The Case For Elites

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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He moves on far too quickly from it, but this paragraph from David Brooks’ recent column about our current leadership crisis deserves some attention:

“[W]e 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 — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.”

Bill Buckley once said he’d rather “entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

This has become a famous line, but what was Buckley if not a member of the elite?

Clearly there is a distinction to be made between “the best and the brightest” liberals living in ivory towers and the true public intellectuals who offer — not only academic credentials — but also experience, and, daresay, wisdom.

It’s also important to juxtapose Buckley’s comments with those of other leading conservatives. In his classic book, “Ideas Have Consequences,” Richard Weaver argued that “democracy cannot exist without aristocracy.” This was consistent with Russell Kirk’s view that society requires classes that emphasize “natural” distinctions. So who’s right?

Nobody is suggesting that there should be some sort of hereditary leadership class. But there should be leaders — people we follow because they have earned our respect, or, at least, because they hold a position we ought to respect.

Unfortunately, all the trends — digital direct democracy and a culture that rewards youth, the lowering of barriers, and instant gratification — are pushing toward a sort of radical egalitarianism. To say anything different is to be branded an elitist — or (in this populist milieu) a liberal. David Brooks is on to something.