I’m typically a fan of Anne Applebaum’s but I’ve got to say her analysis of the anti-elitist tide is shockingly off the mark and spectacularly tone deaf. This is the second instance — the first being her support for Roman Polanski — where it’s impossible for me to avoid the conclusion that writing from Poland is not the best way to understand events in America.
Borrowing from Daniel Bell (and I suspect, Hannah Arendt), Applebaum argues that the current tide of resentment at “elites” boils down to envy. Now, I do believe envy plays a serious and under-appreciated role in politics. But Applebaum’s theory of the sources and contours of that envy strike me as not merely wrong but actually silly. According to Applebaum, the Tea Parties resent the fact that the people running the country are simply better and harder working than them. For Applebaum, the fact that the elite graduated from top-tier schools is all the proof she needs that these people deserve to be in charge. Indeed, Applebaum — without a moment’s pause to cite any evidence — insists that universities have diversified without dropping standards at all. (But I don’t want to have an argument about quotas and all that, because it’s a distraction from my real objection).
Applebaum doesn’t seem to comprehend that it is not status-class anxiety that is driving the main critique of the elite. It is that this particular elite is hellbent on bossing the country around that will make America less meritocratic.
Instead of focusing on the substance of the right-libertarian critique (I love the idea that the people who made the Road to Serfdom and Atlas Shrugged bestsellers again are against merit!), Applebaum instead spirals off into this wacky celebration of higher education. 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. No one begrudges kids who’ve made good from tough backgrounds. What bothers lots of Americans is when those kids then think they are entitled to cajole, nudge, command and denigrate the rest of America. To date, I’ve seen not one instance of Tea Partiers denouncing engineers, physicists, cardiologists, accountants, biologist, archeologists or a thousand other professions who’ve emerged from elite schools. Because those people aren’t bossing anybody around.
In other words, it is the agenda of a very specific and very self-styled elite, not the existence of an elite that is pissing so many people off. Some of the angriest and most dedicated people I meet at Tea Party events are quite wealthy and successful, often with shiny educations equal to Applebaum’s. What infuriates them is that they see a country that once determined merit in the market place or in civil society, becoming a country where what counts as merit is determined by government directly, or indirectly.
This gets to my point about writing from Poland. Applebaum reads Daniel Bell. Then she sees some quotes in the newspaper that seem to jibe with his predictions. And that’s all she needs to know. But the simple fact is that the objections offered by the anti-elitists right now have almost nothing to do with Ivy League education. Fair or not, to the extent the Ivy League comes up it is as a codeword or symbol for the agenda of progressives. Applebaum has somehow gotten spun around into thinking that complaints about the progressive agenda are really code for resentment of elite education. In short, she’s gotten it completely backwards. To boil down opposition to Barack and Michelle Obama to resentment over their diplomas doesn’t make sense to anyone who has actually talked to the people Applebaum is misdiagnosing from afar.
Update: Will Collier beat me to it.