Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I'm always a little uncomfortable trying to make Michael Oakeshott's "Rationalism in Politics" seem like a strong, attractive, plausible argument in class-- because however strong its critical bite, its affirmative case seems unavoidably to end up as an endorsement of hereditary political office. Now, I'm willing to be the elegaic Oakeshottean/ Burkean about the old British House of Lords, but at the end of the day I'm an American and our founding fathers dumped tea into the harbor and shot at redcoats when they saw the whites of their eyes and overthrew the mightiest military power in the world in order to stop the pernicious doctrine of hereditary rule and make the world safe for democracy, and it was just to Americans' good fortune that they were able to be without an aristocracy in the first place rather than having to kill theirs off in the streets of Paris, will all the unfortunate consequences that entailed.[*] In 2008 a hereditary aristocracy as a serious political force is just a silly thing to imagine.

My imagination was stunted, I finally realize. Come next year, I'm going to start with the election of Justin Trudeau to Parliament and the immediate talk of his becoming a Liberal leader, recount Michael Ignatieff's genealogy, explain the generations of Bushes and the fact that W was only President because at a crucial moment in the late 1990s some large number of poll respondents thought that he was his father, discuss the Udall family, the Romneys, the Welds, the Chafees, and so on-- then discuss the tendency for arriviste or nouveau or bootstraps-meritocratic leaders promptly establish new family legacies of their own, and point to the Clintons. Widows-and-sons in postcolonial democracies, including the Nehru-Gandhis, and so on. Family politics and legacies run strongly in democratic politics, and while they're occasionally interrupted by a Reagan, a Clinton, a Thatcher, an Obama, even those people unavoidably live in a political world of legislators and officials very many of whom are in a family business which they're learned as an apprenticeship a la Oakeshott. Oakeshott, I think, would tell us not to be surprised, or too dismayed, by this, or too impressed with the occasional poor-kid-turned-Rhodes-Scholar-turned-President.

I guess I'm still dismayed, even after the realization, but I'll try to remember not to be too self-satisfied that we live in a post-Oakeshottian world in which hereditary politics is unthinkable.

Not sure why these musings occurred to me today. I wonder.

*This is a joke. I have more than my fair share of American prejudices, and they are too deep-rooted for me to shake off entirely, but I also know that this is... not an especially accurate reading of the events of 1763-89.

Update: See also: “She’ll be good. It’s in her blood.”

And see this post from Richard Just at TNR. In my gut I agree with all of it-- but it's also exemplary of the defender of technical knowledge, the meritocratic new man who prefers SAT scores to Oakeshott's "two generations to learn".

My colleagues have been doing an excellent job of explaining why it would be a disgrace to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the Senate, but I want to add one other argument to theirs. It has to do with elitism. To make a rough generalization, there are two different kinds of elitism: social elitism and intellectual elitism. Obviously, the two are intertwined in certain respects but they are basically distinct phenomena. (And even where they are closely intertwined, it's possible to see a distinction. Ivy League schools, for instance, have long embodied both strands of the elitist tradition, and still do. But over the past two generations, the relative balance at these institutions has gradually shifted away from social elitism and towards intellectual elitism--with fewer students admitted because their parents are well-connected and more admitted because of their high SAT scores.)

The difference is important because one form of elitism is considerably more valuable to a democratic society than the other. Social elitism is at best worthless, at worst illiberal and dangerous. It runs counter to the notion of equal opportunity that forms the core of the American ideal. More practically, it leads to people doing jobs for which they are not qualified. When those jobs are important ones, the consequences to society can be severe. If there are any positive outcomes that flow from social elitism, I can't think of them.

That isn't true for intellectual elitism. To be sure, this form of elitism carries plenty of downsides. It can lead to hubris (this was the cautionary tale of The Best and the Brightest) and cause people to underestimate the role that luck has played in their own success. But unlike social elitism, intellectual elitism carries clear benefits. It is worthwhile for society to esteem expertise--good for our arts, good for our sciences, and good for our politics. As long as it is tempered by other values, intellectual elitism--a fundamental belief in the worth of intelligence and curiosity--is basically a good thing.

One of the great tricks of the Republican Party in recent years has been to meld these two forms of elitism into a single slur. [...]

The election of Barack Obama suggests that American voters finally saw through this damaging conflation. Obama is probably the most intellectually elite president since Woodrow Wilson--he wrote an acclaimed book, taught at a top law school, and generally evinces a kind of academic disposition toward the world that is rare in politicians--but his entire career is a repudiation of social elitism. He went to the best schools not on the basis of his family connections but on the basis of intellectual merit. In electing Obama, voters were giving a measure of approval to this form of elitism--to expertise and intelligence in government--which is something they have not done in a long time.

And that is why I find the Caroline Kennedy situation so appalling. Just when Democrats have succeeded in decoupling intellectual elitism from social elitism--just when they have succeeded in suggesting that you can be advocates of intelligence and expertise without being advocates of unearned privilege and crude snobbery--along comes the ultimate symbol of social elitism to stake her claim to a powerful place in the Democratic Party. If Kennedy gets the seat, it will be for one reason only: her last name. And the perception that she is close to Obama threatens to meld social elitism and intellectual elitism back together in the minds of voters. That is good news for demagogues like Sarah Palin, and bad news for the country.


Patchen said...

Ah, but could Oakeshott have foreseen our mutant American spawn of hereditary aristocracy and frontier meritocracy?

Mordu said...

No, no...that history sounds about right to me. Er, I'm also American. ;-)