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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

STEVE BROWNE: IS THE TEA PARTY ANTI-ELITE?

“In order to govern men wisely
- leave them alone.”

-Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.

Almost three decades ago the son of one of my oldest friends asked me to meet him for coffee shortly after his college graduation.
He wanted to ask my advice on his career choices. I’d known him since he was a boy, and had been sort of in loco parentis since his father died in a work accident.

It seems he had two options: go to Harvard for an MBA, or go to work in the petroleum industry for a man who’d been his mentor throughout college.

The first thing I said was, “Why the heck are you asking me? You know I’m not a business person.”

“Yeah, but I trust your judgment Steve,” he said.

I took a deep breath and said, “OK, but if this goes south your mother’s going to kill me. In my opinion after a certain point, usually a degree you need to establish your credibility, more experience is almost always better than more formal education.”

My own mother was horrified. “You didn’t tell him to go to Harvard?” she practically screamed.

My young friend went to work for his mentor. Shortly afterwards he established his own natural gas distribution company, known for its innovative measuring and routing technology. Since then he has founded and sold companies in deep sea salvage, Voice Over Internet Protocol, biofuels, etc.

A while back I reminded him of our conversation. He said, “Heck yes! I don’t even let anybody with an MBA from east of the Mississippi in my office, I say, ‘Get out of here! You’re losing me money just standing there.’”

The reason this came to mind is the debate raging through the blogosphere, and the e-pages of establishment publications ranging from the New York Times and Slate, to National Review Online.

The debate concerns whether the Tea Party movement is “anti-elite education” or even “anti-intellectual.”

Furthermore, these charges come not only from the left, where you’d expect it, but from some on the right as well.

The University of California Berkeley recently hosted an academic conference to explore the roots of the Tea Party’s “conservative anger,” featuring presentations with titles such as “Prospects for an American Neofascism,” and “A Macro-Micro Model of Participation in Political Action: The Tea Party and Cognitive Biases in Information Consumption and Processing.”  

Unsurprisingly, the consensus of the conference seems to be that the Tea Party is composed of “right-wing populists” who exhibit an alarming racism, and are “being used” by the Republican Party to overturn the Progressive agenda.

President Obama himself hosted a meeting of historians at the White House to ask them about historical precedents for the Tea Party movement.

Again, it should come as no surprise they reassured him the Tea Party has precedents in anti-intellectual, xenophobic movements such as the Know-Nothings, the populism of the 1890s, and Father Coughlin’s Depression-era anti-Semitic radio ravings.

Jacob Weisberg writing in Slate, searched for what “right-wing populists” mean by “elite.” He cites an interview Brian Williams conducted with John McCain and Sarah Palin during the last election. Williams asked, “Who is a member of the elite?”

“Palin responded first. “I guess just people who think that they’re better than everyone else,” she said.

McCain then elaborated. “I know where a lot of them live—in our nation’s capital and New York City—the ones [Palin] never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown—who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.”

“Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, accuse his mixed-race opponent, raised by a single-mother and only a few years past paying off his student loans, of being the real elite candidate in the campaign.”

More towards the right, Anne Applebaum, asks why a popular mood of anti-elitism has arisen in this age of meritocracy, when the traditionally elite institutions have actively recruited from all levels of society.

“To study hard, to do well, to improve yourself -- isn’t that the American dream? The backlash against graduates of “elite” universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have in the past two decades made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies. She also cites Obama’s supposedly deprived background, comparing it with that of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
May I digress and point out something here? Thomas did grow up as the dirt-poor son of a single mother. Barack Obama’s mother was single too, but more by choice than circumstance. She also had a PhD and was the daughter of affluent to moderately-wealthy parents who she sent her son to live with for much of his childhood. They in turn sent Obama to a rather exclusive prep school in Hawaii.

And the Obamas may be “only a few years past paying off their student loans” – but they paid them off after buying a multi-million dollar house. This is not exactly like being the grandson of a sharecropper.

So I have to ask, who’s being the faux populist here? And who is it that’s obsessing over Obama’s race? Anybody you know?
Applebaum concludes, “At one level, the use of “elite” to describe the new meritocrats simply means that the word has lost its meaning. As Jacob Weisberg points out, when Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell or -- bizarrely -- Justice Thomas’s wife fling the word “elitist” at opponents, it often means nothing more than “a person whose politics I don’t like” or even “a person who is snobby.” But after listening to O’Donnell’s latest campaign ads -- in which the Senate candidate declares proudly, “I didn’t go to Yale . . . I am YOU” -- I think something deeper must be going on as well.

I suspect the “anti-elite-educationism” that (sociologist Daniel) Bell predicted is growing now not despite the rise of meritocracy but because of it. The old Establishment was resented, but only because its wealth and power were perceived as undeserved. Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on “the system.” Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as “deserving.” Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it’s their own fault -- or to feel that others feel it’s their fault -- even if they have simply been unlucky.

