Meritless meritocracy

Published January 1, 2024

The New Criterion

On the cracks showing in the elite establishment.

The best analysis I’ve seen of the 2023 off-year election results came from the California-based Substacker Chris Bray:

In 2019, the Republican candidate for governor in Kentucky got just short of 705,000 votes. In 2023, the Republican candidate for governor in Kentucky got 627,000 votes. There are a dozen ways to explain this 12 percent loss of Republican support in a red state at a moment when the repulsive and insane Democratic Party is the party of mutilating trans kids and prosecuting the political opposition, and the explanations have been widely discussed elsewhere, but I want to suggest the possibility of a different reason: What if Republican voters are just getting really tired of the Republican Party? Let a couple of examples stand in for the whole list: The doj is obviously politicizing American justice, and congressional Republicans are tweeting about it really hard. The border is wide open, and congressional Republicans have written a number of strongly worded letters. And so on. Merrick Garland and Alejandro Mayorkas have considerable job security, which is pretty remarkable. What if endless Republican weakness has just turned a growing percentage of Republican voters toward complete indifference? What’s the future of a political party that has no approach but going along to get along?

He’s making a similar point here, I think, to the one I made in this space two months ago (see “Therapeutic hatred” in The New Criterion of November 2023) by recommending that the Republican would-be rivals of Donald Trump should withdraw from the presidential contest and hie them to the place where the party obviously already is—by supporting the former president as he comes under continual and unprecedented legal persecution from his political enemies. It’s the issue of a lifetime for the party to campaign on, and yet the party is all but completely ignoring it.

Well, that advice obviously fell on deaf ears. Instead, the remaining Republican presidential aspirants continue, as I write, to pretend that the country cares more about them and their plans for exercising power they will never possess than about what the Democrats are doing to the country, its institutions, and to the only man, on present showing, who has a chance of stopping them. It is a testimony to the seemingly infinite capacity of highly ambitious people for self-deception that these hopeful leaders cannot see what the great mass of ordinary people apparently can—namely, that it is not just President Trump that the Justice Department, Democratic prosecutors, and their media allies are seeking to destroy but the whole political tendency he represents and has given voice to over the last eight years.

For better or for worse this tendency is known as populism—a word that, like most political words these days, can mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean. In recent weeks it has been applied in the media to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Javier Milei in Argentina, who have little in common beyond their remarkable hair and their winning of elections unexpectedly. Come to think of it, they also have these things in common with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, two other politicians who have been labeled as populists—mainly, I think, because they stand outside the political mainstream in their respective countries and espouse policies with considerable crossover appeal to voters in the other party.

That must be why they are so hated by the go-along-to-get-along faction in both parties, though in Messrs. Trump and Johnson’s case, at least, strategic application of the media’s scandal machine has ensured that there has never been any shortage of excuses for such hatred available to the haters. In America that hatred has been extended to Trump supporters since their anathematization as a “basket of deplorables” by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. She thus embodies the political class foreshadowed by Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites (1994), a class that likes to think of itself as a “meritocracy.”

Like the late Angelo Codevilla, I don’t mind the idea of a meritocracy in theory; I just dislike the one we’ve got, which consists of overeducated and cosmopolitan pseudoaristocrats who have more sense of solidarity with their counterparts in other countries than with their fellow countrymen of the populus. To these elites, those who sport banners proclaiming “Make America Great Again” are self-condemned; as the ex-governor Andrew Cuomo once put it, America “was never that great” to begin with.

Not so long ago, such a saying would have been political suicide, but, like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Cuomo must have recognized that his party’s constituency, consisting of his fellow meritocrats and the various notionally oppressed minorities of whom they claimed to be the protectors, no longer has room in it for the great mass of patriotic Americans. These patriots, after all, were the notional oppressors. Such class snobbery also has its appeal to Republicans of the NeverTrump persuasion, some of whom certainly must have expected to solidify their always-precarious position among the governing elite by joining with the Democrats in looking down on vulgar Trumpists.

