The Book Club

The Anti-Elitist Elite

Dear Nat,

Maybe I was too prickly about Lemann’s treatment of the California Civil Rights Initiative, but let me explain why. CCRI, and opposition to affirmative action generally, is popular with middle-class Americans. Meanwhile, CCRI was extremely unpopular with the educated elites. One of the things the educated elites did during the CCRI fight was to use the full power of their influence in the media and the culture to oppose, discredit, and in many cases smear the supporters. That’s one of the reasons most of the normal big-money people in the Republican party wouldn’t go near it.

In the end, the educated-elite assault was not enough to drive public support of CCRI below 50 percent. That shows that the influence of the educated elite is not dominant in American society (if it were, campaign-finance reform would have passed long ago).

But Lemann is writing a book lamenting the fact that America has this new elite, selected at an early age by SAT scores and other academic factors. He says this system of selecting people so young is unfair to most Americans. Good point. But if that is your argument, then in the major public-policy dispute you cover in the book, you had better bend over backwards to give voice to the majority of high-school grads who supported CCRI. Instead, the story is told–for the most part–through a bunch of Ivy League lawyers and highly educated political activists. To simplify Lemann’s supple narrative a bit: He decries the existence of the educated elite, but when push comes to shove he seems more a creature of that elite than an opponent or a detached cultural observer.

But I don’t want to say that Lemann is an old fashioned elitist. That is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the educated elite, of which Lemann seems to be a paragon. The reality is much more paradoxical. This is an elite raised to oppose elites. This is an elite with an egalitarian sensibility. That’s why it supports affirmative action–out of concern for the less fortunate. That’s why its members write books like this one. When members of the elite oppose the middle class and sometimes trample all over them, they are usually doing it in the name of egalitarianism. The elites are more egalitarian than the masses.

One of the things that shines through Lemann’s writing is his concern for people less fortunate than himself. He is never self-righteous or showy about this. Instead, his penchant for exhaustive research seems to flow from a genuine social commitment. I’ve never met the man, but I admire him through his writings. From what I know about him, he seems to have had all the educational advantages. And here he is arguing against the privileges of his class, but without any radical-chic bravura–and most members of the educated elite will agree with him.

That’s why this elite, for all its flaws, is fundamentally different than and better than the Protestant Establishment that it replaced. That’s why I’m not convinced by Lemann’s concluding section in which he says we should change the way we select our elites. The ethos he describes in his heroes undercuts his case. If we are going to have an elite–and we are–we should have one made up of people as egalitarian as Lemann. The current university system seems to inculcate such values. I mentioned yesterday that I just finished a book about the manners and morals of this educated class. When I wrote the proposal, I said that my last chapter would be about the revolt against this class, for some of the same reasons that Lemann hints at (without sufficiently detailing) in his book: They are selected too early; they live in a culture that is detached from the rest of the culture; the income gap between them and the rest of the culture is widening. But as I traveled around doing my research, I couldn’t find any evidence of this class revolt. There didn’t seem to be any mass movement to upend people like us who went to or work at selective colleges. Indeed, the rest of America seems to want to learn how to drink espressos like we do. The only people who seemed genuinely upset about the educated elite were members of the educated elite themselves.

This sensibility oozes from the pores of Molly Munger, one of the liberal lawyers Lemann describes fighting CCRI. This sensibility plays out over many spheres. This is an elite that dresses casually so it won’t appear elite (visit Microsoft). This is an elite that practices conscientious consumption instead of conspicuous consumption. This is an elite in which six-figure-income intellectuals like Robert Reich churn out books on widening wealth disparities. This is not too say they are hypocrites. It is to say they go to extraordinary lengths to mitigate their social advantages, at least compared to the old Protestant Establishment.

Indeed, I have a half-baked theory that America tolerates left-wing universities because they serve as finishing schools for the new ruling class. They give the coming elite an egalitarian sensibility, so when they rise to the top, they won’t give off offensive vapors that might arouse class resentments in the middle and lower class. In this way Marxist professors actually serve to solidify the current class structure.

But that wacky theory aside, the point for Lemann’s book is this: He brilliantly shows how the Protestant Establishment gave way to the educated elite. He tells for the first time how the selective mechanism for the educated class–the SAT–came to occupy its current dominant role. He underlines the problems with this arrangement. He makes a truncated plea for reform. But he never shows the great harms perpetrated by this system. He doesn’t show how the new elites have been corrupted by their status, or of the misery of How the Other Half Lives. On the contrary, he shows how educated elites like himself and Molly Munger are fighting against the Marie Antoinette syndrome. I don’t agree with Lemann on a lot of issues, but I’m glad the central flaw of this elite is excessive egalitarianism. That’s the least bad flaw for an elite to have.

You mentioned yesterday that today you were going to take on his concluding section. I’m looking forward to that.