Magazine | November 7, 2016, Issue

Masters of the Game

A word of defense for elitism

Miami — The sun is blazing, and Steelers Nation is restive. It may be that the tribe members gathered at the newly rechristened Hard Rock Stadium in Miami aren’t used to getting serious sunburns in October — or it may be that they just aren’t used to losing, at least not to a bunch of second-raters like the 1–4 Dolphins with their dopey Jimmy Buffett fight song and their just-this-side-of-Scores “cheerleaders” and their communal “Hoo-ah!” after every first down. The visiting fans down in the high-dollar seats turn ugly in a hurry, with one couple — you know the couple, sitting on the seatbacks, feet in the seats, Oakley sunglasses, lots and lots of Coronas — cursing those “f***ing retards” on the field, that “f***ing overpaid p***y” Ben Roethlisberger, who has led the team to two Super Bowl victories but is wavering today with a bum meniscus in his left knee. Two bored rich old guys with the look of bored rich old guys come in halfway through the first quarter and do a Statler-and-Waldorf act until they disappear at halftime.

Two things become quickly obvious. One is that these dedicated Steelers fans, for the most part, don’t know the first thing about football, even as they lay out big money for away-game travel and high-dollar tickets. They shout encouragement (and, later, abuse) at the quarterback while the defense is on the field and get a little confused between punts and field goals. (Lots of Coronas, we’re talking about.) They loudly encourage linebacker Lawrence Timmons to “get the ball,” a strategy that probably has occurred to him. (Timmons answered that advice by — no kidding — simply puking on the field after a Dolphins touchdown.) The second undeniable fact about Steelers Nation is: They resent — and maybe even hate — the Pittsburgh Steelers. They hate the star players’ giant paydays (Roethlisberger’s theoretical pay ceiling is $108 million over five seasons, and his guaranteed payday is $65 million), they hate the offensive coordinator (the Steelers had the No. 3 offense in the NFL in 2015), and they intensely hate Mike Tomlin, the team’s stoic, unflashy, undemonstrative head coach, whom they charge with a lack of “passion” and a deficit of “intensity.”

In reality, things like “passion” and “intensity” matter about as much to a football contest being played at this level as they do to the functioning of a nuclear weapon or the outcome of a grandmasters’ chess match. What’s at work on the gridiron under the merciless Florida sun is a question of foot-pounds of energy, endless and minutely specialized drilling, athletic choreography, and bio-mechanics. It is important, for commercial reasons, to maintain the illusion that the fans matter, but the reality is that the fundamental game — the game itself — could be played without them, and might even be played better and more interestingly without them.

But that isn’t about to happen. The gyrating cheerleaders and the thumping AC/DC–DMX–Lil Jon–Lee Brice soundtrack changing its tune every 18 seconds and the beer and the salutes to our veterans and the salutes to our schoolchildren and the kiss cam and the flex cam and the smile cam may distract the gathered clans from what’s actually going on, but the reality is that professional football is an esoteric athletic competition embedded in a multibillion-dollar media empire embedded in Idiocracy.

But despite all that, it is not quite a perfect metaphor for presidential politics: In the NFL, the players know better than to ask the boobs in the stands what the next play should be.

Not so in politics.

In April 2015, left-wing groups around the country spent months agitating for a $15 federal minimum wage. New York City’s feckless Sandinista mayor, Bill de Blasio, wanted to announce his support for that proposal to highlight “our efforts to organize progressives nationally to take on income inequality,” as he put it in an e-mail to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign goons. But there were some problems with that. For one, the candidate herself was pressing for only a $12 minimum wage — raising it by a mere 66 percent rather than more than doubling it, as socialists such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s primary rival, were demanding.

E-mails released as part of the WikiLeaks trove reveal that Neera Tanden, president of the left-wing Center for American Progress, advised that “a fair number of liberal economists” advised that the move “will lose jobs” — which is to say, “a fair number of liberal economists” agree with conservative economists, libertarian economists, and, you know, economists that demand curves slope downward — but also advised that these concerns could simply be ignored. “Politically, we are not getting any pressure to join this from our end,” Tanden wrote. “I leave it to you guys to judge what that means for you. But I’m not sweating it.”

Contemporary progressives like to pose as disinterested empiricists, as pragmatic managers who are simply interested in “what works,” as Barack Obama likes to put it. There’s enough question-begging in that formulation to fill a three-foot shelf of philosophy and economics texts (what works to do what?), which does not much matter — because it always has been a lie, with millennial “empiricism” simply being the latest brightly colored, New, Improved! and Under New Management packaging for the strange brew of 19th-century Taylorism and what used to be known as “scientific” socialism to which our so-called pragmatists still cling. When it comes down to the basic facts of political life — the seizure and the maintenance of political power — that empiricism goes out the door. Liberal economists say that more than doubling the minimum wage might put some downward pressure on full-time employment for the low-skilled workers whose interests Democrats claim to represent? Sure, but there aren’t a lot of economists, and there are a great many people who earn less than $15 an hour: How many electoral votes does the Brookings Institution have?

The Democrats have shown time and again that, for all their purported reliance on dispassionate “just the facts” empiricism and expert opinion, they can be bullied and mau-maued into accepting whatever insane policy happens to catch the whimsy of their constituents, so long as the chanting in the stands is loud enough. In 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were opposed to gay marriage; today, the default Democratic position is that if you look askance at a man in a dress who prefers to use the ladies’ locker room at the gym, then you are morally identical to Bull Connor. They’re cowards and hypocrites, but the Democrats at least make a ceremonial bow in the direction of expertise and informed opinion from time to time.

