The Morning Jolt


Kirsten Gillibrand and America’s Meritocracy

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D, N.Y.) waits to go on stage during her campaign kick off event in New York, March 24, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: As a presidential candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand never made much of a splash, but the crash and burn of her campaign offers quite a few lessons about the American meritocracy and how people perceive those at the top; Andy McCarthy asks a tough question about mercy; Bernie Sanders plans to restructure your life; and an unexpected but fitting reimagining of two of my favorite fictional characters.

Voters Saw Kirsten Gillibrand as Type-A Girl from High School

Kirsten Gillibrand is out of the presidential race. I’d like to think that Tuesday’s Corner post, declaring that she was only delaying the inevitable, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

What’s left to learn from the crash and burn of Gillibrand?

Go back to Gillibrand’s biography. If you had a daughter who was accepted to Dartmouth and studied two semesters abroad in Beijing and Taiwan, you would probably be pretty proud. If she got into UCLA law school, and then was accepted for internships in her senator’s office and at the United Nations in Vienna, Austria, you would be proud of that, too. If, after law school, she got hired by one of Manhattan’s oldest and most distinguished law firms, and went on to get selected for coveted law clerk positions, you would probably be bragging to the neighbors.

By a lot of standards, Gillibrand did what a bright and ambitious woman is supposed to do. In fact, by the standards of America’s self-labeled meritocratic elite, Gillibrand’s path to success is exactly what a young person is supposed to pursue. This comparison hasn’t been made much, but in this way she’s like Pete Buttigieg — the bright young son of professors at Notre Dame who is accepted to Harvard, moves on to Oxford, and immediately gets hired by McKinsey consulting. They’re both Type-A personalities with grades to match, carrying around golden resumes and heads full of answers that wow teachers, professors, and potential employers. Quite a few parents look at standout young people like this and wish their kids could be more like that.

America’s self-labeled meritocracy (please avert your eyes from all the nepotism, bourgeoisie readers, it’s gauche to bring it up) unsubtly turns all aspects of life into a competition. You want to get the best grades, get into the best school, study under the best professors, get the best internships, get the best jobs, get the highest salary, move into the best house, drive the best car, have the biggest portfolio . . . This isn’t new; America has long had a competitive sense of “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s easy to understand why many Americans would grow to find this rarely openly expressed but almost omnipresent mindset unappealing. People sigh about “the rat race.” Seemingly high-achieving workers hit burnout. People dream of winning the lottery and moving to some sparsely populated island somewhere and “leaving it all behind.” People crave a sense of being valued for who they are, not just for their big salary, prestigious job, or fancy car. A seemingly endless stream of nonfiction and fiction works explore “the cost of the American dream.”

When you have a competition, there are usually going to be a few winners and a lot of people who “lose.” We conservatives have grumbled about “class envy” for a long time, but maybe some resentment is natural. People who have thrived in America’s “meritocracy” include Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Eric Schneiderman, Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Skilling, Elizabeth Holmes. We’ve seen plenty of millionaires and self-proclaimed billionaires who turned out to be terrible human beings. We’ve seen plenty of celebrities demonstrate every repugnant behavior under the sun, to the point of self-destruction. Lots of people who are in the middle or bottom have reason to doubt the notion that the best really do rise to the top in America.

When Kirsten Gillibrand — super accomplished, $500,000-per-year lawyer — turned her attention and ambitions to the political world, the best opportunity to run for office was a purple district in the middle of New York state. The top-tier Manhattan lawyer might not seem like the perfect fit, but she adapted, her opponent got caught in a scandal, and she won.

There’s a particular circle of elite New York Democratic party and media voices who found Gillibrand to be exactly what they wanted; she had risen to the top, and other people at the top found her to be as close to perfect as they could imagine. Their swoon spurred those ridiculous-in-retrospect overestimations of her appeal as a presidential candidate: Politico (“Her moment has arrived”), GQ (“the most fearsome contender”), The New Yorker (“the new face of moral reform”), and Vogue (“she’s got newfound street cred among lefties and progressives”).