She seems a bit miffed at O’Donnel’s campaign utterance. Ms Applebaum as it happens, did go to Yale.

With all due respect to a writer whose work I admire, this is nonsense on stilts.

Applebaum has it precisely backwards. Much opinion research over past years has confirmed what we know from experience. By far most Americans do not resent wealth and success, so long as they feel the game is being played fairly.  

What we are seeing today is a growing consensus the game is rigged, that the government has assumed a huge role in picking winners and losers.

Far from being “those on the outside” who “blame their failures on ‘the system’” research shows Tea Party supporters tend to be around middle-aged and generally successful in their financial and personal affairs.

And contrary to the lefty academics, the contempt many Tea Party supporters feel for the Ivy League-educated has nothing to do with any disdain for higher education.

The elite universities have led the trend towards grade inflation and gutting the curriculum. In institutions such as Harvard and Princeton the most common grade is an “A.” Students can matriculate with a prestigious degree, having established the friendship network that will grease their way through life, without ever having taken a really rigorous course in math, science, history, or languages.

A doctor or scientist from Harvard or Princeton still commands respect. An Ivy League graduate in the social sciences or humanities is more likely to be regarded as someone with laughably absurd opinions who couldn’t drive a nail or change an oil filter to save his life.  

At little Valley City State University, just down the street from where I live, over the past few years every single science graduate has had a job offer before graduation. And you can be sure those offers were not extended because of family connections or the prestige of the institution.

It is not an anti-intellectual bias against “book-learning” we’re seeing. It is contempt for indoctrination disguised as education. It is respect for real competence, measured by success in the essential wealth-creating work of any civilization: making stuff, growing stuff and moving stuff around.

And it is exactly what the Tea Party supporters have been loudly and plainly stating in a manner that requires no interpretation or search for deep psychological meaning, a distrust of the elitist assumption they are more fit to run our lives than we are.

That elitist attitude is not a fiction, not a caricature of something more “nuanced,” it is not even an exaggeration. It is revealed in the very way elitists define the debate itself.

Weisberg, for example, sneers at the “hypocrisy” of those who “cast democratic decisions as illegitimate only when they conflict with right-wing ideology” and, “If an unelected judge upholds gay marriage, he’s practicing liberal elitism. But if the same unelected judge were to invalidate Obama’s health care legislation, he would be defending the Constitution.”

But the judge in California did not “uphold gay marriage” whatever your opinion of the issue is. He overturned by judicial fiat a majority vote in a statewide referendum.

And search the entire document, you won’t find a single mention of “health care” anywhere in the Constitution. If you accept that the legitimate powers of the federal government must be specifically defined by the Constitution, not just blithely assumed, then if a judge were to invalidate Obama’s health care legislation, he would indeed be defending the Constitution.

Weisberg and others of the party of government, reject this view as unworthy of consideration. Implicit in their view is the aristocratic assumption that enlightened and properly educated rulers have the right, and the responsibility to guide the masses.

In the opposing view, society is best served by what free-market economist Freidrich Hayek called “distributed knowledge.” The knowledge required to run our civilization does not reside in the heads of elites, but is distributed among myriad individuals, each of whom deals with that part of life that directly concerns him.

Economist Leonard Read pointed out in his essay, “I Pencil” that no single person has all of the knowledge and skill necessary to make a simple pencil.   

This is what Tea Party supporters know, though they may not have articulated it explicitly. And this is what the critics of the Tea Party’s “anti-elitism/anti-intellectualism” are missing entirely.

In his book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecski explains research going back to the 19th century, that shows how crowds made up of individuals with no particular expertise can be wiser than individual experts, and even committees of experts. According to Surowiecski, crowds possessing the attributes of:  diversity of opinion,  independence of members from one another, decentralization; and a good method for aggregating opinions, can outperform committees of experts in solving a wide range of problems.


Surowiecski  said these attributes keep the crowd open to information flow, prevents a single charismatic opinion leader from dominating the group, balances out the errors and eccentricities of individual members, and produces smarter results than any expert or group of experts.  
Do I need to point out these are the characteristics of the Tea Party movement? Nobody saw it coming. Nobody predicted its emergence. It has no clearly defined leadership. It arose after that “method of aggregating opinions” was made possible by the Internet.

And to the utter incomprehension of the apostles of “hope and change,” it has given hope to those of us who despaired of changing the direction of our country’s long slide into a tyranny of self-defined elites.




Steve Browne is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, M.A. anthropology and post-graduate study in journalism and mass communication theory. He has worked as a garbage truck driver, sewage treatment plant operator and lab tech, and journalist. From 1991 to 2004 he taught English in Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, Lithuania and Belarus and as English editor for the Polish Academy of Science Annual Review. He is the founder of the Language of Liberty Institute Liberty English Camps and in 1997 was elected an Honorary member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights. He is currently working as a freelance writer, truck driver, and teaches Filipino martial arts to private students.

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