In Defense of Elitism

Wouldn't it be nice if we stopped pretending that anyone can run the government?

Joe the Plumber announced last week that he is considering a run for congress. Joe has never worked in government, but he imagines he'd make a pretty good legislator. “I'd be up for it,” he told radio host Laura Ingraham.

That assumption does not go both ways. There aren't many members of Congress who imagine they could be plumbers, and for good reason. Plumbing is complicated. Screw it up and there are consequences: sewage backups, ruined carpets, flooding.

You've got to know things to be a plumber, by law. We don't trust anything that important to amateurs.

A wise president would break the cycle, soliciting help on day one from seasoned Beltway hacks.

No one’s suggesting vocational schools for political candidates, or at least I'm not. But it would be nice if we stopped pretending that anyone can run the government. Anyone can't, as successive administrations have learned the hard way.

Bill Clinton arrived in Washington the way they all do, the way Bush did, the way Obama likely will: flush with the righteousness of victory, contemptuous of the old players and the old ways. “We've come to change Washington, not have it change us….” Blah, blah, blah. The line never changes.

Neither does the result. Within weeks, Clinton and his brilliant young reformers had stepped in it. Just four months into his first term, Clinton acknowledged defeat and hired—of all people—David Gergen, who was not simply a longtime advisor to the other party, but the living embodiment of inside-the-Beltway thinking, a man whose every word is 200-proof distilled Georgetown cocktail party conversation.

True believers attacked the hire as cynical and desperate. Washingtonians recognized it as the moment Clinton started to become politically effective.

Bush, unfortunately, was slower to catch on. Like Clinton, Bush had run against Washington. Unlike Clinton, he really meant it. To prove the point, Bush put executive-branch hiring in the hands of his former Andover and Yale classmate Clay Johnson, a socially awkward Texan whose primary life experience had been working at the Horchow catalog.

Apart from jockeying to join the best country club in town, Johnson seemed to have no interest in or knowledge of Washington. He aggressively snubbed the very people who might have helped the new administration navigate the city. Veterans of previous administrations who volunteered for service were told snippily to “apply on-line.”

In the end, Johnson was moved from public view to a job at the Office of Management and Budget, and the administration began to hire adults like Fred Fielding, a Nixon-era figure who is now White House counsel. But it was too late. Bush and the group of mediocre Texans around him had alienated virtually everyone in Washington,including potential friends.

It’s the same story, every time. A wise president would break the cycle, soliciting help on day one from seasoned Beltway hacks, influence peddlers and various other corrupt local fixtures who pollute this temple of democracy—in other words, from people who actually know how the system works. In order to do this, however, you'd have to admit that governing requires more than good will and authenticity. Good luck with that.

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So instead the candidates continue to pose as ordinary people. Most of the time, this is more amusing than sinister. Joe Biden, who spent 20 years living in a former duPont mansion, is suddenly the son of Scranton, a town he left at the age of 10. Obama and McCain—both products of elite high schools—drone on about their tough childhoods. Ludicrous, yes, but harmless.

More troubling is the assumption behind all of this, that elites are inherently bad, that large groups naturally make better, fairer decisions than small groups. This can be true, but it isn't always.

Take the belief—most famously associated with the Bush administration, but an accepted principle among policy makers on both sides—that democracy is always preferable to dictatorship, and should therefore be encouraged universally. Every American believes this, or claims to.

But is it actually true? Would Saudi Arabia become a more stable, moderate country if its citizens were allowed to choose their government? How about Egypt ? And what about those 173 million Pakistanis? Should they have control over their own nuclear weapons?

When I asked one of Obama’s top foreign policy advisors this question, the answer came immediately, accompanied by a look that suggested I must be stupid or kidding. Of course, was the answer. Needless to say. Not a doubt. Without question. Citizens have a right to govern themselves. Self-determination is a moral right. Etc, etc… I swear the phrase “will of the people” was in there somewhere.

But what if the people are crazy? What if the majority is in the grip of bloodthirsty religious fervor? What if their “will” isn't really their will at all, but merely an ugly whim? What if they want to nuke India?

These seem like valid questions, maybe even more important than how many people voted in some effectively irrelevant and soon-to-be-forgotten election in, say, Iraq. In foreign policy, at least, it could be time to drop the pose. Elitism may be annoying, but the mob is dangerous.

The time for honesty could be coming in domestic affairs too. Crises have a way of forcing us to acknowledge that experience matters more than empathy. Joe the Plumber may be running for Congress, but I notice nobody’s asking his ideas for fixing the subprime meltdown.