Two Essays on the Modern Political Elite

1. Megan McArdle on Mandarinization. Read the whole thing. Trying to excerpt is frustrating, but I’ll use this:

And like all elites, they believe that they not only rule because they can, but because they should. Even many quite left-wing folks do not fundamentally question the idea that the world should be run by highly verbal people who test well and turn their work in on time. They may think that machine operators should have more power and money in the workplace, and salesmen and accountants should have less. But if they think there’s anything wrong with the balance of power in the system we all live under, it is that clever mandarins do not have enough power to bend that system to their will. For the good of everyone else, of course. Not that they spend much time with everyone else, but they have excellent imaginations.

This is an issue that I have been mulling for quite some time, and my thinking is very similar to hers. I believe that our modern elite is more insulated than American elites from the past. The movie Lincoln portrays a President much more exposed to contact with ordinary people than a modern President. And I believe that Franklin Roosevelt really understood how he differed from the typical citizen, so that he could talk with people rather than talking down to them. In contrast, Barack Obama strikes me as an elite liberal bubble-person.

Like Megan, I believe that I am more familiar with the Mandarin class than I am with the rest of America. But I still think that somehow I am less insulated than the elite pundits and policy makers.

But perhaps the biggest difference that Megan and I have with the Mandarins is that we are skeptical of the wisdom of the Mandarins. I am no populist. But looking at the elites close up, I see a lot of blemishes.

Another issue is the desire to affiliate with power. If a Mandarin encounters a powerful person, the Mandarin’s instinct it to ingratiate himself or herself. My instinct is to try to knock the person down a notch. That is in fact one of my most deeply-ingrained personality characteristics, one which I had to consciously stifle when I worked in organizational settings.

2. Angelo Codevilla on the court party vs. the country party.

Thus by the turn of the twenty first century America had a bona fide ruling class that transcends government and sees itself at once as distinct from the rest of society – and as the only element thereof that may act on its behalf. It rules – to use New York Times columnist David Brooks’ characterization of Barack Obama – “as a visitor from a morally superior civilization.” The civilization of the ruling class does not concede that those who resist it have any moral or intellectual right, and only reluctantly any civil right, to do so. Resistance is illegitimate because it can come only from low motives.

Codevilla’s essay is mostly about the inability of Republican leaders to forsake the court party. Actually, I think that one should be skeptical of Codevilla’s framing. It is empty to complain that “the people” are not represented by party leaders. That is true of all parties, at all times. I do not think that those of us with strong libertarian or conservative leanings are going to be saved by a populist uprising. Instead, we fact the daunting prospect of attempting to change the dominant views among the elite.

5 thoughts on “Two Essays on the Modern Political Elite

  1. So there you’ve got the libertarian and the conservative takes on a phenomenon everyone on the spectrum seems to be noticing. The obvious left-wing take would be Chris Hayes’ _Twilight of the Elites_, where he blames the disconnection more or less entirely on income inequality (and the perpetuation of same by helicopter parenting) and claims the cure is to go back to high marginal tax rates. I’d be interested to see your compare-and-contrast of his with Megan’s version and your sense of where he goes wrong.

  2. “But looking at the elites close up, I see a lot of blemishes.”

    Ha, that made me think of an item I read some years ago about how HD video was revealing more blemishes on the actors. I wonder if the Internet isn’t HD for elites. If you’ve the mind, you can now get a lot of detail on our supposed “betters”. Worse, the blogs are not only DVRs but can also run day/week long marathons.

    • Whew. You are right. I read Meagan’s blog post then hit the comments, which I think in general are excellent. Then that led to new interesting threads, and now lots of new bookmarks… My Sunday is slipping away.

  3. While I agree with many of your sensibilities, it also helps to actually imagine someone using the levers of government to try to accomplish something. It is incredibly difficult. How does someone get anything accomplished in a democracy without being viewed as arrogant and elitist? I think the process forces people to behave this way.

  4. The main problem I see is a century-long corrosion of constitutional firewalls between the federal government and state (and local) ones.

    Not sure how to solve this!

    But here’s an observation: In principle, democratic polities can see disasters coming and take action to avoid them. In practice, this never happens. The priceless vase has to fall off the table and go smash before anyone admits there’s a problem that has to be fixed.

    How do you restore federalism in a constitution that’s been serially degraded? Randy Barnett has some answers, but how practical they are I don’t know.