October 21, 2008
A lot of cyber-ink has been spilled over a post by Ross Douthat arguing that grassroots populists need elites. At one level, of course, Douthat is perfectly correct: every political movement needs a leadership class. But when he suggests that, to be successful, a figure like Sarah Palin needs someone like David Brooks, Douthat is wrong. The reason right-wing populism has any appeal to conservatives at all is that our current elite—perfectly embodied by the likes of Brooks—is worthless. An accurate assessment of that elite appears in the blunt resignation letter of hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde, who grew rich anticipating that the subprime mortgage bubble would burst. As Lahde wrote, “I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”
Today’s elite class certaintly encompasses the neocons, who concocted the foolish idea that America should spend its blood and treasure forcibly imposing democracy on the Middle East, in addition to the “idiots” in Wall Street and Washington who created the current financial debacle through a combination of greed, arrogance, stupidity, reckless deregulation, and adherence to multiculturalist doctrine. Their credentials are paper-thin, earned at schools notorious for grade inflation. As a class, they have achieved nothing, having generally spent their lives being cosseted and pampered, having no beliefs more substantial than the strange preferences strung together in “Stuff White People Like,” and having no ambitions higher than lives of wealth and ease. Yet, they have a strange sense of entitlement, believing that their facility on standardized tests means that the privileges they enjoy are merited, unlike the privileges enjoyed by historical aristocracies which, despite their flaws, generally expected at least a period of military service from their members, an exercise famously avoided by our meritocratic elite beginning in Vietnam and continuing through all our subsequent wars.
Then there are the poisonous beliefs that are inextricably linked to membership in the elite class, including multiculturalism and globalism, ideologies that prefer the interests of foreigners and immigrants to those of native born Americans. Thus, the widespread elite support for free trade, mass immigration, and affirmative action. That is what those going through the Ivy League credentialing process learn, and that is what most of them continue to believe. Of course, it is possible for someone to go through the Ivy League credentialing process and reject such beliefs, but such an individual is rejecting his class as thoroughly as FDR rejected his by advocating the New Deal.
The problem is not with populist resentment of our elites, but with the type of content-free populism offered up by the McCain campaign, which advocates the globalism and mass immigration that is working the economic and demographic displacement of the very people who are supporting the campaign. The task for conservatives is to channel the justified resentment of our current elite toward conservative ends, and to use it to help replace that elite with a leadership class interested in preserving the American nation.