Today marks the release of Christopher Hayes?s Twilight of the Elites, a critique of ?meritocratic? ideology and the institutions in which that ideology remains firmly entrenched. (Dissent has a review of the book by Mike Konczal on the way.) ?A deep recognition of the slow death of the meritocratic dream underlies the decline of trust in public institutions and the crisis of authority in which we are now mired,? writes Hayes. ?Since people cannot bring themselves to disbelieve in the central premise of the American dream, they focus their ire and skepticism instead on the broken institutions it has formed.? As the book details, it was in many ways the elites who brought this crisis upon themselves. Unsurprisingly, they fail to recognize this. ?Like all ruling orders, the meritocracy tends to cultivate within its most privileged members an abiding devotion.?
Which brings us to the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
In today?s Post, Richard Cohen takes on the Justice Department?s decision to investigate national security leaks to the press?like the ones that produced this Times article on President Obama?s ?kill list.? Cohen questions the wisdom of rooting out leakers when they make Obama look ?good, heroic, decisive, strong and even a touch cruel.? (When it comes to fighting terrorists, it seems, you gotta be cruel to be good.) Cohen likes leaks that make the government look good, and yet he worries that leaks about the ?killing of suspected or actual terrorists? will ?[shred] a long-standing convention that, in these matters, the president has deniability.?
This is about an elite code of honor–Cohen, I kid you not, calls it “omertà?–covering war reporters as much as White House staffers: don?t tell the people anything that will lead them to question the complicated and vexing decisions made by those at the top. If the light of publicity does somehow reach an inconvenient black site, deny and throw some underlings under the bus. ?Deniability is always a fiction,? writes Cohen, ?but it provides some space between the president and his orders, and does not plaster the presidential face on an act of extreme?and possibly illegal?violence.?
However tragic this besmirching is to Cohen, the national security apparatus has got it good compared to other U.S. institutions. Americans have more faith in the military than in almost anything else, and its supposed successes in drone bombing campaigns from East Africa to Pakistan (not to mention the assassination of Bin Laden) have redounded to the president?s credit. Only relatively marginal forces on both the left and the right question the bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
It was up to David Brooks, in today?s Times, to defend the Other Elites, who, alas, do not bask in the warm glow of a Hellfire missile explosion. A single sentence sums up his feelings: ?I don?t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem.? American institutions are doing fine! It?s just the citizens?who fail to ?recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it??who suck. Presumably, the ignorant and vainglorious masses are in need of some moral education from their well-heeled betters, as Brooks?s comrade Charles Murray has recently proposed.
But there is an even easier way to handle this people problem, suggested in a poem (aptly titled ?The Solution?) that Bertolt Brecht wrote about the uprising in East Germany in 1953:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writer?s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?