David Brooks observes, “As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. It’s not even clear that society is better led.” He finds a number of reasons for this, the first (and I think most critical) has some bearing on the current predicament in which the country finds itself. He explains:
The meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.
Or “very smart” people lack real-world experience in leading other people. Or they lack core qualities like resoluteness and decisiveness. Or they delegate too much responsibility and blame others for their failings. You see where I’m heading, right?
We elected a president who was indisputably a member of the educated elite in America. It matters not at all that he wasn’t rich growing up. He spent his adult life at Ivy League institutions, chalked up the résumé entries (Harvard Law Review), and thoroughly adopted the intellectual bent and attributes of the academic Left in America.
What did all this have to do with being president? It turns out not all that much. But other elites — New York Times columnists, for example – swooned and vouched for him. They confused literary finesse with presidential timber. They mistook fluency in philosophy with grounding in common sense, moderation, and wisdom.
In looking for other reasons why elites are doing so badly these days, Brooks writes:
To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified.
Well, that sounds like a particular kind of elite leader working on a short time frame before voters have a chance to put a halt to his august plans. But not all leaders operate this way. There are many successful governors, business professionals, and others who set modest goals and work competently toward them. No one is compelled to achieve grandiose objectives unless he has a grandiose conception of himself, a messiah complex, if you will. For those who come to believe they represent the “New Politics” and have the ability to lay a “new foundation” (i.e., radically restructure the country), then, yes, they’re going to run into trouble when the rest of us freak out and don’t want to be restructured out of the health care we enjoy and the economic system we’re rather fond of.
Next time around, voters may want to assess the credentials of the presidential candidates more closely. Elite degrees may be evidence of a sharp mind and keen intellect. But they also teach a lot of foolish things at Ivy League institutions, and it behooves voters to consider which ones a graduate has adopted. Moreover, voters would also do well to look for a candidate’s accomplishments — evidence — of intellectual prowess and personal character. If the candidate hasn’t done much other than run for office, make speeches, and extol his own greatness, that should be a red flag.