I trust Bill Kristol. Not his political opinions, which are nuts. The guy wants to bomb Iran. No, I trust Bill Kristol’s commitment to Intellectual Elitism. He is the very model of a modern major elite: soft-spoken and chipper, with a default half smile that implies he’s looking at a world as if it were a beautiful painting that’s not quite centered on the wall. There are no photos from any period of Bill Kristol’s life where he does not look old.
Bill’s dad was Irving Kristol, a member of a group of writers redundantly called the New York Intellectuals, making Bill a second generation Intellectual Elite member. Bill spent more time at Harvard than John Harvard. He graduated magna cum laude in three years, got a PhD in history, and taught political philosophy there. Harvard is where Bill met his wife, who later got a PhD in classical philology. Do you know how hard it is for a Republican to get a girlfriend at an Ivy League school?
Bill’s commitment to Intellectual Elitism makes him the perfect Founding Father of the new political party that I want to create. The old parties are dying, the ones who argued over how much socialism you dipped into my capitalism. They’re being replaced in each country by parties representing populists versus parties who believe in globalism. Brexit has split the Conservatives. The McCain/Romney followers have left the Trumpists. In Italy, the Five Star Movement formed a government with the League; in Greece, Syriza aligned with Independent Greeks. In France, the left and right jointly protested gas taxes to reduce carbon emissions by burning cars in Paris while they wore yellow vests, because the French like to stay safe in traffic even when rioting. These groups have a thousand differences but one thing in common: a hatred of the Intellectual Elite.
So I want to form a new party. In the Intellectual Elite party, conservatives will sit at a table with liberals, saying grace over meals of cold-pressed juice.
Bill is already starting to work on this, in exactly the way I hoped he would: he’s joined a secretive, elitist organization that works to save the Intellectual Elite. Even better, he is a member of two secretive, elitist organizations that do this. Patriots and Pragmatists consists of a mix of about fifty Republicans and Democrats who meet a few times a year. One conference was held at Sausalito’s Cavallo Point, a resort built on a former army base that has rooms that were former officers’s residences and a spa offering “energy work,” thereby pleasing and annoying both left and right. The group has yet to talk about forming a new political party, instead focusing on ways to tout democratic ideals. This sounds lazy to me. I fear they spend too much time in conference rooms and not enough time doing energy work.
In case Patriots and Pragmatists fails, the second secretive, elitist organization that works to save the Intellectual Elite that Bill belongs to has a more direct plan: Since the 2016 election, Bill and more than one hundred other Intellectual Elite Republicans meet every other week to figure out how to regain control of their party. This organization also has a great name: the Meeting of the Concerned. “Concerned is a euphemism. It’s the Meeting of the Freaked Out,” says member Brink Lindsey. To my chagrin, they do not drink brandy in a wood-paneled offices. “The aesthetics match the mood. We have a windowless conference room with various breakfast items,” says Brink about the basement offices of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. I have never heard a term as sad as “various breakfast items.” Even the Holiday Inn calls them “hot and fresh fare.”
I am not allowed to attend the Meeting of the Concerned since some members are worried that I’ll reveal their names and Republicans will expunge them from the party, thereby decreasing their power to change it. The group is so secretive that CNN has never covered it despite the fact that their meetings are in the same building as CNN’s DC headquarters.
So I reproduced a meeting. I found out who the members were, called them while I ate a tiny muffin and cereal from one of those single-serving boxes you can pour milk into, and started the conversation by saying, “Can you believe what Trump did today?”
The first thing I learned in my pretend basement conference room was that members of the Meeting of the Concerned do not agree on how to handle populists. The two competing philosophies are change and fight: Is it better for the Intellectual Elite to study the populists’ criticisms and adjust our policies, or to shout at them for being racist idiots?
Every one of my liberal friends has chosen fight. They cheered the DC restaurant that kicked out Sarah Huckabee Sanders for working as Trump’s press secretary.
The Intellectual Elite didn’t used to embrace fight. Michelle Obama’s directive from her 2016 Democratic convention speech was “When they go low, we go high.” But two years later, former Obama attorney general Eric Holder told a crowd, “When they go low, we kick them.” Democratic representative Maxine Waters held a rally in Los Angeles that was 10 miles from my house and 1.8 miles from a Whole Foods, in which she said, “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
These attacks seem like the oppressed fighting back against their oppressors, but they’re actually skirmishes in the war between two elites: The ones who care about ideas and the ones who care about money.
