Monday, May 26, 2008

Elite trappings



“Over the last 20 years, every president has been a graduate of Yale.”

— Elizabeth Bumiller, The snare of privilege


White House

The race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination has been as bizarre as it has been long. The battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, perhaps because it has stressed symbol and style over substance, has shed powerful light on one MoneyLaw point: the political and practical impotence of elite educational credentials.

Click here to read all about it.
Consider this column by the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller:

Elizabeth Bumiller, The snare of privilege
Hillary swills a beer
John McCain at a gun show
Top: Hillary swills a beer. Middle: Barack bowls a 37. Bottom: Who needs Sweeney Among the Nightingales when you have McCain Among the Shotguns?
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley ’69, Yale Law ’73 and the first lady of the land for eight years, is suddenly a working-class heroine of guns and whiskey shots. Barack Obama, Columbia ’83 and Harvard Law ’91, visits bowling alleys and beer halls and talks about his single mother who lived on food stamps.

John S. McCain III, United States Naval Academy ’58, the son and grandson of admirals and the husband of one of the richer women in Arizona, chases after the conservative, anti-elite religious base of the Republican Party, and prefers to talk about the “cabin” at his Sedona weekend retreat rather than the Phoenix home lushly featured in the pages of Architectural Digest in 2005.

In an increasingly populist country, it’s not surprising that all three presidential contenders have been sprinting away from the elitist label for much of this primary season. But do they really expect to get away with it?

More to the point, should they? Don’t voters want the best and brightest, and best-credentialed, rising to the top?

Not exactly. Americans have been ambivalent about elites since the nation was founded by revolutionaries who were also, in many cases, landed gentry. And status and wealth still play an outsize role in our supposedly classless society.

Our presidential history is a case in point. Although there has long been an anti-aristocratic bent to American politics, voters have put some famous aristocrats (including two Roosevelts, one Kennedy, all Harvard men) into the White House, and have all but idolized them as well. Over the last 20 years, every president has been a graduate of Yale. In 2004, two members of the university’s rarefied secret society, Skull and Bones, ran against each other, and the more elite candidate, George W. Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School, son of a president), won. . . .

This year, [traditional disdain for the elite] remains in place. Republicans sneer at Democrats for being cultural elitists, and Democrats deride Republicans as economic elitists. But the old labels have been turned inside out.

Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown

Editorial sidebar: Let me get this straight. The two Democratic presidential contenders are struggling to establish their working-class credentials (to the point of pushing beer and bowling beyond their proletarian breaking points), while the Republican admits that he knows almost nothing about economics. For the first time since Corwallis surrendered at Yorktown, strike up The World Turned Upside Down. Who stole my country, and will she or he please give it back?
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain have both derided Mr. Obama as “elitist” for his remarks about bitter rural voters who “cling” to guns and religion, even as Mr. Obama, in a counterpunch, mocked her courtship of gun owners, depicting her as a kind of ersatz Annie Oakley “packing a six-shooter” in a duck blind. And Mr. McCain, throwing a haymaker of his own, pointed out in a recent speech to members of the National Rifle Association that “someone should tell Senator Obama that ducks are usually hunted with shotguns.”

Amid all this, some have noted that we have reached a curious moment in American history: an African-American candidate, born seven years after the Supreme Court repudiated segregation in public schools and four years before the Voting Rights Act was passed, finds himself struggling to overcome an aura of privilege.

“It really is a delicious irony that the first serious black candidate for president should suddenly be described as elite,” said Tom Wolfe, the author of Bonfire of the Vanities and a longtime chronicler of the nation’s fixation on status.

One reason is that Mr. Obama holds two Ivy League degrees at a time when not all Americans accept the notion of an Ivy League education as a triumph of American opportunity. As elite campuses have become more culturally diverse, but not necessarily more accessible to many in the middle class, the perception persists that high-powered connections still matter.

Big Chicken“Most people in America just don’t buy into the idea of a meritocracy as defined by Ivy League meritocrats,” said Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT and the rise of the American meritocracy. “That’s one reason why the average American buys the person who doesn’t have fancy college credentials but who built a business from scratch, like the guy who owns a Toyota dealership in Marietta, Ga., and who grew up poor.”

In a nation without a titled aristocracy, an elite education may well be the most important membership card. “American elites have a problem that the Europeans don’t, which is how to assure that their children and their children’s children retain their elevated social position,” said Jason Kaufman, a Harvard sociologist who has written on elites and American culture. “Americans do this through cultural institutions and exclusion — art museums, classical music and tremendously elitist universities.”

