The Corner

David Brooks on a Responsible Elite

David Brooks’s advice on leadership has been suspect since he deduced from the crease in Obama’s pants that he would be “a very good president.” His scattershot column today contains some thoughts on society’s leadership class that are no more accurate. The relevant grafs:

It’s important in times like these to step back and get clarity. The truest thing to say is this: We are living in an amazingly fortunate time. But we also happen to be living during a leadership crisis, and a time when few people have faith in elites to govern from the top. We live in a vibrant society that is not being led.

We don’t suffer from an abuse of power as much as a nonuse of power. It’s been years since a major piece of legislation was passed, and there’s little prospect that one will get passed in the next two.

This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

First of all, I’m not sure that anyone thinks “power can be wielded directly by the masses” — not even Karl Marx or Ted Cruz!

More important, the reason we suffer from a leadership crisis is not that the public is unwilling to be led by the elite but that our elite is generally unworthy of trust. This is not simply a matter of conspicuous consumption on the part of the rich, as Brooks suggests later in the column. The deeper problem is that we have a post-American elite which views with scorn the patriotic public it presumes to lead. This is largely true regardless of elite disagreement on taxes or foreign policy or other issues. Whatever differences may divide the corporate-oriented right and anti-borders libertarians from ethnic-disapora chauvinists and hard-leftists, they share a post-patriotic, post-national sensibility, the result of what the great Samuel Huntington called the “denationalization of the American elite.” This divergence in values between the public and the elite is most apparent regarding immigration policy, but comes into play in any issue touching on the National Question: bilingualism, multiculturalism, ethnic preferences, and the like. 

The “humble and honest populism” that Senator Sessions has championed is not, as is implicit in Brooks’s column, an anti-intellectual spasm by the ignorant mob. Rather, it’s a demand that America’s elite actually put America and her people first and not act as if it is part of a global collection of citizens of the world who just happened to live here for now. We see the same thing in Europe, where popular resentment against contemptuous elites and their EU project takes different forms depending on cultures and personalities, but all tapping into the public disgust with the elite.

Huntington quotes Sir Walter Scott’s lines on patriotism:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, 

Who never to himself hath said, 

This is my own, my native land! 

Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,

As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,

From wandering on a foreign strand!

The Brooks column’s reminder that “privilege imposes duties” and its call for the powerful to “follow a code of public spiritedness” are sound as far as they go. But the problem they seek to address is not that the wealthy give “luxury cars to their college-age kids.” Rather, it’s that much of our elite have souls so dead that they consider themselves to have transcended the atavistic values of the people. Until that changes, our leadership crisis will continue.


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