The restaurant yellers aren’t ethnic minorities. This is all rich-white-on-rich-white violence. More than 90 percent of whites with postgraduate degrees who voted for Hillary Clinton believe it’s “racist for a white person to want less immigration to help maintain the white share of the population,” while only 45 percent of minority voters feel that way. More than 80 percent of white people who voted for Hillary Clinton think diversity makes America stronger, while only 54 percent of black voters agree. Progressive activists are twice as likely as the average American to make more than $100,000 a year, three times more likely to have gone to grad school, and way more likely to be white. Only 3 percent of progressive activists are black. Progressive activists are me and my friends. We are the ones most scared about the Trumpists because they are coming to replace us.
Fear is not a good reason to surrender to the gut instinct to fight. The most important thing we elite can do is act elite. Historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, the swoopy haired Concerned member, is frustrated by seeing politicians host town hall meetings that devolve into mob shouting. “Having respect for Congress as an institution should be part of a ‘small c’ conservative culture. You put your hand on your heart when you salute the flag, you wear a suit to church, and you wear a suit when you talk to someone from Congress,” he says. “If you honestly thought you had a solution, would you come to a town hall unshaven in a T-shirt to talk to a member of Congress? I don’t think these people believe this is how political change happens. They just want to shout and feel good.”
Bill Kristol feels the same frustration. “The appeal to expertise doesn’t work, obviously. The appeals to history and common sense don’t work. Maybe modern liberal skepticism and rational argument has always been a little bit more tenuous than you think. People think, ‘That kind of society doesn’t do much for me and is kind of boring,’” he says. “I went to a couple of the Trump rallies in 2016 and there’s a lot of ‘This is a lot more fun than a boring political speech.’ It’s a combination of anger and entertainment.”
I want to make a plea solely to my fellow Intellectual Elite, largely because you’re the only ones who make it to the end of an article.
Our new party needs to embrace Humble Elitism. We don’t have a choice. Because an angry war is a war that populists will win.
In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech to the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis under the advice of his chief of staff, Bill Kristol, who undoubtedly regrets it. “We have two cultures: the cultural elite and the rest of us,” Quayle said. “I wear their scorn as a badge of honor.” It is hard to admit that the man who could not spell potato and thought it was likely that we could breathe on Mars understood something, but he did.
The fuel of populism is rage at those who claim higher status. To extinguish the populists’ fire, we have to stop dismissing them as deplorable, racist, ignorant, unsophisticated, sexist, and I’m going to stop here in case someone tweets this sentence, which will impede my strategy. We have to bite our lips, feel their pain, and do that thing where you slowly nod while squinting.
I fail when I’m smug. The thing I’ve been most smug about is not listening to decades of people telling me I’m smug. I was so young when people started calling me smug that they used the word precocious, which means “smug child.” My smugness is the least elite part of me. It’s insecurity stemming from yearning to be in The Loop. It’s tribal—a way to exclude others by drawing a circle around ourselves. It also fails our beloved scientific method because it almost never works. The only people who have ever been convinced by smugness are shoppers at Whole Foods.
We have to stop introducing ourselves by listing our jobs, our secret organizations, and what college we attended, which I am refraining from doing right here, although I would love for you to look it up on Wikipedia, which I should not mention that I’m listed on.
We need to stop acting as if our electric cars, our organic food, and our fair-trade, single-origin coffee make us more evolved humans, when they simply make us poorer humans. We need to stop lecturing West Virginians about the obvious inanity of remaining in the coal industry when we are working in the journalism industry.
Humility is not much of an ask. Part of embracing facts, logic, and history is knowing that we will sometimes be wrong. Galileo was wrong about tides. Albert Einstein was wrong about quantum physics. I was wrong about smugness. The point is: I’m exactly like Galileo and Einstein. This smugness thing is going to be tough to overcome. But if anyone can do it, it’s us. Seriously, this is not going to be easy.
Adapted from In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book (Grand Central Publishing).