Jonah Goldberg of the National Review has responded at some length to the column I wrote on Tuesday about meritocracy. His response made me think that there is still more to say on this subject. Goldberg seems to think the anti-elitist rhetoric which is in wide use at the moment (the subject of my column) is acceptable because it is aimed at a particular elite: the liberals, the Obamas, “a very specific and self-styled elite.” He should listen harder, because in fact the rhetoric is far more sweeping than that, encompassing not only liberals but anyone with higher education. Sarah Palin told O’Reilly that Americans are seeking to rid themselves of “spineless” people with an “Ivy League Education.” Glenn Beck has mocked “the Ivy League” and people with degrees at great length. Christine O’Donnell’s political ad (the one which begins “I didn’t go to Yale…”) doesn’t attack “liberals who went to Yale.” It attacks anyone who went to Yale.
What interests me is the fact that this backlash has come now, precisely when the Ivy League’s long campaign to make itself less exclusive has finally borne fruit. We can argue about the merits of that campaign, or the merits of the Ivy League. But clearly, our black President and our black First Lady would not have graduated from Harvard Law School in the 1950s. The fact that they did do so in the 1980s explains, in part, where they are today. There may be many things wrong with it, but Harvard Law School is no longer “elitist’ in the traditional, landed-gentry sense of the term. Whatever else it may be, Harvard Law School has become an engine of upward mobility. It seems odd that conservatives are attacking institutions that can create opportunities for people not born into wealth or privilege – particularly since conservatives support, at the same time, the elimination of the estate tax. If privilege is the enemy, why not tax estates at 100%?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this issue has tied conservative intellectuals in knots, particularly those at the National Review (a magazine whose masthead used to feature my husband, and for which I used to occasionally write). On the one hand, the magazine was founded by an old-style elitist, William F. Buckley, and plenty of Ivy Leaguers have written for its pages. On the other hand, the editors feel obligated to support Sarah Palin and Ginni Thomas’s inarticulate and wide ranging broadsides against “the elite” – all of the elite, which by definition includes themselves. So anxious is Goldberg to dismiss the idea that a part of the Right is “anti-education” that he actually attributes arguments to me that I never made. I never mention envy, for example, but he attacks my “theory of envy” as “not merely wrong but actually silly.” He also goes on, nonsensically, about liberals who are “bossing people around.” What, conservatives never boss anyone around? They never think they know best? Nor does he seem to realize what the consequences of this burst of anti-elitist rhetoric are likely to be. A generation ago, the Republican Party had the lead among educated voters. George Bush senior easily defeated Michael Dukakis among college graduates. In a remarkably short period of time, that advantage has nearly vanished. Doesn’t the Republican party want them back again?
Cross-posted at the Washington Post’s PostPartisan blog.