The strategy of the Democrats and the media has long been to take advantage of this class anxiety among Republicans. The aim has always been not just to drive Mr. Trump from public life but also to marginalize his whole party until it has become indeed what they constantly tell us it already is: an “extremist” fringe with which no decent or respectable person could ever have anything to do. The Republican demoralization referred to by Chris Bray is the measure of their success in thus identifying their left-wing ideology with the common decency said at the time of Joe Biden’s election to be represented by his “Decency Agenda.”

There are reasons for thinking, however, that this success has not much longer to run—and not only because of populist successes in other parts of the world or Mr. Trump’s lead in the polls, at this writing, over his Republican competitors as well as Mr. Biden. Since October 7 Middle America has been witness to the true ugliness of our elite college campuses’ privileged youth, all of them presumptive future members of the meritocracy themselves, harassing and intimidating their Jewish classmates while demonstrating in favor of a pack of vicious terrorists and murderers and against one of America’s longest-standing and most loyal allies. If there have hitherto been lots of people who failed to recognize that hatred by the ruling class for “MAGA Republicans” is really hatred of them, then there won’t be quite so many, I fancy, in the future. Maybe even the odd Republican NeverTrumper will feel disgusted enough with his de facto allies among the elite to rejoin his separated brethren.

In the United Kingdom, which is always less reticent than the United States in recognizing class distinctions, the Conservative party has now been in power for nearly fourteen years under five different prime ministers and is similarly riven by the mutual hostility of populists and anti-populists. And just as it is for the GOP, the party establishment is largely anti-populist while the party’s constituency, or what’s left of it, grows increasingly populist. Moreover, like the GOP establishment, the Conservative establishment seems determined to ignore the wishes and, indeed, the very existence of its populist faction for as long as it is possible to do so.

Here, for instance, is a letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph from Dr. Martin Henry of Good Easter, Essex, written after the customary opening of a new session of Parliament with a speech in which the monarch outlines the government’s program for the next Parliament in words written for him by his ministers:

Yesterday’s King’s Speech was rather like those low-fat spreads that pretend to be butter. Did it really contain what people are asking for? The smoking ban, panic over AI, abolishing A-levels, driverless cars—I am not sure these are the things people want to hear about. The things they do want, however, were barely mentioned by the King: lower taxes; cheaper food; better roads; an end to the relentless persecution of motorists and landlords; a more robust police force; tougher sentencing for shoplifting and eco vandalism; tougher laws to combat hate crime; facing up to the absurdity of the proposed gender and trans laws in Scotland; a more efficient NHS; a self-sufficient, long-term energy policy; not to mention stopping the profligacy of giving millions to India and China—or, nearer to home, HS2 and net zero. A golden opportunity to close the gap with Labour before the next general election has, I fear, been lost.

He doesn’t even mention immigration, which is the livest of live issues in Britain, as it is elsewhere in Europe. It is also the issue that no mainstream party seems willing to exploit. The Tories make the right noises about “stopping the boats,” but they have so far had little to no success in actually doing so. The one member of the cabinet willing to show a robust attitude toward stemming the migrant tide, Suella Braverman, was sacked by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak—who is, like her, of Indian immigrant descent—a few days after the King’s Speech. Suella Braver-than-the-men then wrote a blistering letter in reply to Mr. Sunak, accusing him of reneging on four promises, two of them concerning immigration, that he made to her in return for her support in the leadership election that brought him to power in 2022—support she had offered “despite [Mr. Sunak’s] having been rejected by a majority of party members during the summer leadership contest and thus having no personal mandate to be prime minister.”

Ouch. Interestingly, however, what finally did poor Suella in was not the immigration issue that had embroiled her in so much controversy in the weeks leading up to her dismissal. Instead, according to some observers, what sunk her was an article she had written for The Times ahead of last year’s Armistice Day ceremonies, which some supporters of Palestine—which is to say, of Hamas—were threatening to disrupt. In the article she wrote that “there is a perception that senior police officers play favorites when it comes to protesters.” That was putting it about as mildly as possible, even though it would have been popular with Conservatives (and conservatives) in the country simply to have banned the pro-Hamas march. Ms. Braverman had some support in the media, but the preponderance of media opinion was better represented by Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of His Majesty’s Opposition, who wrote for The Telegraph that “Suella Braverman has set herself against the very values Britain fought for.”

