Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Washington (what an elitist)

If you're looking for elitists in American politics, nobody but nobody beats the Founding Fathers.

The framers of the Constitution feared the people as much as they feared monarchical tyranny. Much of the machinery of the Constitution was engineered not only to ensure stability and order against the passions of the moment, but to protect a distinctly elitist and ranked view of society that most of us find literally incomprehensible today.

To Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and their fellow pro-constitutional Federalists, it was self-evident that there existed a natural social hierarchy — and that within that hierarchy only "gentlemen" possessed the disinterest, wisdom, sense of honor, and virtue to engage in political affairs. "There must be rulers and subjects, masters and servants, rich and poor," the historian Gordon Wood quotes a Boston minister in a typical formulation of this view. The challenge that the framers spent a great deal of time worrying over was how to ensure that a government which respected popular sovereignty through the electoral process would elect to high office only members of the proper ruling class. 

Hamilton, who had risen from illegitimate birth and poverty to wealth and power, was as firm a believer in the social hierarchy as any; individuals might move through the ranks through natural ability but the ranks were immutable, and had to be respected in any civilized society. Even as rabid a republican as Jefferson privately spoke of a "natural aristocracy." Some were destined to lead, others to obey.

The electoral college, the indirect election of senators, life appointments for judges, as well as the considerable property requirements maintained by most states for voting, all reinforced the object of restricting office to the "legitimate" ruling class. Adams — who once declared that the distinction between gentlemen and commoners was the "most ancient and universal of all Divisions of People" — conceived of the Senate as a direct parallel to the British House of Lords, maintaining the interests of the gentry as a counterweight to the common people's representatives in the House of Representatives. And as for President Washington, to say he lacked the common-man touch was about like saying Christine O'Donnell is a little bit strange or John McCain owns a few houses: Washington hated to be touched, made his birthday a national holiday in the manner of sitting English kings, would turn a withering imperious stare on anyone who he felt did not show due respect, and thought ordinary people (such "as compose the bulk of an Army," whom he had come to know as commander-in-chief in the Revolution) were by nature incapable of acting in other than selfish private interest.

Behind all of this were several remarkably obnoxiously elitist ideas, from our modern perspective. One was that only men of wealth and leisure could be expected to possess the natural nobility and personal honor to rise above crass self-interest and be fit for public service.

Another was that there existed an identifiable and immutable class of the privileged few, largely defined by birth, family, independent wealth, dress, manners, and established social status, who had a natural right to rule — even in a republic.

The republican backlash that Jefferson rode to the presidency in 1800 understandably rebelled against these "aristocrats" who "fancy themselves to have a right to pre-eminence in everything," as one republican politician put it. To the horror of the Federalists, the legislatures of the post-Revolutionary generation were filled with an influx of "middling" men — small farmers, mechanics, tavern owners, who unabashedly ran for office (rather than affecting an attitude of reluctantly being summoned to public duty), who brashly declared themselves just as good men as those who put on airs of gentility, and who returned in full the contempt of the Federalists toward their supposed inferiors.

So far so good. The idea that ability depended upon birth or class or wealth or airs of gentility was and is obnoxious to American core beliefs.

But the Jeffersonian republicans went much further in their democratic zeal, and at times almost seemed to take the view that ability didn't depend even upon ability — dismissing specialized knowledge such as the law as just another tool of aristocratic domination, dismissing college education as useless "book-learning." As I noted the other day, the republicans exalted popular opinion over formal qualifications or professional competence to the extent that virtually every office in many localities became elective — sheriffs, judges, and militia captains included.

Amid all of this, the republican attitude toward education was distinctly schizophrenic. On the one hand there was a widespread belief that, as one essayist of the time put it, "the throne of tyranny is founded on ignorance," and that if ordinary men were to exercise the privilege of self-government they needed to share in "wisdom and knowledge."

On the other, there was the continuing association of learning, especially university education, as the privilege of the hated elite. And indeed, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the other colleges of the young republic were "supposed to train only gentlemen," as Gordon Wood notes. So even as they called for widespread public education, the Jeffersonian republicans were much given to insisting that, for example, (as Jefferson himself once put it) a ploughman was just as likely as a "professor of moral philosophy" to offer the correct answer on a question of ethics. Not only did one not need to wear lace ruffles, silk stockings, and powdered wigs to hold valid political opinions; one did not even need knowledge: the instinct for virtue was innate in all men.

Fast forward 200 years, and we have the phenomenon of conservatives hurling the epithet "elitist" as a universal term of abuse at their liberal opponents. In a particularly fatuous essay in the Washington Post on Sunday, the conservative think-tanker Charles Murray (famous for his 1994 book on race and IQ, The Bell Curve) defended this favorite accusation of Sarah Palin et al., by explaining that because the better-educated people in the country tend to live in certain places (the East and West Coasts, plus a few colonial outposts such as the Research Triangle of North Carolina), marry each other, send their children in turn to the better universities, watch "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" instead of "Oprah" and "The Price is Right" on television, and read real books rather than Harlequin romances and the "Left Behind" Christian novels, they constitute a "New Elite" that "real Americans" like Sarah Palin are right to disdain for their superior airs and being "out of touch."

Of course the slight flaw in this argument is that unlike the real elitists who founded our nation 200 years ago, today's "New Elitists" do not view political power as the exclusive purview of one social class; do not want to limit voting or office holding to people who dress in a certain way or have a certain level of independent wealth; do not believe in restricting admission to colleges, including the most prestigious, to the sons of "gentlemen" only. In fact the only substantive difference between the "New Elite" and "real Americans" as Murray, Palin, et al. define it is (a) they tend to be more politically liberal (and thus, by the way, actually less interested in telling other people how to live their lives than is the religious right) and (b) they tend to be better educated. (It is even possible that (b) is the proximate cause of (a). And it is no more surprising that people who went to the same colleges or who work in the same line of work tend to marry one another than it is that people who go to the same bars or churches or sports events do.)

Leaving aside the contention that "the real America" is an accurate term for the one-third of the population who live in small towns, work blue collar jobs, and go to church regularly, I'd be the first to acknowledge that there is much that is virtuous and admirable in the values of small communities, the skills and satisfactions of manual work, and in the compassion and decency that is a part of (some) religious practice. I'd also like to be the first to add that there is nothing particularly virtuous about commercial, tawdry, and badly written escapist women's fiction, exploitive television, or ignorance. (Nor, for that matter, in such other characteristics of the "real America" as its higher rates of drug addiction, divorce, spouse and child abuse, obesity, gun violence, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, false disability claims, and illiteracy as compared to the "New Elite.")

Ironically, it is conservatives who are the first to scream at the idea that standards or qualifications are being compromised in the name of affirmative action or "political correctness"; yet when liberals dare to suggest that, frankly, you might ought to know something (or even read a book or two, including one by someone you might disagree with) before you shoot your mouth off about economic policy, immigration reform, or foreign affairs, that is "liberal elitism." I agree with Thomas Jefferson that the ploughman probably is as wise as the professor of moral philosophy when it comes to basic principles of right and wrong. At the same time I am extremely glad that the people charged with making decisions about our financial system know much more about finance (and the gold standard) than Glenn Beck does, that the people in command of our foreign policy and military know much more about foreign policy and military affairs than Sarah Palin does, and that judges before they are given the power to relieve a citizen of his liberty or rule on the constitutionality of acts of the legislature have had to spend three hard years studying the law and many more practicing it.

That's not elitism: that's standards.

And that's why even an unabashed elitist like George Washington could (in his famous Farewell Address) say of all the rest of us in a democracy :
Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.