September 14, 2003

Does Social Class Have a

Does Social Class Have a Bearing on Political Leadership Abilities?

David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYT a couple days back that, more or less, extolled the virtues of a bygone class--the WASP establishment. For Brooks, noblesse oblige appears to have been rendered extinct, with unfortunate ramifications for America's political leadership class.

In brief, Brooks was arguing that politicians of a certain class, often educated at elite prep schools, were blessed by what the French call being bien dans leur peau (literally "comfortable in their own skin").

As Brooks put it:

"And for both, those decades of WASP breeding were not in vain. If you look at Bush and detect certain common traits. The first is self-assurance. Both Bush and Dean have amazing faith in their gut instincts. Both have self-esteem that is impregnable because it derives not from what they are accomplishing but from who they ineffably are. Both appear unplagued by the sensation, which destroyed Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, that there is some group in society higher than themselves."

Brooks sketches out how young men inculcated in the crucible of prep schools (an "early introduction to human cruelty", per Alan Clark's memorable phrase) were toughened up and thus "leadership" ready. Sadly, for Brooks, while none of us mourn the passing of the WASP establishment--we do miss the leaders produced during that era.

Hogwash says former Rhodes Scholar Dave Adesnik. Dave writes:

"As a product of "today's top schools", let me just say that Brooks has no idea what the #@$%& he is talking about. At both Yale and Oxford, I met countless young Americans with a fierce and principled commitment to making America a better nation, both at home and in its behavior abroad. These students spanned the political spectrum, left, right and center.

Moreover, America's top schools produce so many potential leaders precisely because they abandoned the cruel and unusual methods that Brooks seems to cherish. While still athletic and sociable, abandoning excessive competition in those fields has given today's students more time to focus on A) their studies and B) happy, fulfilling friendships and relationships."

I think both Brooks and Adesnik exaggerate their arguments. Brooks places too direct a causal link re: the notion that a certain form of education and social class background leads to noble (or "conviction") leaders. And Adesnik discounts this line in toto and ignores that there might well be some truth in what Brooks is arguing.

For me, the death of the WASP Establishment dates sometime around the events David Halberstam chronicled in the "Best and the Brightest." Super bright, super-WASP guys like National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy steered LBJ down paths that led to the President's resignation. Meanwhile, less hawkish WASP types were castigated by a (decidely non-WASP) Henry Kissinger for displaying "cowardice" (see this bio for more) that Dr. K associated with the Eastern Establishment (the very virtue David Brooks extols re: this class). In a word, the old Establishment, those "Present at the Creation" of the post-war system had, this time, failed the country, and badly.

What replaced the Old Establishment was a heavily meritocratic post-Vietnam generation. Gone were the days when, at least reputedly, Andover and Exeter grads would circle their top three Ivy League college picks and, barring truly horrific grades or mammoth disciplinary infractions, gain entrance at at least one of them. Instead, the likes of Harvard and Yale were granting admission to legions of public school grads who continue to make up the healthy majority of those schools.

Fine, right? In a society that prides itself on egalitarianism, this should certainly be applauded. Opening the doors of elite institutions to a more representative pool of society is a definitive plus. And who wants to go to school solely with a bunch of white guys called Skip, Burke and Sumner anyway? Being around a diverse group of students provides its own form of education in its own right.

But What of Brooks' "Resume-Gods"?

But Brooks is getting at something a bit more amorphous when he takes a jab at "Resume Gods" while extolling old-line products of elite prep schools. Call it the Clinton-factor. These are the hyper-achievers who made it solely on their drive, will and smarts--and didn't come from an ensconced and privileged social class (or its secondary schools).

These "resume gods", particularly today as college admission competion becomes even more ferocious, often strive to "check all the boxes," hyper-pragmatically plotting their Harvard admission by ensuring the right mix of high school grades, SAT scores, athletic activity, community service and internships (one sometimes wonders how much they really care about the actual activities they pursue).

Clinton, from a decidely non-elite background (Hope, Arkansas), later made his way to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and then to what might well represent the pinnacle of the American meritocracy--Yale Law School.

Clinton was nothing if not ambitious. But the ambition, in my view at least, often seemed unmoored from a real political vision or conviction. There was too much Dick Morris "triangulation", polling (even where to vacation, remember?) and, generally, easy recourse to heading wherever the political winds were blowing.

Let's put it a bit differently. Wasn't his Presidency infected by a kind of relativism? A relativism encapsulated and immortalized by his smirkish testimony in response to Ken Starr's staff: "it depends on what the meaning of "is" is."

Leave aside the tiresome sex scandal. Take a look instead at Clinton's Bosnia policy in the context of his alleged relativism and dearth of innate self-confidence born (for Brooks) of social class. There, the stakes were higher than Paula Jones' civil rights and whether the POTUS was screwing the help (A digression: "don't screw the crew", I overheard a smart Briton recently advise his staff here in London).

