A crisis of the elites

Walter Russell Mead posted a harsh indictment of American elites on his blog recently. While the elites often feel that the American people simply don’t grasp the world as it is,

We have never had an Establishment that was so ill-equipped to lead.  It is the Establishment, not the people, that is falling down on the job.

Here in the early years of the twenty-first century, the American elite is a walking disaster and is in every way less capable than its predecessors.  It is less in touch with American history and culture, less personally honest, less productive, less forward looking, less effective at and less committed to child rearing, less freedom loving, less sacrificially patriotic and less entrepreneurial than predecessor generations.  Its sense of entitlement and snobbery is greater than at any time since the American Revolution; its addiction to privilege is greater than during the Gilded Age and its ability to raise its young to be productive and courageous leaders of society has largely collapsed.

Mead describes the main factors in this crisis: a “guild mindset” among the professions, the intellectual hegemony among elites of outdated progressivism, a feeling of earned privilege, skepticism about American history and traditions, and displacement of religion in elite culture. It’s worth quoting parts of his last two descriptions.

On history and tradition:

The leadership class of a country like ours needs to exemplify and to teach smart patriotism: a deep love of country that expresses itself in a concern for the well being of our fellow Americans, a sense of personal dignity and economic restraint, a willingness to set the example of sacrifice for the common good.  Progressive taxation is a poor substitute for the kind of progressive patriotism that we need.

Too many American intellectuals today spend their time mocking popular expressions of American exceptionalism and other forms of patriotic thought without working to create and promote a richer vision of the country, a deeper and wiser patriotism that connects with the sentiments of ordinary Americans and raises them to a wider and more magnanimous plane.  It is worth going back to read some of Daniel Webster’s great patriotic orations like the Second Reply to Haynes or the speech of March 7, 1850 to ask how in today’s circumstances we can articulate a vision of our union that can equally inspire its defense and its reform.

A leadership class is responsible for, among other things, giving a voice to the feelings of the nation and doing so in a way that enables the nation to advance and to change.  Most of the American establishment today is too ignorant of and too squeamish about the history and language of American patriotism to do that job.  In the worst case, significant chunks of the elite have convinced themselves that patriotism is in itself a bad and a dangerous thing, and have set about to smother it under blankets of politically correct disdain.

This will not end well.

On religion:

The religion gap between the elite and the rest of the country is a big part of the problem — and in more ways than one.  I can’t help but notice that the abandonment of serious religion by most of the American elite has coincided with a massive collapse in both the public and private morality of the American establishment.  Kids who weren’t raised in church or synagogue or mosque, who were taught that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were simplistic categories in a complex moral world of shades of gray, who were told that their highest moral duty was to be true to their inner passions, who were the first generation in American history to be raised in a Scripture-free educational medium, turn into self-indulgent, corner-cutting, self-centered adults.

I’m not an expert on the study of culture, but I do think that Mead is pointing to some important realities here. It’s necessary to have some cultural consensus to act as a societal glue. The best foundation for this is genuine Christian culture (what this means is hotly debated, of course), but human societies can hold together and have held together with other frameworks as well. I am thinking of the Roman republic’s “way of the elders” that provided for public commitment (an especially elite commitment) to the good of Rome until it disintegrated as Rome expanded, and also of the Arabic writer Ibn Khaldun’s idea of the necessity of social solidarity for a kingdom to be powerful. So there are different kinds and qualities of glue, but a society does need some kind of glue to hold it together.

Mead’s post reminded me of a provocative article written by Angelo Codevilla last year called “America’s Ruling Class — and the Perils of Revolution” (hat tip for the article: Doug Wilson). I think that Mead and Codevilla do veer a bit too close to populism (the virtuous, almost blameless people oppressed by a vile elite) in their essays, but they’re good entries into the discussion about our national challenges.

Here’s a critique of the book based on Codevilla’s essay from Reason magazine.

In posting this, I am not trying to deflect all blame on the elites. God in His grace has been showing me recently the ways in which I need to take my fight against sin more seriously that I might be more disciplined and courageous in living out the Christian life. So I’m not trying to rally the troops here.

But if we’re trying to understand what’s going on in our culture, understanding cultural elites is important. So it’s in that spirit that I pass on these links.

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2 comments

  1. Too bad; I think the troops could use a good rally. 🙂

    Taken piece by piece, many of their points resonate with me, but the authors’ populism (as you define it) makes me nervous since it could easily result in merely exchanging elites rather than restructuring the system to limit corruption and coercive authority, which is far more important. I think that’s Codevilla’s ultimate point, too (which Reason would also agree with).

    The authors’ view of elite vs. the populace also comes across as overly polarized and conspiratorial at times. They fail to see the support and conflicting priorities in the populace, and also how the good and bad of our culture (and elite) are so intertwined and derived from the same principles.

    Will there ever be a sufficient mass of brave souls who will strive for political office only to then diminish their own power to do good? Because it is not the corruption and evil of the elites which poses the greatest challenge to limiting them but rather the swift and immense good they can do. Evil is usually just a side-effect.

    Your comments about societal glue are interesting in light of Mead’s article. Do you think that America was more culturally cohesive when it was less tolerant? Is the problem a weak cultural consensus or a strong cultural consensus that is actually self-destructive?

  2. Kevin, your points about limiting coercive power and corruption are very well-put. It’s tough sometimes to know what are the appropriate limits of coercive power, but right now we’re probably not at the point where we’re dealing with too little coercion.

    I would say that yes, America was probably more culturally cohesive when it was less tolerant (my assumption here is that cultural cohesion is basically morally neutral: it can be used for accomplishing good or bad things). To me the most obvious problem of cohesion now is that there hasn’t been a new consensus since the events 1960s broke the old one with its strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think that a new one has arisen yet.

    I took my best shot at this here:
    https://temporachristiana.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/to-change-the-world-essay-ii-chapter-2/

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