There are certain debates in a representative democracy that are eternal for a reason–and that reason often lies the nature of humanity and human vanity. One of these debates, in the United States, was first apparent in the animosity between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It was recapped a little less than a century ago in Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion and John Dewey’s response, which appeared in book form as The Public and Its Problems in 1927. The central question, of course, is who can better be trusted, the people or the elite. Though I come down on the Jefferson/Dewey side, I recognize that the debate can never be over. In fact, I suspect that the debate itself is of more value than the answer, for it helps keep us from swerving too far into a tyranny of the majority–or a tyranny of the elite.
True believers on both sides constantly argue that the debate is over, and long has been. On one side are the neo-libertarians and believers in individualism who argue that all elites are eventually corrupted (even if they weren’t at the start) and that the only trustworthy voice in the nation is the voice of the people themselves. Though my sympathy lies with them, too many veer too far, mistaking the needs of community as unwarranted imposition, imagining themselves to be Ayn Rand super men and women who can build alone. Free Market absolutists are among this group. On the other side are those members of the elite who attempt to justify their own positions as arbiters of questions affecting others and who see debate as fruitful only so long as it takes place among those who have been invited to join that elite. Even some people I admire, like Richard Hofstadter, whose brilliant Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a book I re-read every few years, end up doing little more than providing a rationale for the existence of an elite.
Another trying to do the same is New York Times columnist David Brooks. Today, he writes:
we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite…
In other words, there should be no debate on the issue.
Brooks, of course, completely elides the question of the genesis of the elite. He does imply, however, that it can be self-sustaining, based on the appearance of merit, and aware of the gravity of its responsibilities. Rather than an acolyte of Rand, he seems more like a follower of L. Frank Baum or, at least, a fan of the wizard of Oz–not the book or the movie but of the image of the wizard as spoken of in most of the movie. The great wizard is the only one who can save us! The great wizard gives us tasks to complete to prove our worth! The great wizard rewards us!
But Brooks may not be watching very attentively. For it is all, we discover by the end, humbug.
“Yes, that’s exactly so,” says the wizard, “I’m a humbug.”
The wizard, in response to Dorothy’s accusation that he’s a very bad man, says, “Oh, no, my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard.” He recognizes a truth about himself as the elite citizen of the Emerald City, a truth that neither Brooks nor any other of the contemporary American elite recognize about themselves.
Unfortunately, the wizard is unable to pass that understanding on to others. In fact, he gives up and instead passes the trappings of elitism on to a succeeding generation of “leaders,” a diploma, a medal, and a testimonial. He may leave, but the Emerald City does not remain leaderless.
Faith in the elite is as misplaced and misguided as faith in the unfettered individual. We are all humbug, all reliant on the goodwill of others and all extremely limited in what we can offer others. By the same token, we need to be ever wary of the humbuggery of others, of those who tell us that they know better than we do, and that we should listen to them and do as they say.
The elite that Brooks extols for having guided us through the Revolution and the Second World War also led us over cliffs into the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression, the Iraq fiasco, and the 2008 recession. One can argue that the Civil War was a dispute among elites over how best to control the masses. And the First World War? It was created by elites. Brooks implies that there are good elites and bad elites… but how is anyone supposed to know the difference–until it is too late?
Until the elites learn, like the wizard, that they are really no different from anyone else, they won’t ever listen to anyone or discover that they can be wrong (John McCain and Dick Cheney come to mind). Instead, they will simply continue following their vanity and leading the rest of us to destruction.
So, no, Mr. Brooks, it is not a “childish notion that we don’t need a leadership class.” That notion leads to a real check and balance against an elite that believes so strongly in itself that it can’t even face the evidence when it is wrong. That notion, when strong enough, forces a level of self-examination that may even lead to recognition of error, to the real compassion and humanity and recognition of their own weakness that the wizard expresses, though in his own bumbling way, at the end of the movie.
The elites are no better than the rest of us, they simply have the trappings of their positions. On the other hand, as Walt Kelly might express it, “We have met the wizard, and the wizard is us.” All of us.
Let the debate continue, Mr. Brooks.