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What's Really Wrong With America's 'Best and Brightest'

When the reputation and integrity of institutions no longer matter, anything goes in the pursuit wealth and power.

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When a general walks into the room, the audience sees the uniform first. Even a general as personally accomplished as Douglas MacArthur did not have power apart from his institutional role. The result effects a set of reciprocities David Brooks calls "virtue." When institutions are more important than individuals, elites are socialized into the institutions with an understanding their personal status depends on institutional prestige. West Point plebes understand from day one that their self-worth requires upholding the honor of the Army. It is not just that the Army promotes them on the basis of their loyalty to the institution; they also realize that actions which damage the institution damage them. Thus, General Petraeus, who for a time was hailed as President Bush’s “favorite general,” could loyally serve President Obama. The professional role was more critical to him than a partisan one.

Elites lose their moral authority with the destruction of the reciprocities that tie individual standing to institutional legitimacy. This destruction today comes from two principal sources: the promotion of sectarian loyalties ahead of institutional ones and the creation of a financial elite whose wealth gives them status independently of the institutions that created the wealth. 

Creating and maintaining institutional legitimacy is a tricky process, one more complicated than either Hayes or Brooks suggests. In The Ironies of Affirmative Action, for example, John Skretny noted that a central irony was that elite academic institutions led diversity efforts and did so in part because university leaders recognized that the wholesale exclusion of African Americans challenged institutional legitimacy. College presidents and law school deans further understood that their own status depended on addressing the challenge. They did so by simultaneously suspending the terms of the new meritocracy for some groups while upholding them for others. For institutions like Harvard, this meant pats on the back for reaching out to minority students and that much greater exclusivity for everyone else, both enhancing institutional prestige. 

The problem came with the next generation. The beneficiaries of affirmative action identified the legitimacy of their place at Harvard with the institution’s commitment to diversity and some accordingly internalized a further obligation to reach out to other excluded groups. Law School professor Derrick Bell, for example, left Harvard Law School over its failure to appoint an African-American woman to the faculty. In doing so, Bell acted from what Brooks would call personal honor – he stood up for a principle that tied his association with the institution to its commitment to a notion of social justice intrinsic to the reasons for his appointment to the law school. Yet, Bell’s action had no credibility with his opponents. They could just as legitimately see Bell’s actions as a call to sacrifice institutional standards in order to promote a vision of the institution that burnished Bell’s standing, but not theirs within it. In contrast, Barack Obama's selection as head of the Harvard Law Review (and even more as President) was neither a reward solely for some abstract notion of merit nor identification of the commitment to diversity with suspension of the ordinary order.  Instead, the Law Review appointment advanced institutional objectives and Obama identified his own success with his ability to credibly represent the Law Review as a whole.

The legitimacy of our political institutions is even more serious. In a recent AlterNet article on the Affordable Care Act, I argued that the rule of law suffers when justices place ideological purity over perceptions of the Court’s institutional integrity and that seemingly partisan 5-4 decisions had that effect.  New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse observed that Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion upholding the act responded to the fact that “his ostensible allies were about to drive the Supreme Court over the cliff and into the abyss.” Roberts’ opinion suggests that he identified his legacy as Chief Justice with burnishing the Court’s institutional standing. As Greenhouse notes, however, movement conservatives have pilloried Roberts for his supposed disloyalty. Like the Tea Party members of Congress, they identify institutional legitimacy only with partisan ideology and judge individuals on that basis. The result both in the case of the hyper-partisan Tea Party congressional bloc and the increasingly ideological Court is a loss of public confidence. 

The transformation of the financial sector is less visible and at least equally pernicious. Illustrative of the change is the move away from partnerships to publicly traded corporations among the major investment banking firms (Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs). Under the earlier regime, partners could profit only if their firms prospered. While they could become rich, the partners could not easily cash in their ownership interests. The result was that they identified their own well-being with firm reputation – a firm that often bore the name of its partners. Today, corporate executives can use short-term profits that increase long-term risk to make a killing, and cash in leaving someone else holding the bag. This new elite identifies its personal standing with individual wealth, not corporate health.  

Mitt Romney’s standing as a retired multi-millionaire is independent of Bain Capital. And as a multi-millionaire (at least as one who is not running for president), Romney is answerable to no one. The bonds of reciprocity that tied elite status to institutional legitimacy and thus encouraged the type of virtue Brooks celebrates and the public accountability Hayes longs for have been severed.