Friday, August 19, 2011

“Meritocracy” in the Republican Party

We’ve gotten into the habit of understanding political figures positionally, by situating them somewhere to the right or the left of other familiar figures on a one-dimensional political spectrum. Once we’ve positioned them to our satisfaction, it’s easy to apply familiar stereotypes. We tend, for instance, to place people indisposed to compromise with the political opposition at some distance from the center because we associate their intransigence with ideological purity. We assume that they disdain accommodation because, depending on your point of view, they are either admirably principled or regrettably doctrinaire. By the same token, we tend to think of centrists as being more flexible in the application of their principles and esteem them as worldly pragmatists or disparage them as cynical opportunists.

I don't doubt that this intellectual reflex generates its share of serviceable simplifications, but there are important contexts in which it obscures a lot more than it reveals because our politics is multi-dimensional. The internal politics of the Republican Party on display in the contest for its presidential nomination is a case in point. 

Yesterday, we saw Rick Perry insinuating  that George W. Bush, of all people, owes conservatives an apology for having gone to Yale. That, I suggested, is another manifestation of a culture war raging in our politics over whether “meritocratic” credentials, like fancy academic degrees or success in the white shoe professions that demand them, are a serviceable proxy for sound judgment and civic virtue. (The scare-quotes are designed to negate any presumption that it's perfectly obvious that they are.)   The war over accreditation is being waged in earnest not only between conservatives and liberals, but among conservatives within the Republican Party. It’s much less a war about what we as a society should do than a war about whose opinions about what we should do warrant respectful attention.

Today, The Hill reports that Jon Huntsman is firing back at Perry (my emphasis):

“Huntsman made the tweet shortly after Texas Gov. Rick Perry offered comments that cast doubt on evolution — his comments can be interpreted as criticism of Perry. ‘To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,’ tweeted Huntsman, the former ambassador to China. . . .

“Huntsman has carved out a niche in the primary fight as a centrist, but it is unclear whether GOP voters are looking for that in a candidate this year.”
According to The Hill, the fight Huntsman’s picking with Perry is an effort on Huntsman’s part to establish his bona fides as a “centrist” who's open to bipartisan governance. Yet as far as I know, he's not proposing to cut some sort of bipartisan deal on CO2-emissions that Perry opposes. In this respect, there’s less of a policy disagreement between them than a disagreement about the comparative intellectual and moral authority with which they speak.

Let me translate what I think Huntsman’s saying to mainstream opinion-makers and the Republican establishment:
I’m a better intellectual and moral specimen than Perry because I know enough to defer to the opinion of professionally accredited biologists and climate scientists.  Perry either doesn’t or is a demagogue who won’t. (Did I mention that I graduated from Penn rather than Texas A&M, hold six honorary doctorates and speak fluent Mandarin?) I know my place in the cultural credibility hierarchy and he doesn’t--and, in case you hadn’t noticed, my place is higher than his. So don’t forget that, although Perry and I don’t happen to disagree all that much about on climate-control policy, when we do disagree my position is more likely to be right because it’s mine and not his.
You don’t need me to tell you that the argument Huntsman’s having with Perry was settled long ago in the Democratic Party. When I tried identifying Perry’s last Democratic cultural counterpart the best match I could come up with was Fred Harris's futile presidential candidate thirty-five years ago.  But while Harris had Perry's common touch, he wasn't anywhere near as disdainful of elite opinion.

It’s still an open question, however, whether the meritocrats or the people tired of being condescended to by meritocrats will prevail in the Republican Party. Having said essentially the same thing about evolution and climate science as Huntsman, Mitt Romney’s really the guy carrying the meritocratic banner and having his conservative authenticity challenged all the more for it.  If he, rather than a Perry or Michelle Bachmann, ends up being the nominee, it will be in large part because the meritocrats haven't lost their grip on the party.

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