What I Call “The Élite”
16 July 2012
The other day, David Brooks finally came out and said something that I’ve been shouting for years: “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.
That’s very well put, even if it does suggest that we do have to make a choice between today’s incompetent justice and yesterday’s bigoted stewardship. The WASP élite was rather like the Indian Civil Service of British Empire days, an incredibly small number of professionals overseeing the higher civic functions of a teeming mass of hoi unwashed polloi; in the United States, however, it was the WASPs who were the natives.
They weren’t very good leaders, the WASPs. Men like FDR, patricians who were comfortable standing up in front of the people and exhorting them to be their best selves, were quite rare; duffers like Taft, Coolidge, and Hoover were much closer to the norm. After Andrew Jackson, men from “nice” families tended to keep their families out of the political muck. They ran things, yes, but they did not lead. We still haven’t figured out the leadership thing in this country. It’s arguable that no society anywhere has ever actually “figured it out.” We can grow plenty of corn, but we don’t know how to grow leaders.
So there’s no reason to wax sentimental about the WASP ascendancy, just a few things to learn (the virtues of a relatively Spartan adolescence prominent among them). We need to take stewardship at least as seriously as the best of the WASPs appear to have done. Beyond that, though, we have to tackle this altogether new problem, which is, essentially, a refusal to take civic responsibility. In the public sphere, everything is somebody else’s fault.
If you went looking for leaders today, you would be whistled into Davos or Sun Valley or some other conclave of “business leaders” who would be happy to share their insights into high-minded motivation. But the term is oxymoronic; in business, there are only dictators. Large businesses today are run just as the courts of Europe were run five hundred years ago. Maurizio Viroli, in a new book about Silvio Berlusconi, describes a court system thus:
any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals — his courtiers — who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore.
(Yascha Mounk in The Nation, March 5/12 2012.) When you cut through all the Economist-spun crap about corporate structure and governance, the signore is what you’re left with, and the courtiers include both the subordinate executives employed by the corporation and the ranks of “independent” professionals — lawyers, lobbyists, and even elected officials — who serve the interests of the signore and his interests only. The signore is hardly omnipotent; his power derives from dense networks of mutual obligation that overall tend to favor his assumption of the throne. Failure to honor these obligations will surely lead to a coup. In that sense, the signore is indeed the head of an institution, and not a capricious individualist. But whatever you may say about the virtues and vices of courtly institutions, the simple truth is that the educated amongst us came to the realization, about 250 years ago, that they do not produce model governments.
Maurizio Viroli argues that Italy, looking for a leader, has settled for a signore. Getting back to David Brooks, we conclude that Americans are looking for scapegoats.