Daniel W. Drezner

The nostalgia for past elites

I read Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites last month and will suggest that you read it too — it’s an engaging read that addresses the question of whether a meritocratic elite can really stay meritocratic over extended periods of time.  Hayes thinks the answer is no, and puts together a decent brief for that ...

I read Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites last month and will suggest that you read it too — it’s an engaging read that addresses the question of whether a meritocratic elite can really stay meritocratic over extended periods of time.  Hayes thinks the answer is no, and puts together a decent brief for that case.  It’s a good  book in no small part because Hayes acknowledges his inner conflict — as disgusted as he is with Enron, Lehman, Katrina, Penn State, Iraq and other elite catastrophes, he has peered into the maw of the populists who rail against these elites, and they give him a slight shudder as well. 

I bring this up because David Brooks pushes back against Hayes’ argument in his New York Times column today.  One key section:     

The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

Kevin Drum pushes back hard, and correctly in my view, against this argument: 

Hayes does a good job of describing all the pathologies of today’s meritocratic aristocracy, but his book never seriously addresses all the pathologies of past aristocracies, meritocratic or otherwise. You’re left thinking that cheating and corruption and nepotism are somehow unique to the 21st century West. But not only is none of that stuff unique, it’s not clear that it’s even any worse than it used to be….

Brooks, if anything, is worse on this score. He’s careful to admit the problem with the elites of the 19th century, but even so he idealizes them. Sure, the best of the old WASP elites were good people in a noblesse oblige sort of way, but the best of any set of elites are good people. Today’s meritocracy is loaded with fine, upstanding citizens. The problem is that they’re a minority. But the upstanding folks were a minority back in the days of the WASP aristocracy too.

I’d make one further point, which is that, likely since the start of the Industrial Revolution, elites have felt like insurgents.  George Kennan, for example, is as much of a paragon of the Eastern Establishment as you can get — but he always thought of himself as an outsider. 

This whole argument smacks of the "public intellectuals ain’t what they used to be" theme that Brooks has made before.  To repeat a point I made then

Most of the obituaries for the public intellectual suffer from the cognitive bias that comes with comparing the annals of history to the present day.  Over time, lesser intellectual lights tend to fade from view – only the canon remains.  When one looks back at only the great thinkers, it is natural to presume that all of the writers from a bygone era are great.  Even when looking at the intellectual giants of the past, current public commentary is more likely to gloss over past intellectual errors and instead focus on their greatest moments.  Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man might look wrong in retrospect, but it is not more wrong than Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology.  Intellectuals like Sontag or Friedman occupy their exalted status in the present only because they survived the crucible of history.  As Posner acknowledges, "One of the chief sources of cultural pessimism is the tendency to compare the best of the past with the average of the present, because the passage of time filters out the worst of the past."  It is riskier to assess the legacies of current public intellectuals – their ability to misstep or err remains.

It’s always useful to remember that the first thirty centuries of human history was one long slog of poverty, misery and violence.  By and large, things have gotten much better.  This isn’t to excuse the errors of today’s elites — but context matters.   

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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