Thoughts on the narrow focus of those who would rule us. For our own good, of course:
I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses–ones outside glamor industries like tech or design.
What’s remarkable is that this is coming from me. It’s not like I came up on the mean streets of Camden, or come from a long line of dockworkers. Both my grandfathers were small business owners. My father and most of his siblings have spent at least some time as professors. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and went through middle and high school at what is now the most expensive private school in New York City. (I should note that it wasn’t anything of the kind when I went there. But still.) My experience of working class life consists of some relatives, a few summer jobs, a stint in the secretarial pool at a nonprofit, three years with a firm that had a substantial cable installation practice, and one year in a construction trailer at Ground Zero. Most of my work experience is in writing stuff, and then talking about what I write. I’m hardly the Voice of the Proletariat. Or the Voice of Industry, for that matter.
And yet, this is apparently considerably more experience than many of my fellow journalists have, especially the younger ones. The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn’t become a journalist until I was thirty, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight towards a career where you write and think for a living. Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.
The president epitomizes this class of people. He has his credentials, but he is completely clueless as to how a business works, or what it takes to make one succeed. In fact, I suspect that’s true of many of his cronies as well. The route to become head of a major Wall Street firms lies largely through credentials and connections, often political (e.g., the revolving door between government and Wall Street — what real-life business skills does Franklin Raines have?), not in real-world experience.
Like Megan, I come from a family that worked with their hands (auto mechanics and carpenters), at least on my mother’s side. My grandfather built two boats from scratch in the thirties, inboard motors using auto engines, and a family cottage in northern Michigan. When I graduated high school (barely), I went to work as an auto mechanic, an experience that after a year persuaded me that I didn’t want to do it all my life. I do think it gives me a perspective, particularly as an engineer, that a lot of people with engineering degrees but no practical experience don’t have, and it certainly gives me a different one than many of the other policy wonks in DC.
It’s also worth noting that, as Angelo Codevilla’s latest essay describes, it’s a bi-partisan problem:
The ever-growing U.S. government has an edgy social, ethical, and political character. It is distasteful to a majority of persons who vote Republican and to independent voters, as well as to perhaps one fifth of those who vote Democrat. The Republican leadership’s kinship with the socio-political class that runs modern government is deep. Country class Americans have but to glance at the Media to hear themselves insulted from on high as greedy, racist, violent, ignorant extremists. Yet far has it been from the Republican leadership to defend them. Whenever possible, the Republican Establishment has chosen candidates for office – especially the Presidency – who have ignored, soft-pedaled or given mere lip service to their voters’ identities and concerns.
Thus public opinion polls confirm that some two thirds of Americans feel that government is “them” not “us,” that government has been taking the country in the wrong direction, and that such sentiments largely parallel partisan identification: While a majority of Democrats feel that officials who bear that label represent them well, only about a fourth of Republican voters and an even smaller proportion of independents trust Republican officials to be on their side. Again: While the ruling class is well represented by the Democratic Party, the country class is not represented politically – by the Republican Party or by any other. Well or badly, its demand for representation will be met.
…by the turn of the twenty first century America had a bona fide ruling class that transcends government and sees itself at once as distinct from the rest of society – and as the only element thereof that may act on its behalf. It rules – to use New York Times columnist David Brooks’ characterization of Barack Obama – “as a visitor from a morally superior civilization.” The civilization of the ruling class does not concede that those who resist it have any moral or intellectual right, and only reluctantly any civil right, to do so. Resistance is illegitimate because it can come only from low motives. President Obama’s statement that Republican legislators – and hence the people who elect them – don’t care whether “seniors have decent health care…children have enough to eat” is typical.
Republican leaders neither parry the insults nor vilify their Democratic counterparts in comparable terms because they do not want to beat the ruling class, but to join it in solving the nation’s problems. How did they come to cut such pathetic figures?
The Tea Party was/is largely a response to this.