In Bosnia, over two hundred thousand people were killed and millions displaced. The stake, existentially-speaking, were about as high as it gets. In 1992, Candidate Clinton attacked George Herbert Walker Bush as having an impotent foreign policy. A dictator coddler and so on. Clinton stated that, were he elected, he would lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims and use NATO to strike Bosnian Serb canon fortifications wreaking havoc on cities like Sarajevo, Gorazde, Bihac and so on.

All this talk artificially raised expectations in Sarajevo that the Yankee cavalry was coming to the rescue. But it wasn't to be, at least until Dick Holbrooke helped save the day at Dayton three long years later. In the meantime, the Bosniaks were, basically, left on their own to stave off genocidal policies.

Brooks' point is that a Howard Brush Dean III or George Bush wouldn't say that he was going to bring a Slobodan Milosevic (or Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic or Saddam Hussein) to task and then do nothing. And I think he's got a point.

Dean and Bush strike me as men with a strong internal compass, conviction, and innate comfort with themselves that leads them to do what they say they are going to do. Put differently, they have perhaps been insulated (at least somewhat because of their high school educations and social class) by the more gross forms of relativism that have swept post-60s America--allowing them rule with more conviction.

The question is: to what extent, if any, is this a function of their social class? Dave would probably say very little if at all. I want to argue, perhaps quite a bit, but not as much as Brooks makes out. (see Ronald Reagan as a prime example of a leader with the qualities Brooks extols that doesn't come from the Eastern elite and didn't attend a Groton or St. Pauls).

UPDATE: Innocents Abroad weigh in on all this too.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Dan Drezner weighs in.

What of Boarding Schools Today?

A couple final points for those curious enough to read on. The first somewhat playful, the second serious. Brooks mentions that St. George's (Dean's alma mater) is slightly more socially prestigious than Andover (Bush's alma mater and, incidentally, mine). Many readers may have been puzzled about that as Andover is commonly considered the Harvard (or Yale) of secondary schools.

But Brooks is absolutely right. St. Georges was (and still, in some quarters at least, is) considered more socially prestigious among old-line WASP elites that don't really care (or, indeed, actively don't want) their children to go to schools like Harvard or Yale. Said schools are viewed as too intellectual, overly academic, perhaps institutions that will provoke too much philosophical questioning among the progeny (so, isn't the estate tax just in modern American society? should I forgo the family business and join the ACLU? and so on...).

The serious point. I had earlier argued that Vietnam played a pivotal role in reducing the impact of the old eastern Establishment elites. But it is also worth mentioning the state of the American boarding school--of which Brooks makes much--in the context of training of future elites. As David Hicks, the former rector of St. Pauls, pointed out in an excellent article in the American Scholar's Autumn '96 edition, the state of boarding schools in the U.S. today is rather dire.

He starts by reminding us that those schools were formed ("in their own minds at least") "to serve public, not private, interests. They were for America's 'artificial', not her 'natural,' aristocrats, to use Jefferson's terms; yet true to Jefferson's intent, they wished to make virtuous and brave those who, through the accident of birth, would someday exercise great power and influence."

Or, as Hicks' puts it, this was the "beau ideal." And, as he points out, said schools churned out FDR, Dean Acheson, John Kennedy, Archibald Cox, Henry Stimson, among many, many other notable leaders.

Today, whether you love 'em or hate 'em, note that both Dubya and Jerry Bremmer are Andover grads.

Regardless, today, the situation is more complex and the "beau ideal" potentially in steep decline.

Why? Mostly because of the below factors that Hicks enunciates in his excellent article.

1) the sprawling of suburbia and expansion of the highway system post WWII made these schools less isolated, as did the telecommunications encroachments of TV, cable, Internet and so on (in other words, the schools became more like your typical suburban high school, less Clark's Etonian "early introduction to human cruelty");
2) mounting class insecurity (old money running low), so the schools are seen more as meritocratic launch pads aimed at maintainence of social status rather than, per the old vision, those comfortable with their station in life serving the public good (noblesse oblige);
3) the "adolescent as consumer", or come get our collective "foods, movies, fashions, videos, CDs, drugs, alcohol, pornography, cigarettes, sports and pop heroes." Put differently, teenagers often have forced upon them the full plethora of offerings of the "moronic inferno" (to use a Martin Amis phrase);
4) the boarding school being no more successful than society at large at "finding a way to sustain a coherent and unified culture while affirming individualism and cultural diversity;"
5) the "fragmenting effect of descriptive developmental theories" that replace the "prescriptive moral aims of an earlier time." Or, put differently, "modern pedagogy is rooted in a precise understanding of who the adolescent is rather than an idealized vision of the adult who the adolescent me be or is meant to become"; and, most fundamentally,
6) the question of whether the 19th century's "utopian impulse to form authentically human and morally sensitive communities is..possible in an era when few are willing to give up their putative rights to privacy and self-expression for the accomplishment of such a goal."

If David Brooks wants to dig around more on the death of the eastern Establishment--he'd do well to read this piece--if he hasn't already.

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