The election is over and the inauguration is upon us. There has been and will be a great deal of talk about the historic significance of Barack Obama—our first black president. The symbolism is powerful. America may be flawed, it may be arrogant in its power and sated with its wealth, but it is an extraordinary, unprecedented place.
So yes, a dramatic moment in American history. But the larger significance of the incoming administration is not racial at all. Obama's electoral success shows, in fact, that race is an old and now passing fixation in American politics. Instead, what is striking about Obama is something deeper. Not since John F. Kennedy have we elected a man so closely identified with Northern, urban, educated elites.
His inner circle shares a similar profile. Their résumés shine with degrees from the old establishment colleges and universities: the Ivy League, University of Chicago, and so forth. There are no DePaul or Purdue grads to be found, no ward politicians, no in-laws with dubious credentials clamoring for civil-service jobs, no thick-necked labor leaders.
With all its credentials and stellar achievements, the Obama administration recalls Franklin Roosevelt's Brain Trust and the Whiz Kids who revitalized the Ford Motor Company after the Second World War. Obama and his pals are the experts whom Kennedy promised would bring new ideas to government. Their progressive views, trim physiques, and well-disciplined lives remove all doubt: We're witnessing the restoration of the Establishment.
This restoration comes after four decades of antiestablishment political sentiment. David Halberstam's brilliant portrayal of the failures of the old Establishment in The Best and the Brightest gives a detailed account of the smug arrogance of “sound men” with “good backgrounds” who bungled the war in Vietnam. Add assassinations, urban riots, student unrest, drugs, sex, and a general feeling of collapse, and you can imagine the general feeling of dismay in 1968.
That year voters elected Richard Nixon, a sour outsider who made no secret of his bitter dislike of the best and the brightest. After Nixon (and Ford) came a peanut farmer and then a Hollywood actor. George H.W. Bush was a pale ghost of the old northern Establishment, and he was turned out of office after one term. Then we elected a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas with a twangy, tawdry personality. Narrow victories over the new Establishment favorites gave us eight years of George W. Bush, a man whose Yale degree seems to have had no influence on his visceral Texas personality.
The return of the Establishment with Barack Obama is not surprising. Even as the old WASP Establishment was failing in the 1960s—or maybe especially because it was failing—it was reinventing itself. In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann tells the story well. In the 1940s, James Conant, civilian head of the Manhattan Project and president of Harvard University, worried about the future of American society. He saw that elite institutions needed to cast their nets more widely, to find and train the very best in order to compete against the Soviets. The result was the development of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, an instrument for flushing out talent and drawing it to places like Harvard.
The turmoil of the 1960s deepened the sense of urgency at places such as Harvard. Race riots dramatized the emerging black claim for power. The quiet anti-Semitism of the past was exposed to the harsh light of criticism. Women, many of them daughters of powerful men, demanded public roles. The old Establishment was very much on the defensive, for it had sustained a social system that was suddenly viewed as morally indefensible.
The response was dramatic. American society got a strong dose of social change, much of it designed, endorsed, and implemented by the old Establishment: fair-housing laws, affirmative action, school busing, Great Society programs, no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, and much more.
Along the way, the Establishment revolutionized itself. Elite institutions sought to buttress their legitimacy by adopting an informal but rigorous quota system. The corporations, foundations, and universities most closely tied to the old Establishment were the first ones out of the gate in the race for diversity. The goal was simple and transparent: to renew the Establishment's claim to preeminence. They were to be, of course, the smartest. Who can doubt the objective evidence of their merit? And with carefully tailored diversity, they soon could claim to represent America.
Today, upper-middle-class parents routinely hire college counselors for their children—and they do so because they see the surpassing value of elite credentials. Ivy League students angle for internships at the Ford Foundation or Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Successful businesses and law firms rely on top-tier universities and graduate programs to supply them with talent. The old system of “good men” from “good families” is now a well-oiled machine of “good men and women” from “good schools” who have taken “important internships.”