I would give a great deal to know what the British dead of the Great War, who are honored specifically on Armistice Day, would have made of this idea of “the very values Britain fought for” according to Sir Keir. Would the right of the Jew-hating demonstrators to spew their poison in the public streets on any day, let alone one of the most solemn days in the calendar of British nationhood, have been among those values? I very much doubt it. Those soldiers seldom or never spoke of fighting for “values” at all. They fought for the honor of king and country—or thought they did—and for their own honor. And who should know better about such things than themselves? Certainly not Sir Keir, whose adherence to respectable political opinion in this instance means that at least he, like Mr. Sunak, cannot be faulted for opportunism.

As for the rights and wrongs of the Hamas-friendly marchers, the great and good Mark Steyn wrote this:

Whether hijacking Armistice Day should be legal or illegal, it would not, in a healthy polity, be considered seemly. That’s why I always quote the otherwise wholly forgotten Lord Moulton, the director-general of the explosives department during the First World War, and his observation that the health of a society is determined not by what is permitted or prevented by law but by what is self-regulated by the citizenry in “the realm of manners.” In the realm of manners, the citizenry don’t need a law forbidding competing groups from swamping and desecrating Armistice Day because you couldn’t find enough people willing to do anything so obviously inappropriate. But multiculti diversity rots out the realm of manners—because the population no longer has enough in common to sustain social cohesion, and so you need an ever bigger and more powerful state to mediate the competing interests of different identity groups.

I remember that, many years ago, my old friend the eminent scholar Noel Malcolm—now Sir Noel, I’m happy to say—wrote that for reasons of class consciousness the British don’t vote for “the man in the saloon bar,” however much they may sympathize with his views. Those views would presumably be called populist today, like those of Nigel Farage, the founding leader of the U.K. Independence Party and now of Reform U.K., a man who has become a national celebrity (and is now appearing on British television in that role in the reality-television show I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!) despite never having been elected to the British Parliament—and whose career is thus a testimony to the truth of Sir Noel’s observation.

Mr. Farage, it must be admitted, is much hated by the British ruling class, who only last summer attempted to bar him from holding a British bank account. But I don’t think their hatred for his followers and supporters is anywhere near as intense as the hatred of America’s ruling class for Mr. Trump’s.

In a recent post, Chris Bray cited a tweet by General Michael Hayden, the director of the cia and the nsa under George W. Bush, suggesting that “Americans with guns and Bibles are indistinguishable from Islamist suicide bombers.” As Mr. Bray writes,

The point of endlessly locating all threats of authoritarianism in the body of a single Scary Orange Man is that it ends all discussion about the actual sources of burgeoning authoritarianism in a metastasizing security state. But there it still is, growing in size and power, led by people who are increasingly unguarded about how much they hate the people they govern.

That hatred was also on display, shockingly, in the arrogance and contempt shown by the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, in testifying before Congress, toward Republican questioners asking: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying or harassment?” Their answers were evasive (“It depends on the context”) but clearly added up to No. As with the pro-Hamas demonstrators, the shamelessness of this defiance of hitherto all-but-universal standards of decency in this country shows what they think of their fellow citizens who still cling to such standards.

We in America sometimes still pride ourselves—if we pride ourselves on anything anymore—on being a “classless society,” but such open contempt for the vast numbers of Americans excluded from the cognitive elite must mean that the class-based fault lines of the Old World are still there, albeit with a new rationale. Now it’s the ruling class’s conceit of itself as a “meritocracy” that is used to justify keeping the less credentialed of their fellow citizens, and those with no ideologically validated claim to victimhood, in their place. It’s a place to which those of what the pollsters call the “some college” cohort have been particularly anxious to avoid relegation and social ostracization by their betters—their inevitable fate should they dare to support the likes of Messrs. Trump, Farage, Wilders, or Milei. Indications are that that may no longer be the case, going forward.

Mr. Bowman is well known for his writing on honor, including his book, Honor: A History and “Whatever Happened to Honor,” originally delivered as one of the prestigious Bradley Lectures at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, and republished (under the title “The Lost Sense of Honor”) in The Public Interest.

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