Defending the Best and the Brightest

Written by James Hamel on Tuesday July 27, 2010

Angelo Codevilla’s recent article in the American Spectator doesn't just criticize America's leaders, it also unfairly rips the system that produces them.

Angelo Codevilla’s American Spectator article on the ruling class has made the rounds in recent days.  Judging by Rush Limbaugh’s reaction, it’s the best conservative piece since Paine’s Common Sense.  Never mind that if there ever existed a living caricature of everything conservatism’s founder Edmund Burke found abhorrent, it was Thomas Paine.  Leader Limbaugh has spoken, so conservatives are enchanted.

Codevilla argues that there are essentially two parties in America: the ruling class and the country party.  The county party consists of average joes—those who work hard, pay their taxes and live by common-sense principles.  The members of the ruling class are everyone else: academics, intellectuals and most of all, government officials.

Undoubtedly, our ruling class has its problems.  Reading Paul Krugman’s blog is like listening to a philosophy undergraduate rail against the stupidity of Immanuel Kant.  Krugman can’t accept that not all of those who disagree with him are “zombies” or babbling idiots.  In fact, some (Barro and Lucas to name only two) rank higher on the proverbial pecking order.  So I share Codevilla’s disdain for those who ostracize instead of criticize.  Still, I’m unwilling to fight arrogance and immaturity with more of the same.  Conservatism must stand for a more humble approach to politics if it stands for anything at all.

It might also strive to stand for rationality.  Not content to criticize the approach of the ruling class, he also criticizes the system that produces them:

Much less does membership in the ruling class depend on high academic achievement. To see something closer to an academic meritocracy consider France, where elected officials have little power, a vast bureaucracy explicitly controls details from how babies are raised to how to make cheese, and people get into and advance in that bureaucracy strictly by competitive exams. Hence for good or ill, France's ruling class are bright people -- certifiably. Not ours. But didn't ours go to Harvard and Princeton and Stanford? Didn't most of them get good grades? Yes. But while getting into the Ecole Nationale d'Administration or the Ecole Polytechnique or the dozens of other entry points to France's ruling class requires outperforming others in blindly graded exams, and graduating from such places requires passing exams that many fail, getting into America's "top schools" is less a matter of passing exams than of showing up with acceptable grades and an attractive social profile.

This is conservative?  Fulminating against a social system because it places too much emphasis on “social profile”?  Codevilla apparently loves standardized tests, so surely he knows that the nation’s best universities welcome only students with high SAT and ACT scores?  His criticisms of the American system of education sound less like political reflection and more like victimologist propaganda.  I occasionally hear that American institutions hold down unfavored classes of people; I just never expected to read it on the pages of The American Spectator.

Here I must get personal:  I was raised primarily by my grandparents in a dying steel town.  They taught me that if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do anything.  They were right.  This fall I’m headed to Yale Law School, and I’ll join 200 other students—of every color—virtually all of whom scored above the 95th percentile on the LSAT.  Our best institutions of higher learning—warts and all—demand excellence from their students.  The system that Codevilla criticizes doesn’t actually exist.

Thinking like this has its consequences.  Do we really want to delegitimize the best and brightest?  Harriet Miers fits the country party prototype while Samuel Alito, if for no other reason than his alma mater, does not.  Would conservative policy be better served had we assumed that Alito’s social profile—instead of his brilliance—had propelled him to success?  What about Thomas Sowell, Gary Becker, Antonin Scalia or Mitch Daniels?  All were educated at America’s finest institutions, yet they all work tirelessly for intelligent conservatism.  Would Codevilla discount their contributions because of their academic credentials?

Perhaps not, but these men are already established.  Codevilla’s conservativism is one where the litmus test for the next generation of leaders is rejection by the establishment.  His America is one ruled perniciously by alien elites.  Integrity prevents “good” people from making it to the top.  To change this, conservatives must withdraw and then counterattack.  His political philosophy is thus neither a disposition nor a set of principles, but a cultural protest.

America may be broken, but Codevilla says nothing useful about fixing it.  Our ruling elite is indeed arrogant, so we should remind them of that, and propose solutions that don’t assume technocratic omnipotence.  The silent majority is indeed wise, so we should provide alternatives that speak to their worries.  Instead, Codevilla tells the majority of the country that their government is against them.  He advises them to embrace the arrogance and closed-mindedness that he criticizes on the left.  This is a prescription for disaster.

It’s ironic that Codevilla consistently speaks warmly of Ronald Reagan.  Reagan always reminded Americans that our best days are ahead of us.  The former president’s legacy demands an intellectually active, forward-looking conservatism, not the cynical political nihilism of Angelo Codevilla.

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