A terrifyingly wide swath of Republicans, on the other hand, has come to reject that as “elitism.”

That is partly understandable. Hierarchy is basic to conservative thought — every one of Russell Kirk’s ten principles assumes implicitly or makes explicit the contrast between the natural hierarchies of the harmoniously ordered society and the “deadening egalitarianism of radical systems” — but there are worthwhile hierarchies and defective hierarchies. As progressives colonized the commanding heights of culture and education, they drew the elite institutions they occupied, from Yale to the Modern Language Association, into disrepute. The American Medical Association ceased to be a medical concern and was converted into a lobbyist for gun control and other lifestyle-liberal priorities; Harvard and Princeton got into something like a bidding war over Cornel West that was not obviously about the greatness of the celebrity academic’s scholarship, such as it is; teachers’ associations and unions are apostles of social radicalism and foot soldiers for Democratic campaigns; Hollywood, Broadway, the publishing houses, and the major newspapers are almost exclusively monopolies of the center-left, sneering at those bitter non-cosmopolitans who “cling to guns and religion,” as President Obama put it; the NFL is infested with risible black-power posturing. Even the leaders of the political party purportedly dedicated to the interests of those held in intense contempt by coastal progressives tend to be products of the same schools, institutions, and in many cases neighborhoods as their counterparts on the left, the elites of both political parties having more in common with one another than they do with truck drivers from northern Louisiana or combine mechanics in Nebraska. Sometimes, as on the question of illegal immigration, those cultural fault lines are contiguous with very powerful political fault lines. On immigration, the elites are simply wrong on the substance; on the similar issue of trade, the elites (including Democrats such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she feels secure enough to be honest) have the policy more or less correct, and the anti-elitists hate them all the more for it.

It falls to conservatives to do the politically difficult and thankless work of defending the very elitism that has a non-trivial portion of the Republican electorate up in arms — metaphorically, and perhaps literally if we take seriously the torches-and-pitchforks talk from the likes of Sheriff David Clarke.

There are two reasons for that.

The first is that the policy questions before us really are complicated, but the American public has neither command of those questions nor the appetite to acquire such command. Hence the endless stupidity that characterizes our discussions of the national debt and deficits, which are dominated by such picayune concerns as foreign-aid spending (generally less than 1 percent of federal outlays) or discretionary military engagements that do not in the end add up to very much in a budget dominated by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the debt, and ordinary military costs that we incur whether our troops are stationed at Kunsan Air Base or Fort Bragg. That’s why cries of “Get tough!” with Islamic terrorists actually resonate, as though the CIA and the Marines had never considered getting tough with the enemy. Any set of effective policy reforms is going to be expert-generated and expert-driven, and those experts are not going to be, for the most part, graduates of the Continental Truck Driver Training and Education School, worthy though that institution may be. They’re going to be from Harvard and Stanford and the University of Chicago, and they’ll probably have investment banks and management consultancies and the State Department or the Federal Reserve on their CVs. They’re going to be elites, and we are going to need them.

The second reason to defend elitism is that where elites prevail, policy outcomes are generally more conservative, or at least more libertarian, especially on economic questions. In Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Princeton politics professor Martin Gilens finds that while there tends to be broad agreement about policy questions across income groups, on those issues where the rich (standing in, imperfectly, for our elite) and the middle-class and poor disagree, the rich generally prevail. The rich are less enthusiastic about heavy-handed progressive projects such as that $15 minimum wage, less interested in trade protectionism, and generally more open to free-market policies than are the poor, and U.S. policy reflects their outsized influence. The economist Bryan Caplan notes that on a number of important and emotional issues — and not only economic ones, but also questions such as free speech — U.S. policy is in fact well to the libertarian side of public opinion. That may not make conservatives happy when it comes to gay marriage, but it is generally a win. “Democracy as we know it is bad enough,” Caplan writes. “Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.”

Listen to 20 minutes of Michael Savage’s amusingly bonkers radio program and see if the pointy-headed fellow from George Mason U. is wrong on the merits.

Everyone is an elitist when it really matters: If your child needs brain surgery, you go to the most elite neurosurgeon you can find, not the one you’d most like to have a beer with. We get away with anti-elitism in politics and in culture because the stakes are so low. (What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a presidential election?) (Besides your country.) We should not replicate the progressives’ error — pretending that there are empirically right and wrong answers to questions of preference and priority — but we should be forthright about the fact that properly functioning elites are necessary to a healthy and free society. The current populist vogue notwithstanding, amateurs are ill suited even to the pursuit of political power at the highest and most demanding level, much more to the actual exercise of that power. The people raging along to talk radio as they stew in traffic could no more do Paul Ryan’s work than the frustrated Steelers fans could do Ben Roethlisberger’s.

The Miami Dolphins entered the field beneath a splendid display of fireworks; Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei dream of fireworks of a different kind — and those fireworks are not merely decorative but central to the game that is in fact being played. We are going to need to rely upon people who know the difference, who know that the exhortations of the cheerleaders (“We the People!” “Down with the Elites!”) are at most incidental to the contest, and who understand that we don’t always get to try again next Sunday.

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