David Brooks And The Elites

by evanmcmurry

Congratulations to Giant Marxist Vagina Chris Hayes. Nevermind a steady gig at the Nation or a weekend show on MSNBC: you know you’ve made it when David Brooks devotes a whole column to debunking you. From now on, Mr. Hayes drinks for free south of 14th St., in which I include most of the rest of the country where most of the rest of the plebes live.

Brooks no doubt could see this portion of the superstructure from his house, if he didn’t have such a bad habit of mistaking mirrors for windows:

Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.

And things were great. Go on.

Over the past half–century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.

Or family pedigree, family prominence, family connections, or a combination of all three. Go on.

Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.

That’s unobjectionable until you catch the false dilemma slipped in at the end: “The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed.” Note how justice is cannily posed in direct opposition to success, as if society were a zero-sum competition between the two: a more just society, to Brooks, necessarily means a less functional one. Thus do we return to Brooks’s running theme, that world would work best if the people for whom it worked worst accepted their fate and got out of the way.

Would anybody like to pose a counterargument to that?

Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites,” he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.

Hayes points to his own elite training ground, Hunter College High School in New York City. You have to ace an entrance exam to get in, but affluent parents send their kids to rigorous test prep centers and now few poor black and Latino students can get in.

Baseball players get to the major leagues through merit, but then some take enhancement drugs to preserve their status. Financiers work hard to get jobs at the big banks, but then some rig the game for their own mutual benefit.

[…] Far from being the fairest of all systems, he concludes, the meritocracy promotes gigantic inequality and is fundamentally dysfunctional. No wonder institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age.

Sounds right to me. If we agree, then why are we arguing?

It’s a challenging argument but wrong.


I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.

Hold on a damn second. Where on god’s big green dumb earth did people come up with this idea that poor people don’t work hard? Leaving aside the problems of correlation v. causation inherent in the structure of such an “argument”—wanting as they do to see poverty as a moral failing, conservatives can never agree whether people are poor because they don’t work hard, or don’t work hard because they’re poor, and often end up claiming both, a sort of “let them have their cake and eat it, too” avoidance of logic—it just isn’t true.

Poor people tend to work more than the wealthy; they just receive exponentially less in wages for it. The main structural challenge of being poor—at least up until our most recent White Protestant opposite-of-succeeded with our economy and eliminated the problem of work by eliminating available jobs altogether—is that no amount of work was enough to stimulate economic mobility in a structurally unequal system. When you must work your whole week to break even, there’s no time left over for study and no money left over for study aid (note how Brooks intentionally conflates discipline and money in the above examples), calcifying poverty over generations. Poor people aren’t choosing to watch Real Housewives of the Meritocracy as opposed to taking their children to piano recitals; often they don’t get to either, because they’re clocked in. Brooks wants this to be a moral failing, not a structural-economic one that might be addressed by these concepts of “justice” running around mucking everything up.

Phenomena like the test-prep industry are just the icing on the cake, giving some upper-middle-class applicants a slight edge over other upper-middle-class applicants. The real advantages are much deeper and more honest.

Ah. He must mean about how nobody’s being honest about how the ethos of self interest that was supposed to gird our economy instead destroyed it, and how we have used the acidic rhetoric of the free market to dissolve the social contract.

The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Or that. That also makes sense.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

(That last is a shot at Hayes and Co.) No, what the wealthy have mastered is using the matrices of late capitalism to appropriate counterculture icons and turn them into found status symbols. Nobody’s pretending that they are counterculture, they’re pretending that counterculture is just like anything else—it has an exchange value, and can be purchased for capital. It’s sort of like when a New York Times columnist buys a ticket to a Springsteen concert.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged.

No, you knew you were better. There’s a difference, and it’s a difference to which Brooks obviously wants to return:

The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.

That ethos would be the one “the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess.” Brooks never quite says as much, but every sneaky syllogism of his article points to it. Since the introduction of “justice” to the structure of our society, the “outcomes” have been “mixed.” We lost the self-awareness of elitism that allowed elites prior to the introduction of “justice” to conceive of themselves as stewards of institutions. And it just so happened that said self-awareness corresponded with a white, anti-Semitic (and anti-everything else Other) group of men.

Could it be that their self-awareness was formed exactly because their group was exclusive? Elites of yesterday thought they were in charge of institutions not because they were moral captains, but because they thought the institutions should function only for them; what Brooks sees as upstanding men guiding institutions was in fact insular groups of men protecting them against encroachment from the non-white, non-male portions of society. They acted in self-interest, exactly how the bankers of five years ago were acting when they brought down the economy.

The opposite of this self interest, it turned out, was justice. David Brooks thinks it doesn’t work as well; turns out it just doesn’t work as well for his class. But when you think a mirror is window, your class appears to be everybody. If only somebody would write a column about what happens when people “cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.”