In defense of elites

Our political leaders should embrace elitism, not run from it.

Charlie and Deval, wear your school tie – the crimson model emblazoned with “Veritas.” Treasurer Tim, show us your street cred – your Wall Street cred. It is time to pay homage to elites.

In this age of concern for the working family and passion for Tea Party populism one important group is being shunned or worse, derided – our elites. But elites need love too. I love them, and so should you. They have been good to us in this Commonwealth.

But identification with elites is a big political problem in this year of pick-up trucks and barn coats. This has been most vexing for Republican Charlie Baker – a candidate whose political base is elites. But Baker has apparently learned from Adlai Stevenson. During one of his runs for the presidency an admirer gushed that Stevenson would surely win the vote “of every thinking American.” Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority.”

Mindful of Stevenson’s experience and the current political climate, Baker is uncomfortably downplaying his achievements – and his past public-sector service. He recently said on Channel 5 that “the two guys I’m running against are both on Beacon Hill, and have been there, and I haven’t.” But Baker has been hailed for his successful years at the highest levels in the executive branch, earning him the description of “the smartest man in state government.” He is now acting as if this is a badge of infamy.

Tim Cahill, a former sandwich shop owner and Quincy city councilor, certainly carries no whiff of Algonquin Club membership, but he has gone overboard pandering to the cheap seats. In February he seemed to lack understanding of state finances, telling the Globe “I don’t have enough insight into the budget” to know where to suggest cuts.  And Cahill told Glenn Beck on Fox News that health care could bankrupt Massachusetts, shortly after he had signed a statement to Wall Street testifying to the Commonwealth’s financial stability. It’s the treasurer’s job to be credible with Wall Street. Why run from it?

Just scan the roster of recent governors, whether it’s Dukakis on the left, Weld on the right – we like smart governors here.

The candidate most at ease with high achievement is our Democratic governor, who tells anyone who will listen how he grew up in poverty in Chicago and was afforded the opportunity to excel academically and professionally here at Milton Academy, Harvard, and in select government, corporate, and legal circles. The Democrats were once the favored party of the unwashed and the GOP the bastion of the Eastern establishment and wonky intellectuals, but that has turned around. Political parties have managed such reversals before. In 1859 Abraham Lincoln described how the Democrats and Republicans had reversed themselves on liberty. Lincoln offered a colorful analogy for the turnaround: “I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other.” Governor Patrick, though quick to invoke a bit of the common-man touch whenever he sees an opportunity, at least seems comfortable in his coat.

Massachusetts has long been hospitable to intellectualism. Consider John Adams. He so treasured learning that he made it a requirement in our Massachusetts Constitution that the Commonwealth encourage wide development of “wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue” by making it the duty of the state to support schools. Learning, he wrote, would “countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people”

Before his death, Adams, who owned a copy of the first Koran printed in North America, deeded 2,756 books to the town of Quincy. It’s a long way from such a literary profile to populist champion Sarah Palin, who was stumped for an answer when Katie Couric asked her what newspapers and magazines she reads.

Adams was of a political party, the Federalists, that may have been the most blatantly elitist we have ever seen. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, the demise of the Federalists was inevitable: A party that recoils from the people in a democracy is built on a weak foundation when it comes to vote-getting. Tocqueville wrote of the Federalists that it was only “by the virtues or the talents of their leaders, as well as by fortunate circumstances, that they had risen to power.”

We’ve been well served by our political elites, from Daniel Webster to Ted Kennedy in the senate, and John W. McCormack and Tip O’Neill wielding the Speaker’s gavel in Washington while remembering that all politics is local.

Very few of the folks named here were to the manor born, but that’s not what I mean by elite.  Rather I think of elites as having drive, intelligence, integrity, and judgment. They don’t pander to us but listen to us, respect us, and educate us. After all, the modern progenitor of “dumb as ya wanna be” governance is descended of New England aristocracy, educated at Yale and Harvard Business School – though I mention no names.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
We don’t need the royal family. But we do need well-read, thoughtful and serious leadership. So hug an elitist today.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.