The swoon started soon after her appointment to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. I love making fun of Vogue’s 2017 profile of Gillibrand, but the gushing in the 2010 profile — entitled, “In Hillary’s Footsteps” — is pretty over-the-top, too:

“Gillibrand is nothing if not genuine, and through sheer force of personality she bends the occasion to suit her style, which is essentially folksy and earnest. She radiates kindness. But she is also direct and no-nonsense. Despite the fact that she is a Democrat (and a fairly progressive one, at that) and worked for fifteen years as a hotshot Manhattan lawyer, she seems utterly at ease among this crowd of mostly Republican farmers, with their rough hands and weathered faces.”

For some reason, Iowa and New Hampshire farmers did not find her as appealing.

Gillibrand kept getting compared to the character of Tracey Flick from Election, and perhaps that is indeed sexist. But let’s reexamine that character and that movie. On paper, the villain of the story is Matthew Broderick’s high school social studies teacher, who grows so infuriated and antagonistic to Reese Witherspoon’s Flick that he’s willing to try to cheat to ensure she doesn’t win the election for student body election. Technically, Flick is the victim in the story. But we, the audience, relate to Broderick. Flick is a fascinating but thoroughly unlikeable character, and she’s supposed to be one. At one point she declares, “I feel sorry for Mr. McAllister. I mean, anyone who’s stuck in the same little room, wearing the same stupid clothes, saying the exact same things year after year for all of his life, while his students go on to good colleges and move to big cities and do great things and make loads of money — he’s gotta be at least a little jealous. It’s like my mom says, the weak are always trying to sabotage the strong.” Tracey Flick doesn’t have much beyond her all-consuming ambition and determination, and probably the single most important characteristic is that we never see her actually caring about anyone besides herself, and perhaps the desire to make her mother proud. Why was Election a hit that is remembered and still referred to, two decades later? Because a lot of people knew high school class presidents who reminded them of Tracey Flick.

No doubt, Gillibrand cares about people. But her sudden about-face on a bunch of issues — gun ownership, gay marriage, how the government should treat illegal immigrants — probably raised questions in a lot of Democratic primary voters about just what Gillibrand cared about more than her political ambitions. As Ramesh observed, Gillibrand had so little ability to offer plausible explanations for her sudden reversals on policy that she claimed her previous support for gun rights was because she didn’t care enough about people then. As recently as October 2018, she had vehemently and publicly insisted she would not run for president.

Finally, let’s recognize that deep blue or deep red states may not be the best training camp for candidates who want to run nationally. Say what you want about Beto O’Rourke; at least he out-hustled some overconfident Democratic incumbents to win his city council and U.S. House seats. Gillibrand’s opponents in her career so far have been a bunch of tomato cans: incumbent Republican John Sweeney right after allegations of hitting his wife surfaced; former New York secretary of state Alexander Treadwell, who had never won an election in his life; former congressman Joe DioGuardi, who had not won an election in 24 years, and Wendy Long, who had never been elected to any office before. Her two House elections were in 2006 and 2008, two of the best years for Democrats in recent memory.

A source in that 2010 Vogue profile declared, “She can do the same thing on derivatives, comfortably rapping about financial markets. She walks into these huge churches in Brooklyn and Queens and starts talking about the asthma rates and the environmental-justice movement. It’s just her comfort level with so many subjects.” A lot of political writers convinced themselves that Gillibrand had an amazing ability to connect with people, an ability that was entirely missing from this presidential bid.

We Would Have More Faith if Mercy Didn’t Align So Well with Partisan Affiliation

Andy McCarthy, author of the excellent Ball of Collusion, this morning: “FBI and Justice Department officials keep telling us they grasp that there must be one standard of justice applicable to everyone, not a two-tiered system. So, here’s the question: If Andrew McCabe’s name were Michael Flynn, how much mercy could he expect from, say, Andrew Weissmann, [chief of the criminal fraud section of the U.S. Department of Justice]?”

Restructure This.

This morning, an Axios headline promises, Senator Bernie “Sanders’ plan to restructure your life.”

Don’t let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you, senator. The American people don’t need you or any other elected official to “restructure” their lives. That’s not the job of the federal government — or the state and local ones, either. Everything I described a few paragraphs ago about the relentless competitiveness of American life and our national not-quite meritocracy and the rat race — I don’t trust anyone in government to make any of that better.

ADDENDA: A reader of Between Two Scorpions says the two married protagonists reminded him of Chip and Joanna Gaines, from HGTV’s Fixer Upper. I never pictured that, and yet somehow, it fits.


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