Whatever he meant by them, John Kerry’s remarks have struck a nerve. But why? Well, for a lot of reasons. Of course we think of anti-war activist John Kerry’s long-standing tensions with his fellow Vietnam Vets. Then there’s the insulting stereotype of the dumb soldier. But to understand the tensions thrown up by Kerry’s remarks, we also need to have a look at the reverse of the medal: not the “soldiers are dumb” theme, but the notion that smart people don’t become soldiers and don’t support wars. No matter who he meant the dumb folks were, the idea that smart college kids become dovish Dems is a powerful sub-text in Kerry’s remarks.
A big part of what’s going on here is the taken-for-granted sense that young people who correctly absorb the lessons taught on America’s college campuses must be anti-war. More deeply, there’s a conflict between what author David Lebedoff calls “The New Elite” and “The Left Behinds.” According to Lebedoff, The New Elite who populate Blue America aren’t necessarily smarter than Red State “Left Behinds,” but they nonetheless build their identities around a belief in their own intelligence and education. The contrast between hard working folks who rise up through higher education to be smarties against war, and poor dumb schlubs who become soldiers because they aren’t smart enough to cut it in college, is an almost perfect instantiation of Lebedoff’s distinction between The New Elite and The Left Behinds.
I reviewed Lebedoff’s book, The Uncivil War: How a New Elite is Destroying Our Democracy, for the October 11, 2004 issue of NRODT. Here’s an excerpt from that review. (Substitute the example of a soldier for the lawyer named Edward, and you will see John Kerry’s comments come to life.):
…Lebedoff believes that our political and cultural struggles are being driven by a conflict between two groups, “The New Elite” and “The Left Behinds.” Let’s have a look at a couple of representatives of these competing social camps.
Growing up in Allentown, Pa., Charlene had felt a bit ashamed of her hand-me-down clothes and less-than-cultured parents. Yet this bright girl blossomed in college, proud to be accepted as an equal by a circle of friends who made concerts, foreign films, and lectures their mainstay. On getting her doctorate in microbiology, Charlene married a physicist and moved to Seattle. Charlene and her neighbors are culturally sophisticated and fairly well off. They feel they’ve earned their position in life by dint of talent and intelligence. Having risen above their backgrounds, they’re suspicious of tradition and impatient with those who don’t see things their way. After all, Charlene and her neighbors have proven themselves to be among the brightest and most knowledgeable of citizens; they are members of “The New Elite.”
Edward grew up in Mankato, Minn., a prosperous town of 30,000. His IQ is actually higher than Charlene’s, yet he doesn’t see his intelligence as the key to his place in life. Edward’s father, like his father before him, was a respected lawyer and leader in Mankato. Edward values his family’s place in the town, and returned to Mankato to practice law. After an indifferent performance in college, Edward had applied himself and done quite well in law school. Yet he knew that, either way, a desk would be waiting for him at the family firm. Edward sees himself as a leader in Mankato, heir to the standards of his profession, and an admirer of the American way of life. Although a prominent citizen and financially well off, Edward is part of what Lebedoff calls “The Left Behinds.”
What sets these portraits apart from a typical contrast between “blue” and “red” America is Lebedoff’s focus on intelligence. Edward may be smart, but he doesn’t define himself by his intellectual accomplishments; yet Charlene and her neighbors in Seattle became professionals by virtue of their grades and SAT scores. What’s more, they know it. Deep down, these sophisticates take their intelligence and success as proof that their anti-traditionalist world-view is right–and that those who see things differently are both ignorant and mistaken.
This, says Lebedoff, is the downside of our meritocracy. A laudable democratic desire to ensure equality of opportunity prompted us to make tests like the SAT a decisive determinant of success; an unintended consequence of this change has been to create an elite that is suspicious of democracy itself. Democracy depends on majority rule, but–without quite admitting it–our elites have lost faith in the wisdom of the majority. They think they’re smart enough to decide what’s right for all of us. These elites don’t realize that most political decisions depend on values, not intelligence. Their unshakable faith in their own intelligence leads them to mistake their own imperfect preferences for the truth.
The tension between the New Elites and the Left Behinds is everywhere in our politics, says Lebedoff.”