Sunday, July 25, 2010

More On Democracy Being Strangled By the Ivy [Anthony McCarthy]

Neal Gabler has diagnosed the problems with the Obama administration as coming from his attachment to Ivy league culture, in pretty much the same way I have been for the past several months. He puts it into context with the Best and Brightest who got us involved with the civil war in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His analysis of the class aspirations of the Obama inner circle add to what was previously said here.

In many ways, Obama was a sucker for this kind of coldblooded, upper-crust approach to policy and the elitism that went with it. Half-white, half-black, half-American, half-African, part Kansan, part Hawaiian, middle class and transient, Obama made the primary plaint and question of his book, Dreams From My Father’’: Where do I belong? That question was posed as one of racial identity, but in the end, whether he fully realized it or not, Obama found himself not in black culture or white culture but in the culture of the best and the brightest. That’s where he belonged. That’s where he seemed to feel most comfortable.

So it is really no surprise that he has packed his administration with what one might call The Best and the Brightest 2.0 — people who are as dispassionate and rational and suspicious of emotion as the president prides himself as being: a bunch of cool, unflappable customers. (The exceptions are Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) Like The Best and the Brightest 1.0, these folks — guys like Larry Summers, outgoing budget director Peter Orszag, and Tim Geithner, on the economic side; and William J. Lynn 3d, deputy secretary of defense, and James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, on the foreign side — are Ivy-educated, confident, and implacable realists and rationalists. Like their forebears, they have all the answers, which is why they have been so unaccommodating of other suggestions on the economy, where economists have been pressing them for more stimulus, or on Afghanistan, where the president keeps doubling down his bets.

He points out that one difference is that today's aspiring administration elite are largely first generation ivy, from non-ivy league parents. As was said here yesterday, they are so invested in their social status, hard won through their merit - and I'd guess their ability to one up and bluff in the pretensions of infallibility that are common in academic circles - that they sacrifice everything else in order to maintain what they've won. It's no way to govern a democracy, it defeats any democratic progress when they will trade it away to the members of their newly joined class. As Gabler puts it:

But in elitism as in religion, no one is more devout than a convert, and these people, again like Obama, all having been blessed by the Ivy League, also embrace Ivy League arrogance and condescension. On this, the Republican critics are right: The administration exudes a sense of superiority.

The United States government is run like a ruthless den of thieves when the Republicans are in office, running it like a men's club isn't enough of an improvement under the establishment Democrats. There are real Democrats, largely concentrated in the House and in state legislatures who have to assert themselves more. If the progressive caucus in the House had played hard ball with the White House and the Senate, more effectively, they might save this administration from itself. That they will have to overcome the snobbery and elitism within the administration and the Senate to do it only means they will have to play really hard.

No one should overlook that just about every one of the people we are citing as a problem here is male. Mixing machismo in to the Ivy League, so many of which were so recently all-male, is also a problem.