TCS Daily

The Depression of the Elites

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Are the wheels coming off? Maybe, but whether you care may depend on which train you're taking.

Peggy Noonan recently wrote that America is in trouble, and its elites are too resigned to the troubles to do anything, concentrating on making a separate peace:


I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. In fact I think it's a subtext to our society. I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks.. . .


A few weeks ago I was reading Christopher Lawford's lovely, candid and affectionate remembrance of growing up in a particular time and place with a particular family, the Kennedys, circa roughly 1950-2000. It's called "Symptoms of Withdrawal." At the end he quotes his Uncle Teddy. Christopher, Ted Kennedy and a few family members had gathered one night and were having a drink in Mr. Lawford's mother's apartment in Manhattan. Teddy was expansive. If he hadn't gone into politics he would have been an opera singer, he told them, and visited small Italian villages and had pasta every day for lunch. "Singing at la Scala in front of three thousand people throwing flowers at you. Then going out for dinner and having more pasta." Everyone was laughing. Then, writes Mr. Lawford, Teddy "took a long, slow gulp of his vodka and tonic, thought for a moment, and changed tack. 'I'm glad I'm not going to be around when you guys are my age.' I asked him why, and he said, 'Because when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.' "


Yes, but what whole thing, exactly? Noonan seems to think it's the whole society, but that's not so clear. Certainly the extensive depression that Noonan attributes to coastal elites doesn't seem to show much in my circles. Nor in the circles of blogger Phil Bowermaster, who writes: "What is so all-fired important about the disposition of journalists and politicians?"


Bowermaster notes that the whole coastal-elites-and-media establishment is not just going to fall apart -- it has to a substantial degree already done so. But while this is bad news for the Dan Rathers of the world (and perhaps for the dateless columnists at some big metropolitan dailies) it's not so clear that it's bad news for the rest of us. In fact, I suspect that the elites' discontent comes in no small part from the fact that ordinary people are becoming more powerful all the time, making the elites just a bit less elite with each passing year.


That's a point I've been making in this column for years (you can find some examples here, here, here) and it's also the theme of my forthcoming book, whose title, An Army of Davids, makes the theme pretty clear. And with the Davids getting more powerful, it's no surprise that the Goliaths are depressed. No doubt buggy-whip makers felt similar emotions at the birth of the automobile.


But while the members and hangers-on of yesterday's power structures are mulling their reduced prospects, ordinary people seem to be doing pretty well, as the economy continues to boom, small businesses to form, and new kinds of enterprises take off. We certainly don't view government with the same awe we felt before Watergate broke, or journalism with the same respect it had before Dan Rather struck, but all available evidence suggests that it was our earlier attitudes that were misinformed.


At any rate, Noonan is surely right that our current elites are not up to the task of steering the country. They're too ignorant, too insulated, and too concerned with "getting theirs." Fortunately, they're also a lot less important than they used to be. As blogger Justin Katz writes:


"if the functional elites are too resigned to that trouble to lead our society through it, the underclasses now have the technology -- and the faculty -- to pick up the slack."


Absolutely. And as the rapidly blogged response to Noonan's column -- something that was itself made possible by technology that didn't really exist ten years ago -- demonstrates, people are already doing it. Faster please.



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