Posted by: Jeff | August 25, 2010

Why the Tea Party Hates Barack Obama

An excellent lengthy piece by William Voegeli at the Claremont Institute includes this brilliantly insightful section on the Tea Party’s rejection of meritocracy:

The Tea Party scorn for the president’s promises that all his transformative plans won’t hurt a bit is about Obama, but also about something bigger. The voters are particularly unreceptive to presidential promises that sound too good to be true, because they have lived to regret listening to other such promises. Those promises were made by leaders of the new meritocracy, the one described by [David] Brooks, in his comic sociology mode, as the “valedictocracy,” populated by “Achievatrons” who “got double 800s on their SATs.”Without judging the validity of its complaint, Brooks asserts that the Tea Party movement is made up of people who “are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form a self-serving oligarchy—with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.”

We can be less impartial. The sociological but not very comic reality is that Brooks’s Achievatrons wound up being distrusted by millions of their countrymen the old-fashioned way—they earned it. Our new meritocratic masters have been more conspicuously smart than wise. They know a lot, but don’t know what they don’t know. Their self-regard as the modern Americans who are the “natural aristocrats” Jefferson looked for has left them with an exaggerated sense of their own noblesse, and a deficient awareness of their corresponding oblige. Their expectation that the rest of us will be deferential to their expertise, like citizens of European nations that are social but not especially political democracies, has triggered the Tea Party backlash, and the resurgence of the “Don’t Tread on Me” spirit.

As a result, eloquent promises about how government can be expanded to the benefit of all while taxes are increased only for a very few, and how ingenious new programs can make health care simultaneously more extensive and less expensive, are setting off alarms. These assurances—that when common sense tells us that something isn’t possible while expert analysis tells us that it is, our common sense is the thing that needs to be adjusted—sound ominously familiar. Wasn’t it just the other day that brainiacs with MBAs were telling us that, no, it was not dangerous for people with modest incomes to purchase expensive houses with zero-down, adjustable-rate mortgages? Since we didn’t go to Wharton and weren’t conversant with the esoteric innovations in financial derivatives and securitization that had taken the risk out of taking risks, we didn’t know enough to set aside our unfounded fears that all this highly leveraged borrowing would end badly.

Sometimes the valedictocracy’s repudiation of common sense works in the opposite direction: expert analysis shows how things that sound attainable to most people, largely because they were attained routinely for many years, are in reality extraordinarily difficult. Any nation worthy of the name has to defend its territorial integrity, for instance. Doing so includes securing its borders and making clear, consequential distinctions between what will be expected from and by its residents based on whether they are citizens, legal aliens, or illegal aliens. For most of its history, America was not baffled or overwhelmed by the imperative to discharge these fundamental responsibilities. In recent decades, however, the bright lines on the map and in the law that distinguish our country and people from others have become mysteriously blurry and unenforceable.

One effect of this newfound incompetency is that those who are least like the Achievatrons—people who didn’t go to college or even finish high school—are forced to compete in the domestic as well as the global labor market against foreign workers. One cause of it is that Achievatrons know the names of Tuscan villages that haven’t been discovered by tourists but don’t know the name of a single person who really needs a job at a meat-packing plant or cleaning hotel rooms. And because they don’t know any such Americans they find it easy to conclude that there are no such Americans, leaving us no choice but to import the labor we need for those tasks. The resulting analytical framework renders illegal immigration a victimless crime, since the only jobs immigrants take are ones for which no American citizen can be hired. Paul Krugman, of all people, has disparaged this consensus, labeling as “intellectually dishonest” the canard that “immigrants do ‘jobs that Americans will not do.'” To the contrary, “The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.”

It’s a great article, and well worth a full read, but this particular excerpt really speaks truth to me.  I think the overall skepticism that the American public holds for its public policy ingenues helps explain reluctance to change what hasn’t felt broken.  It may be one reason why climate skepticism is so entrenched – until the effects are felt in reality, why change our societal norms and behavior to reflect data some MIT scientist measures in the Arctic Circle?  Common sense dictates that what isn’t broke shouldn’t be fixed, especially at such effort as folks like Al Gore recommend.

The American public does largely agree that the health care system is broken – one of the hallmark observations that liberals made in the debate about reform.  Yet this agreement on the problem never rolled over to a consensus on reform – in fact, liberals scratched their heads and bemoaned the public’s slowness to accept that reform is needed to solve the problem.  I think that Voegeli hits on one of the main reasons for this in his article – it never made sense to most Americans when Barack Obama explained that we could expand coverage and reduce costs all at once.  How can we get more and pay less?  This skepticism transformed into outright opposition when liberals failed to recognize it for what it was and became dismissive of those who didn’t follow along from the start.

It’s an interesting way of viewing the vocal nature of the Tea Party movement, the demographics in which it has strongest support, and the absolute lack of public trust in Barack Obama and his meritocratic administration.



  1. soooo, not racism?

  2. I think it’s easy for liberals to arrive at that conclusion because we see so little to dislike about how thoughtful Obama is – it’s like a “well they obviously can’t say anything bad about his intellect, so it must be because he’s black” kind of thing. I think we’ve just misunderstood the root of their mistrust. Also, I don’t have a doubt in my mind that Hillary would have received the same treatment had she won.

    Only Sarah Palin is exempt from meritocratic hate, and only because she doesn’t have any merit to distrust.

  3. first of all, nice Palin zing.

    second of all, it’s not so much easy for liberals to arrive there, as it is for them to camp out on that position. it’s an easy position to keep going towards, because being accused of racism in american society equates the accused with centuries of evil, and there’s often no washing that taint away.

    but what i meant wasn’t that he’s black. it’s actually more that people derogatorily accuse him of being a muslim. part of it is certainly tied to his race, as it makes the whole “other”-ization of his identity that much easier. but it’s about willingness to be convinced that because something is different, then it’s also bad. and that base thinking is at the heart of racism.

    racism/xenophobia/ethnocentrism… whatever you want to call it. it’s fear of the unknown. and people resent him because of it. they resent him for going to harvard too. but if you don’t think that people’s bitterness of him going to harvard is tied to race (ie- “he only got in because he was black” argument), then you need to be more pessimistic about your perception of race relations in the US.

  4. A+ would read again

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