THE PLANK DECEMBER 19, 2008
My colleagues have been doing an excellent job of explaining why it would be a disgrace to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the Senate, but I want to add one other argument to theirs. It has to do with elitism. To make a rough generalization, there are two different kinds of elitism: social elitism and intellectual elitism. Obviously, the two are intertwined in certain respects but they are basically distinct phenomena. (And even where they are closely intertwined, it's possible to see a distinction. Ivy League schools, for instance, have long embodied both strands of the elitist tradition, and still do. But over the past two generations, the relative balance at these institutions has gradually shifted away from social elitism and towards intellectual elitism--with fewer students admitted because their parents are well-connected and more admitted because of their high SAT scores.)
The difference is important because one form of elitism is considerably more valuable to a democratic society than the other. Social elitism is at best worthless, at worst illiberal and dangerous. It runs counter to the notion of equal opportunity that forms the core of the American ideal. More practically, it leads to people doing jobs for which they are not qualified. When those jobs are important ones, the consequences to society can be severe. If there are any positive outcomes that flow from social elitism, I can't think of them.
That isn't true for intellectual elitism. To be sure, this form of elitism carries plenty of downsides. It can lead to hubris (this was the cautionary tale of The Best and the Brightest) and cause people to underestimate the role that luck has played in their own success. But unlike social elitism, intellectual elitism carries clear benefits. It is worthwhile for society to esteem expertise--good for our arts, good for our sciences, and good for our politics. As long as it is tempered by other values, intellectual elitism--a fundamental belief in the worth of intelligence and curiosity--is basically a good thing.
One of the great tricks of the Republican Party in recent years has been to meld these two forms of elitism into a single slur. When Sarah Palin railed against the "Washington elite" in her convention speech she didn't specify whether she was denouncing social elitism or intellectual elitism, but it was pretty clear that she was talking about both. This was an important part of her rhetorical strategy: It meant she could excuse the harsh (and accurate) judgments about her experience and knowledge that were raining down on her from intellectual elites by implying that they didn't like her simply because she didn't attend Beltway cocktail parties--i.e., because she wasn't a social elite. George W. Bush (ironically, himself a product of social elitism) did much the same thing when he was running for president. The upshot of Republicans' catch-all contempt for elitism was eight years of government that too often looked down on expertise and knowledge.
The election of Barack Obama suggests that American voters finally saw through this damaging conflation. Obama is probably the most intellectually elite president since Woodrow Wilson--he wrote an acclaimed book, taught at a top law school, and generally evinces a kind of academic disposition toward the world that is rare in politicians--but his entire career is a repudiation of social elitism. He went to the best schools not on the basis of his family connections but on the basis of intellectual merit. In electing Obama, voters were giving a measure of approval to this form of elitism--to expertise and intelligence in government--which is something they have not done in a long time.
And that is why I find the Caroline Kennedy situation so appalling. Just when Democrats have succeeded in decoupling intellectual elitism from social elitism--just when they have succeeded in suggesting that you can be advocates of intelligence and expertise without being advocates of unearned privilege and crude snobbery--along comes the ultimate symbol of social elitism to stake her claim to a powerful place in the Democratic Party. If Kennedy gets the seat, it will be for one reason only: her last name. And the perception that she is close to Obama threatens to meld social elitism and intellectual elitism back together in the minds of voters. That is good news for demagogues like Sarah Palin, and bad news for the country.