The Campaign Spot

Pointing Out the Social Cocoon of the Progressive Aristocracy

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Why It’s Worth Pointing Out, and Mocking, the Progressive Aristocracy

Naturally, some folks didn’t quite grasp the point of yesterday’s column that offered a tongue-in-cheek denial of the existence of a Progressive Aristocracy. That denial offered gobs and gobs of examples of high-ranking lawmakers and their offspring who have gone into lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker.

“This is nothing new!” was the most common cry. Neither is murder, larceny, racism, bad manners, or a host of other bad things in life; a problem’s long history doesn’t mean we ignore it or shrug and accept it.

Then there were the “Republicans do it too!” Indeed, and it doesn’t make it right. I do suspect that Progressives’ certainty that they’re fighting for all that is good and just and noble simply by drawing breath prompts them to cut themselves a bit more slack when it comes to using their offices to help out their relatives. I did appreciate the commenter who added, “When government becomes the family business, the whole idea is to preserve and sustain it, which is inherently a Progressive project.”

Others asked how this differed from garden-variety nepotism. Look, if you build the family business, you’re entitled to hand it down to your children. To contradict our president, “you built that. Somebody else didn’t make that happen.” If you do build something, you’ll have a lot of discretion about how you spend the money that comes in.

But once credit and responsibility for building and maintaining an institution is more diffuse – say, a large public corporation or university – there should be much less tolerance for a head honcho taking bites out of the budget to set up limited-responsibility, limited-accountability jobs to help out his friends and relatives. Sure, you can do it here and there, but at some point, it becomes a problem. Corporate or university boards don’t appoint CEOs and presidents so they can use their power and resources to help out their buddies and hapless nephews. If it’s done, it must be done on the minimal scale.

Public office is a completely different matter. Yesterday, discussing Bill Clinton, I wrote, “We don’t elect a man into the Oval Office so he can score with women more frequently.” We don’t elect people to public office so their relatives can score sweet gigs in the lawmaker’s support network.

(If nepotism is so harmless, why does no one ever want to admit it’s been done? Why do we so rarely hear anyone admitting, “I got the job because my dad has connections”? Why didn’t Chelsea Clinton begin her first appearance at NBC News, “Thanks Brian, it’s great to be here, and I hope that in this position I’ll offer something beyond providing the news division a closer connection to my parents”?)

These little helping hands given to the children of the best-connected parents make a difference. Companies only have so many slots open at any one time; any one handed to a connected relative is one that doesn’t go to an otherwise qualified applicant. Maybe those sons and sons-in-laws of prominent Democratic congressional leaders are brilliant lobbyists – or maybe they represent a legal way of buying goodwill with a powerful lawmaker. Maybe a five-figure fee for “campaign outreach” services paid to a lawmaker’s cousin represents money well spent, but if it isn’t, it’s money that could have more wisely been spent elsewhere. Maybe the offspring of prominent congressmen really are the best choices for various federal boards and agencies – but anyone who isn’t related to a senator or House member then has a tougher hill to climb to achieve that position.

Nepotism isn’t the only way that America’s most wealthy and powerful ensure that their children will also be wealthy and powerful, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s a thumb-on-the-scale bit of legal cheating that everyone averts their eyes from because acknowledging it too openly would raise the question of how many of the folks in the highest positions of our country actually earned them.

About a year ago, Ross Douthat had a fantastic column about this . . . 

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, [Susan] Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need — that’s what we’re already doing! (What Richard Florida called “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places” is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.) We don’t need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. . . . 

And this social cocoon of America’s best-educated, wealthiest, and best-connected has serious impact on our national politics. Examine Matthew Continetti’s brilliant dissection of a profile piece of MSNBC host Alex Wagner and White House chef Sam Kass:

Wagner is pretty, bubbly, and informed, and though her show reminds me of an interminable seminar on theories of representation in the West, I’d rather watch an hour of her than any of the other MSNBC hosts. Yet I cannot help being struck by the disjunction between her attitude toward conservative elites and her attitude toward herself, toward her own part of the upper crust. I cannot help being struck by the unknowingness with which she and her guests establish categories such as “rich” and “elite” that exclude everyone they know.

The game is rigged,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) famously told the 2012 Democratic National Convention. What an odd situation in which we find ourselves, where the most influential figures in politics, media, culture, and the academy, the leaders of institutions from the presidency to the Senate to multinational corporations to globally recognized universities, spend most of their time discussing inequalities of income and opportunity, identifying, blaming, and attacking the mysterious and nefarious figures behind whatever the social problem of the day might be. This is the way the clique that runs America justifies the inequalities endemic to “meritocracy,” the way it masks the flaws of a power structure that generates Brown-educated cable hosts and personal chefs who open ballparks with a phone call. This is how a new American aristocracy comes into being, one as entitled and clueless as its predecessors, but without the awareness of itself as a class.

Progressive aristocrats don’t like it when you call them an aristocracy for two reasons. First, it asserts that they think they’re better than everyone else; they often do think that, but they recognize the potential risk in saying so openly. But secondly, it suggests they don’t really deserve that high perch that’s so central to their sense of identity.


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