America’s most powerful people have a problem. They cannot admit that they are powerful.
Take Andrew Cuomo. In a recent call with reporters, the besieged Cuomo insisted he “was not part of the political club.” This claim was baffling as Mr. Cuomo is in his third term as governor of New York – a post his father also held for three terms. Mr. Cuomo has also served as Attorney General and Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Or think of Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence. After her appointment was announced, Ms Haines said, “I have never hesitated to speak the truth to power.” It’s a curious way to describe a meteoric career that includes stints at exclusive universities, a prestigious judicial internship, and prominent foreign policy and intelligence jobs before his appointment to a cabinet-level office overseeing a budget of over. of $ 60 billion.
This kind of false advertising is not limited to Democrats. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, for example, adopted an image of a populist crusader against a distant “political class”. It does not focus on his father’s career as a banker, his studies at Stanford and Yale Law School, or his work as a clerk to eminent judges, including Chief Justice John Roberts. The merits of Mr. Hawley’s positions are subject to debate. But his belonging to the same elite against which he denounces is not.
And it’s not just politicians. Businesses love to portray themselves as “disruptors” to stagnant industries. But the origins of the idea are anything but rebellious. Popularized by a Harvard professor and promoted by a veritable consulting industry, it has been adopted by some of the richest and most recognized people in the world.
The examples could be multiplied, but these cases are sufficient to show that the problem of insiders posing as outsiders cuts across parties, genders and fields. The question is why.
Part of the explanation is strategic. A foreign pose is attractive because it allows powerful people to distance themselves from the consequences of their decisions. When all is well, they are happy to take the credit for it. When they go wrong, it helps to blame an incompetent and hostile establishment for thwarting their good intentions or visionary plans.
Another element is generational. Helen Andrews argues that the baby boomers have never been comfortable with the economic, cultural and political domination they acquired in the 1980s. “The rebels have taken control of the establishment,” writes- she, “only they wanted to continue to boast as revolutionaries while they wielded power.” The tension between the countercultural baby boomer youth and the responsibilities of adults is memorably portrayed in films like “The Big Chill”.
Strategic and generational factors help explain Al Gore, who claimed to represent “the people against the powerful” in his 2000 campaign against George W. Bush. Compared to a Yale graduate, son of a former president and grandson of a senator, perhaps Mr. Gore – Harvard graduate, past vice president and son of a senator – was among the ordinary people. . But Richard Nixon, an object of baby boomer hatred, opposed the status quo as bitterly as any hippie. The refusal to accept responsibility is not just a boomer’s quirk. Its roots are deeply rooted in American culture.
Consider “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, ”the famous 1939 film directed by Frank Capra. The plot depicts an honest man who exposes the corruption of officials and civic institutions to great personal risk. Jeff Smith’s belief that real power lies elsewhere than in legal authority makes him an outcast in the movie’s Senate clubby. But he would have been quite comfortable with the cable news.
The film was effective because it depicted even older myths. Smith is compared to Honest Abe, the humble rail divider who overthrew the power of slaves by announcing the axiomatic truth of human equality. The reality, however, is that Abraham Lincoln was a railroad lawyer and party activist who displayed extraordinary ability in behind-the-scenes transactions and bureaucratic oversight. He was a successful president because he was part of the political club – or at least knew how to join.
In some ways, identifying Americans with idealistic rebels is an advantage. There are good reasons to be skeptical of career politicians and entrenched elites. Even when they don’t have all the answers, strangers can draw attention to unrecognized issues.
This skepticism becomes dangerous, however, when it pits unconventional affect and good intentions against the practical demands of government. The defining task of politics is not to speak the truth to power. It is using power to achieve common goals.
In his 1919 lecture “Politics as a vocation”, sociologist Max Weber argued that commitment to moral principles must be combined with an “ethics of responsibility” which aims to produce results through negotiation, compromise, institutional know-how. Our cult of the outsider makes this balance impossible.
It is difficult to change deeply rooted cultural trends. But there are strategies that could help us reconcile the performance of disruption with the demands of accountability.
First, we must stop confusing consumer preferences with power. Popular culture relies on outdated clichés of starched linens and vaguely British accents to indicate privilege. This anachronism encourages public figures to signal their status as outsider by aesthetic postures. On the left, it often means the vaguely bohemian way cultivated by Ms. Haines, who once operated a bookstore that hosted erotic literature readings. On the right, it tends to involve exaggerated machismo and an embrace of working class signifiers.
But none of this has anything to do with power. We should judge public figures by the arguments they make and the results they produce, not by whether they eat caviar, kale or capocollo.
Next, we need to learn from historical figures who have adopted Weber’s “ethics of responsibility”. The challenges of the so-called theory of the great men of history divert attention from those who made decisions to those who suffered the consequences. The problem is that reading history only “from the bottom up” deprives us of role models for navigating the dilemmas of vision and responsibility, intention and outcome. We honor and study important historical figures because they were imperfect human beings who made incredibly difficult decisions. Canceling their stories and monuments prevents us from understanding why they succeeded – and failed.
Finally, we have to be honest: America has a de facto ruling class. Since World War II, membership in this class has opened up to those with meritocratic credentials. But this should not hide the truth that he remains strongly influenced by birth. Even though their ancestors were not on the social register, Mr. Cuomo, Ms. Haines and Mr. Hawley were born to families whose benefits helped propel their careers. Admitting the fact of nobility could help encourage the ideal of obligate.
But there is a limit to what can be accomplished by exhortation. Ultimately, change must come from the powerful themselves. Only once would I like to hear a mayor, governor, or president say, “Yes, I’m in charge – and I’ve tried to get here all my life. I want you to judge me by how I used this position, not by who I am. “
Samuel Goldman is Executive Director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom and Director of the Politics and Values Program at George Washington University, Literary Editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and Editor-in-Chief of The American Conservative. He is the most recent author of “After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division”.
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