in comparison to the most important thing. They miss the real roots of Ivy rage. Brett Kavanaugh’s true sin isn’t his connections, his popularity, or his prep school. His true sin is that he’s a conservative. And now he’s a particular kind of conservative — a conservative who matters, a conservative who will have the power (and might actually have the convictions) to threaten one or more of the most sacred elements of progressive jurisprudence. He can potentially affect the law and the culture in a profound way.

So what we’re watching is the systematic revocation of his elite privilege. We’re watching the Ivy Borg — and its associated media infrastructure — turn on a man who was never truly part of the collective. The real resentments Ross outlines in his piece act as penalty enhancers, but the true crime remains. The rage would exist even if Kavanaugh had been born in a double-wide and was the first of his family to attend college.

What’s happened in the last two weeks is not an example of Ivy League underdogs uniting to take down the popular jock. This isn’t a bipartisan class revolution of one privileged micro-class against another. It’s a progressive culture rejecting a man it never truly embraced. In reality, a man can boof his way through high school, chug his way through college, hang with jocks, and hug the establishment on the way up the political ladder and still feel his classmates’ warm embrace, so long as his politics are more like Beto’s than Brett’s.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for some conservatives in this culture. Of course there are men and women who attend these institutions, benefit greatly from the credentials and connections, and go on to attain real power and influence. These men and women are scattered across Capitol Hill and sprinkled in American boardrooms. But especially as the academy has grown ever more ideological, it’s increasingly true that conservatives may be in the academy, but they are not of the academy.

As they leave their universities, unless they join explicitly conservative institutions (or build their own), they similarly learn that they may be in their corporation, but they are not of their corporation. They may be in the mainstream media, but they are not of the mainstream media. They operate under a set of unwritten (but well-known) permissions. And if you attain a certain degree of prominence or vocalize your deep convictions, you risk expulsion from a community that was never yours to begin with.

Really, you risk worse than expulsion. You risk destruction. Your classmates are far more connected and far more powerful than the average collection of roommates and drinking buddies. They can move even the most thinly sourced allegations from an email listserv to the front pages of the newspapers with astonishing speed. They don’t have to try to track down elite reporters. They’re friends with them. They’re a friend of a friend away from the highest offices in the land.

Yes, you can sometimes coast for years on the privileges, relationships, and opportunities you’ve gained through your connections or your education. Heck, you can get hired by Elena Kagan to teach at Harvard Law School, but there is always a line, and that line is not defined by your character.

If you’re a progressive and want to understand the power of Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement in his testimony last week, think of it as the moment that Kavanaugh got “woke.” He saw and condemned the malice behind the process and the malice behind at least some of the allegations against him. There is immense value in confronting that malice — even more as a husband and father fighting for his good name and his family’s well-being than as a judge fighting to become a justice.

There is also value, especially for idealistic young conservatives struggling to navigate a hostile elite culture, in understanding the ways of the world. Speak the truth. Treat people with respect. Maintain the courage of your convictions. But never, ever be deceived into believing that — outside of a precious few close friends — those virtues will earn you one ounce of mercy or compassion when the mob howls for your head.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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