There may be another reason Americans are skeptical about the idea that the best rise to the top: those at the top haven’t performed too well lately. Christopher Buckley, Yale ’75, the novelist and humorist, notes that recent Iraq books contain echoes of The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s classic account of the huge failures of the Ivy League brain trust in the Kennedy White House who propelled the nation into Vietnam. “If you loved Vietnam, brought to you by Harvard and Yale, you’ll love Iraq,” Mr. Buckley said. . . .

Mr. Buckley recalled a famous line uttered by his father, William F. Buckley Jr., Yale ’50, who observed in the 1960s that he’d rather “be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.”

John F. KennedyIvy League credentials aside, what matters in the end to most voters, when it comes to choosing a president, is not academic pedigree, but rather the candidates’ ability to make an emotional connection and to win trust and confidence. The most famous aristocrat-presidents of the 20th century, John F. Kennedy and Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, all had that gift, and it outweighed the advantages — and drawbacks — of education, wealth and privilege.

This year’s focus on the crucial swing states, and their large working-class populations, has made inspiring those voters and playing down elitist credentials a political necessity. At the very least, Mrs. Clinton’s lopsided primary victories in West Virginia and Kentucky show how much more work Mr. Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, must do with this critical slice of the electorate. . . .


Michelle ObamaI am absorbing all of this in a way that Michelle Obama, savvy political spouse that she is, should appreciate. This moment in political history reinforces my lifelong pride in being an American. By pushing Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain through an elaborate exercise in nonelite bona fides, the American electorate has been expressing three beliefs about elite education that are as deeply true as they are intensely felt:
  1. Elite education isn't really meritocratic. Expressions of noblesse oblige by the educational elite speak less eloquently than elite institutions' actions and policies. Look at the way they admit students and price tuition: a talented student from a lower-income family has no greater chance of being admitted to an elite college, let alone affording it, than a mediocre student from a wealthier family.

  2. Elite education teaches its wards some fairly goofy things. World enough and time wouldn't accommodate a full discussion of this topic. Let's just focus on what elite institutions' leaders often forget — not in spite of but rather because of the socially rarified settings in which they have spent their lives: Students go to school in order to better themselves economically, and the schools in turn must be accountable to their students and their graduates in material terms. These are insights that come along as a natural incident of a working-class upbringing, but today's elite institutions neither seek nor yield classes — let alone faculties — that reflect that source of cultural wealth.

  3. Elite education doesn't do that much for you anyway, relative to less elite and more affordable alternatives. Who needs the Ivy League? Or, for that matter, public schools that have forsaken their land-grant missions in quixotic quests for impressionistic prestige, schools that have abandoned Das Volk in favor of a Drang nach Hochmütigkeit? Having been spared the task of retiring debt incurred to take classes from professors who are overrated almost precisely to the degree that they are overpaid may be the best thing that ever happens to graduates of nonelite institutions.
Lux et VeritasIn the end, as with Lux et Veritas, these are the things that matter: The signaling function of education, elite or otherwise, falls far short of things that the best students learn for themselves and teach each other, no matter where they go to school. Neither elite credentials nor even native talent counts as much as hard work, persistence, and fundamental decency. The candidate who best reflects these values will be getting my vote in November, and with any luck a large number of other voters — at the real ballot box and in the sham poll called the U.S. News & World Report survey — will choose in like fashion.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Terrific post Jim. One thing I find curious is that Obama, who I believe has the least elitist background, comes off as being the most elitist. Do relatively non elitist who attend elitist institutions overshoot the make in terms of taking on elitist mannerisms, etc.

5/27/2008 10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand Jeff's question. In what ways has Obama taken on "elitist mannerisms?" And, what exactly are "elitist mannerisms" in the first place? I would think that an overbearing sense of entitlement would be one of them, but Obama has exhibited that far less than McCain and even farther less than Clinton.

Unless you consider intelligence, eloquence, patience and a calm demeanor (not to mention graciousness and candor) to be "elitist mannerisms" and therefore a burden to him. I suppose in America, these are indeed burdens.

6/06/2008 4:33 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Yes, anon I do regard those as elitist mannerisms although I would frame them a bit differently -- never show emotion, play it close to the vest, let your workers to the dirty work so you can appear to be patient, calm and amused. When ever I meet an elitist or someone who has adopted elitist mannerisms I wonder if there is any "there" there. What do they mean? How do they feel? What makes them happy, mad, sad. etc. They never tell because for most elitists I have known life if one big negotiations in which you never really show much of anything because that would signal a sign of weakness.

Oh, by the way, how did the concept of "burdens" enter the conversation?

6/14/2008 10:45 AM  

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