Years ago, I was driving through a rural area in the early evening and as I came up on what looked like an old store, I saw a small crowd out front. The place was a broken down old gin mill and the people out front were watching two scraggly looking drunks duke it out. There was something sad about it. This was the sum total of these two lives, drunk and punching one another in the face for the amusement of the crowd. That came to mind reading David French’s critique of this column by David Brooks.
French highlights this passage of the Brooks column:
Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.
Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.
You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.
Now, putting aside the ret-conning, you would think French highlighted this section in order to make the obvious point. That maybe smashing the old system and turning the institutions over to “Jews, women and minorities” was the reason for the collapse in social trust, plummeting faith in institutions and a bitterly divided society. For that matter, you would think the guy who wrote that passage would have noticed the obvious causal link between overthrowing the old order and the chaos of the present day.
Instead, Brooks goes on to list nonsense reasons like “Inability to think institutionally” as the cause of the trouble. This is pretty much the opposite of reality. The managerial class is incapable of anything other than institutional thinking. The section labeled “Misplaced idolization of diversity” is nonsensical, but no one in his business is permitted to utter anything but nonsense when it comes to race. Basically Brooks wants the managerial elite to go on a team building excursion so they can feel better about themselves.
For his part, French is even more clueless.
Combine academic ignorance with a worldview that too often unthinkingly and reflexively rejects religious traditions and traditional religious notions of morality, and you’ve got the recipe for exactly the proud, “elite” individualist Brooks describes. Or, to borrow a biblical concept, “claiming to be wise, they became fools.”
He is right that the “meritocracy is here to stay,” but he’s wrong that we “need a new ethos to reconfigure it.” An old ethos will do, one grounded in humility, true curiosity, and an openness to challenging ideas.
It’s not that America’s “educated elite” has truly failed; it’s that America’s “educated elite” no longer really exists.
This is a guy who races to the front of the room whenever Conservative Inc. calls for a two minutes of hate against the mortal sins of sexism, homophobism or antisemitism, racism. Conservatism is in free-fall because it has been defiantly close-minded to ideas that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. The fact that the swelling ranks of the Dissident Right see guys like David French as part of the problem should be a clue, but that would require true curiosity about what’s going on and an openness to challenging ideas.
That said, he is not entirely wrong. The managerial state inevitably has to boil off the people who question the system. This is the iron rule of institutions. Some small portion care about the mission, but the bulk are simply their to defend the system and the perks which come from being a part of it. That’s what has happened in America. The ruling class is populated with the sorts of people gifted at repeating that they have been told, but incapable to questioning the status quo. Our elites are uniformly dull and unimaginative.
That’s why the West in general, but American in particularly is going through these populist convulsions. The people who run the institutions are incapable of questioning the logic of the institutions they serve. Both Brooks and French accept as an axiom that turning things over to “Jews, women and minorities” is a good in itself. Therefore they can’t question their role in the current troubles. They are emotionally wedded to the premise of the so-called meritocracy, so they inevitably must defend it from all challenges.
Fundamentally, no society can be run on merit. Any system that attempts to select for ability will inevitably select for that which reinforces itself. That’s what has happened in post-war America. The institution grew in size and reach, but their institution knowledge narrowed. The per capita Federal budget, for example, is three times larger today than 50 years ago, measured in constant dollars. Yet, the differences between the political parties has never been narrower. That’s why elections have had no impact on policy.
It’s also why people like French and Brooks worry about the “dysfunctional federal government and bitterly divided society. The populist revolt is a direct challenge to the very idea of a managerial elite. Trump, for good or ill, is the rejection of that concept. He is not a man of merit. He is a man of accomplishments, which is a different thing than a list of credentials. David Brooks can sneer all he likes, but no one is putting his name on the side of a big building. No one is asking David French to build their luxury golf resort.