It’s healthy, even natural, for Americans to feel populist resentment against elites that base their status on inherited wealth and family connections. But it’s toxic, misguided and profoundly stupid to focus public hostility on leaders who achieved their positions through education, diligence and ability.
Recent sniping between Sarah Palin and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer highlights the crucial distinction between rebellious attitudes that attack unfairly arrogated power and privilege and a trendy neo-populism that attacks brains.
When Krauthammer dared to suggest that the former Alaska governor looked less than “presidential” while shooting caribou with Kate Goselin on her hit TLC reality show, Palin told Bill O’Reilly: “Well, bless his heart, he’s probably used to those in the political beltway who perhaps aren’t out there workin’, but they’re talkin’ and they’re meeting people, and they’re out there doin’ their ‘strategery,’ whereas I’m workin’ and havin’ a great time doin’ it.”
The irony in this attack involves the fact that Governor Palin is currently “workin’” in precisely the same way Charles Krauthammer does—by writing and making media appearances. The key difference is that Palin earns many times Krauthammer’s income by focusing on her own ebullient personality rather than policy and ideas.
Yes, Krauthammer would have to plead guilty to what Palin would deride as “high-falutin’” educational credentials: he studied at Oxford and earned his MD at Harvard Medical School. But in what sense does this paraplegic, Canadian-raised son of struggling Eastern European immigrants qualify as representative of some perceived establishment that excludes a former governor, Vice Presidential nominee, certified TV star and number-one-bestselling author? Only in terms of intellectuality, not wealth or influence or celebrity status, could a Krauthammer qualify as more “elitist” than a Palin.
Former White House speechwriter David Frum (another Canadian-born US citizen with Ivy League credentials) makes the interesting point that “American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy.” He classifies contemporary politics as “a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education.”
Unfortunately, this sort of battle over brains undermines the most potent and valuable thrust of traditional populism: the opposition to an arrogant, hereditary establishment that closes off access to money and power to even the most gifted products of ordinary American families.