Criticizing Elites, Cultivating Excellence

Conservative media stars have gotten good mileage out of elite bashing. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, who together reach tens of millions through radio, TV, and New York Times bestselling books, have argued robustly that our elites are arrogant, insulated, and obtuse. To a significant extent, the conservative media stars are right.

Overall, their sweeping indictment, which inspired a good deal of Tea Party activism, has been good for democracy in America.  By rousing large numbers of citizens of differing political inclinations last November to demand more effective and responsible representation, the indictment served the cause of self-government.

But dwelling on the vices of contemporary elites can also present dangers to the cause of freedom. For all the salutary attention it has focused on the American founding and Beck’s propulsion of Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom to the top of the Amazon bestseller list in June 2010, the contemporary critique of what Angelo Codevilla calls “the ruling class” can cut too crudely. It frequently runs the risk of obscuring the dependence of constitutional democracy in America on the cultivation of excellence.

Elites — persons of the highest class or groups controlling the reins of political power — are a common feature of social and political life. They are inevitable in free societies, which make a priority of giving individuals the opportunity to develop their varying talents and to cooperate for mutual benefit.

Unfortunately, it is far from inevitable in free societies that those gifted in acquiring power will be the wisest and most adept at exercising it. Yet today more than ever conserving liberty and maintaining democracy require an elite whose members possess advanced learning, professional expertise, and wisdom born of extended experience.

As House Budge Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future 2.0 demonstrates, effectively tackling our major domestic challenges — job creation, taxes, health care, Social Security — will depend on policy analysts and economists of the highest caliber delving into and making sense of the intricate details of a multi-trillion dollar federal budget and then finding ways to curtail spending while providing for fundamental governmental responsibilities and maintaining essential services.

As General — and Princeton PhD — David Petraeus proved in devising and implementing a winning counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq well after the supposedly best and brightest concluded that all was lost, refined knowledge of the history, culture, religion, and everyday material needs of our allies as well our adversaries is vital in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

As the Obama administration wrestles with questions concerning targeted killings, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and trials in federal court of enemy combatants, it seems to be learning that in the continuing struggle to balance liberty and security while defending the nation against jihadists and other transnational terrorists, proper application of the law of armed conflict calls for lawyers not only superbly trained in the conventional areas of constitutional law but also well-versed in military affairs.

And, as the disgraceful attempt — first without a shred of proof, then in defiance of overwhelming evidence — by progressive journalists to blame the Tucson shootings on Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, and Tea Party activists reminds, to form reliable judgments citizens need tenacious journalists who are trained to respect their primary and overriding professional obligation, which is to report the truth.