The old Establishment was always limited by its ethnic and regional narrowness. The new Establishment has shed this liability. A relentless emphasis on merit and vigorous diversity programs have made it much more expansive and more absorptive. Gone are the days of cigar-chomping George Meany. Had he been born in 1955, he would have scored well on the SAT and received a scholarship at the University of Chicago. Old Jewish quotas swept away, City College of New York no longer graduates brilliant young kids who go on to win Nobel Prizes. They now start out at Penn and Yale.
The Obama presidency seals the ascendancy of this new and powerful Establishment. So what should we expect? Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with elite institutions knows that the new Establishment has inherited the genteel progressivism of the old WASP Establishment. The Ivy League universities provide the clearest case study. Every leftist agenda under the sun has a sinecure—and all the while the institutions carefully protect their mainstream academic predominance.
The easy combination of progressive ideals with institutional conservatism characterizes Establishment leadership. When the chips are down, what matters most is protecting the status quo. Therefore, the new Establishment evident in the Obama administration is likely to govern from the middle, as did the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, which were dominated by the old Establishment. Expect moderate economic interventions and no fundamental changes in foreign policy.
Establishments, however, are not friendly to all sectors of society. They try to tamp down competitors. The power of new money is always a threat. Wealthy outsiders and upstarts challenge the status quo. It's not an accident that the 1950s and 1960s, decades of Establishment dominance, saw high marginal tax rates.
We should expect the same from the new Establishment, along with greater governmental management of economic affairs. It's troubling when the wrong sorts of people get rich, and doubly troubling when they use their new wealth to try to influence politics.
Establishments are always suspicious of grassroots movements and populism. The new Establishment may be committed to progressive social ideals, but it wants people with advanced degrees to lead the charge. The universities, foundations, and judiciary are favored instruments for social change. Experts need to lead the way, because ordinary folks can't be trusted to understand the complexities of social systems and identify their own best interests. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? provides an excellent argument in support of the new Establishment tendency toward progressive paternalism.
Almost all forms of populism today are socially conservative. We're familiar with the new Establishment response to principled public defenses of innocent life and traditional marriage: denunciation of divisive views that divide Americans. Conservative talk radio shows may face direct assault if Congress revitalizes the “Fairness Doctrine,” though thankfully our constitutional regime explicitly protects Pentecostal ministers and Catholic priests from legal suppression.
These constitutional limits, however, will be tested. The new Establishment, like all establishments, wants social harmony under its enlightened leadership. Obama has spoken in favor of requiring religious organizations that receive government money to adopt “fair-hiring standards,” which effectively means requiring them to renounce their religious identities. The same concern to limit effective dissent will lead to efforts to control homeschooling, a significant grassroots movement in America that is very, very troubling to our new elites.
William F. Buckley famously quipped that he would rather be governed by the first five hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. It was and remains a widely shared sentiment. But history suggests that in troubled times most Americans are happy to be ruled by those educated by the Harvard faculty. As the economic crisis deepens and global conflicts increase, the new Establishment image of competence and achievement is bound to reassure.
I take some consolation, however, in the fact that Barack Obama himself is difficult to slot neatly into the new Establishment role. He seems to have been more directly influenced by his church than anyone elected president in living memory. Although a product of elite universities, he managed to avoid being turned into a permanent ornament of the University of Chicago Law School. Instead of writing a policy treatise or a book hectoring America to go green, he penned Dreams from My Father. And he has been a smoker, the ultimate personal sin for any member of the new Establishment, right up there with guns and religious convictions.
Perhaps, then, Obama is something more than Robert McNamara in the Oval Office. Perhaps he is more interesting, more nimble, and more useful to a society that needs to draw on the talent of the new Establishment without being dominated by it. It could be that he looks back and sees Columbia and Harvard as supremely useful rather than surpassingly important. Maybe he chuckles cynically at the way in which the new Establishment uses diversity to buttress its legitimacy. And most of all, it could be the case that he is a ruthlessly ambitious political animal, not a résumé-building, new Establishment high achiever.
I hope so.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.