Let’s start off soberly, even on a note of august regret. One of the things Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed upon was that the primary point of republican popular suffrage was to elect a natural aristocracy. The same hope and intention gets expressed, albeit in a more guardedly specified manner, in a number of Federalist Papers. Fine men, those founders, as was Alexis de Tocqueville, who unfortunately could not but reveal that by the 1830s, the American hope of natural aristocracy emerging out of democratic suffrage had been utterly dashed. Most democratically-elected representatives and office-holders were mediocre men at best, downright scoundrels at worst. Nor was the latter type rare. The only apparent exception to this rule, the U.S. Senate, actually proved it, as its members were elected indirectly, by the state legislatures.
Yes, the silver lining was that democratic suffrage also encouraged the scoundrel-types to check one another’s penchants for outright villainy, but still, one would have wanted to hope, with Jefferson, Adams, Publius, and maybe Aristotle also, for better than this.
And Tocqueville may have actually been too pessimistic. In our day, we have some pretty solid political science, found especially in a Joseph Bessette essay ( here and here),that indicates that while “serious legislators” might at times be outnumbered by those who largely pander, posture, and pork-barrel, they are the ones who more often than not wind up in the leading roles in framing and passing legislation. A serious legislator does not exactly a natural aristocrat make, but it’s a relief to know that Tocqueville’s report doesn’t entirely apply.
Bessette’s argument, of course, is that this outcome is due to the founders intentionally mixing the democratic aspect of our system with features that drive it in a more deliberative direction. That means that in terms of what raw democratic suffrage gives you, Tocqueville’s report remains correct. And the actual operation of competing for this suffrage, i.e., the modern campaign, has very little about it that is august, naturally aristocratic, or even deliberative. Democracy in the raw is often ugly, low-down. You know this. I don’t have to pull out the Robert Penn Warren or Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to convince you.
But I must say, this season I am loving one of the lowest-down aspects of democratic elections, let us call it the Pillory Possibility, wherein campaign dynamics sometimes uncover the dishonest means whereby a person has, for her whole life, obtained their success and respectability.
You know those moments that occur in many of Plato’s dialogues, where Socrates has already bested his opponent with respect to the main argument, but proceeds to take us through five more pages of “cross-examination,” bringing out each and every preposterous implication and contradiction that was present in his interlocutor’s position, dialectically dragging him back and forth over the coals until completely made a fool of?
Something like that is now happening to Elizabeth Warren, not at the hands of any Socrates, but by a pack of bloggers and journalists. The subject is not a philosophical one, but the fraudulent character of her life. Having stumbled upon her gaming of academia’s diversity incentives in hiring by claiming to be a (er…1/32nd part) Native American, the democratic pack is now uncovering one fraud after another: a) the genealogical claim cannot be squared with the legally-binding Cherokee definition of what constitutes Cherokee background, b) that claim is itself false, causing ripples of concern in genealogical circles about the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s integrity, c) her scholarship is sub-standard, as it received scathing peer-reviews and often crudely served partisan talking points (although it has emerged that her teaching was probably pretty good, and appreciated by both liberal and conservative students), d) her various university employers did use her box-check as evidence of diversity, and e) Harvard’s decision to hire her appears, all denials aside, quite likely related her box-check (Harvard should be ashamed of itself, and should apply some institutional discipline to those who made that hiring decision, but of course it won’t).
And whether or not Harvard takes any action against her, she was done the very moment her box-check became public. Anyone, whether for or against affirmative action in academia, knows that it is an abuse of it to claim Indian status the way she did, an abuse even if she really had been 1/32nd-part Native American. It would be one thing if such a 1/32nd-part Indian had regularly been involved in tribal matters, or Indian scholarship—that would present a kind of moral quandary case. But to check the box when you had no daily-life connection to the Cherokees? Everyone knows that’s wrong. Universities get to claim they’re hiring Native Americans when they’re basically not. But Warren wasn’t about to pass by any remotely claim-able advantage.
And then to learn she did this without even adequately checking her ancestry? That she was responsible for presenting false information to our ongoing effort to at least accurately enumerate diversity or the lack thereof in our institutions? In my book, this is the lesser and more forgivable sin, assuming it wasn’t an outright effort of deception—it’s plausible that she was misled by “family lore.” Of course, her present efforts to defend her claim may involve outright deception, especially if it emerges that her camp put pressure upon the genealogist Chris Child to stonewall questions about the 1/32nd claim. But in any case, given the oiliness of her making the claim even if true, the additional revelation that it wasn’t dooms her election chances.
But the glorious thing has been, Elizabeth Warren doesn’t know she’s done! She keeps at it. And so yesterday, we learned that she very likely plagiarized several recipes for one Pow Wow Chow Cookbook!
[hilarious laughter ensues, several minutes worth]
Oh, YES! More, Elizabeth, MORE! Enough of reading our Tocquevile and being sadly sobered up.
If anyone remembers this sorry woman’s name fifty years from now, it will be as a trivia answer: name the politician who lost a Senate race due to plagiarizing a recipe. She’s lived a life of cutting ethical corners, risen to success after success, but with a comedy-gold contemptibility that just cried out to the heavens for exposure. It was just too damn funny for the rest of us not to know! Whether we owe such priceless entertainment more to the Good Lord’s sense of humor, or to the false god Democracy, we must be grateful.
For we don’t get aristocrats, and we are forced to put up with plenty of scoundrels, but we at least get this from time to time.