Campaign 2016 has incongruously pitted a wealthy real-estate scion as the “populist” against a small businessman’s daughter as the “Establishment” choice, raising tough questions about merit and privilege, says Gilbert Doctorow.
By Gilbert Doctorow
Establishment as a concept has gotten a lot of use and abuse in the 2016 presidential election campaign. From the start of his race in the Republican primaries, Donald Trump denounced the political Establishment as a bunch of stuffed shirts, elitists who are out of touch with the voting public. They are looking after their own interests at home and abroad, let the public be damned, he said.
The line-up of mealy-mouthed opponents whom Trump faced in debates, starting with Jeb Bush, served as exemplary targets of the longstanding indignation against the powers-that-be, an animosity felt by not only Tea Party adherents but by the majority of rank-and-file party members, which is why Trump did so well.
There are those who are betting that the populist wave that Trump is riding will pull in traditional blue-collar Democrats as happened when Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has embraced the Establishment’s values and solicited its support, drawing in some anti-Trump Republicans.
Given its political significance this year, Establishment was a key word in my notes for a class yearbook that will be part of the 50th anniversary reunion celebrations of my Harvard College Class of 1967 next May. The second key word was Veritas, Harvard’s one-word institutional mission statement that was cited proudly at so many of our undergraduate gatherings.
I offer these observations to the general public, because the Establishment mindset that I am talking about has roots that go well beyond Harvard, well beyond the Ivy League, to the prestige private and public universities across the United States. Meanwhile, the relevance of Veritas today is particularly keen given the way that both major party presidential candidates are accusing each other of lacking any commitment to truth, indeed calling each other out-and-out liars who have intentionally misrepresented the policy positions of one another.
I do not suppose I am alone in admitting that precisely the Establishment status of Harvard was an important factor in my being drawn to it, alongside its very demanding admission requirements which made that admission letter a kind of personal validation that we were persons of great promise.
How could it be otherwise? The Kennedy presidency showcased not only an alumnus in the Oval Office but a whole constellation of the “Best and Brightest” who took their degrees at Cambridge, Massachusetts, or taught there, or even held deanships there. The glitter, the belief that a meritocracy had assumed its rightful place in democratic, low-brow America, was inescapable during the time of Camelot. The best from our midst was now running the country. The future would be ours to inherit.
Of course, Camelot came to an abrupt halt two months into our freshman year with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. In our sorrow, I do not think many of us initially paid attention to what our “Best and Brightest” were doing under Kennedy, and then under Lyndon Johnson, whom they stayed on to serve. Their policies would cast a pall over our whole generation by setting up and prosecuting the horrific war in Vietnam.
Siding with Power
In 1964, the fraudulent justifications for the Tonkin Gulf resolution that gave us the full-scale war were set out by Harvard men who surely knew better and who willingly sacrificed Veritas for political expediency in gaining congressional authorization and public support so Johnson could escalate the war after his election that year.
Was it a sacrifice at the altar of personal loyalty to a President or to the principle that the end justifies the means in serving their country? Neither explanation does credit to our university. Neither is significantly different from the lies and prevarication regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction presented to the world by U.S. intelligence services and Departments of State and Defense officers who happened not to be Harvard alumni in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It is often assumed that an Establishment is the status quo, meaning a vigorous defender of received values which opposes change in any direction. At least in my youth I thought there was solidity there upon which you could build your career, your life. I and, hopefully, you also now know better.
Notwithstanding its liberal image in the country at large, the Harvard of my undergraduate years surely had a lot of residual conservatism of the Eisenhower period about it. On the issue that shaped the lives of so many of us back then, the Vietnam War, Harvard as an institution was on the retrograde side of the barricades. Harvard President Nathan Pusey (who was hostile to the anti-war movement) was no Kingman Brewster (the president of Yale who supported anti-war activism by university chaplain William Sloane Coffin).
At Harvard, we were left in the dust by political movements that bubbled up and defined our age, many coming from San Francisco and from public universities.
But this conservatism of my Harvard was otherwise in conflict with the newly launched social engineering concepts of the admissions committee based on the guiding principle of cooptation. Jews were still a relatively new acquisition, while during our undergraduate years the outreach to blacks was just getting under way. Women, Asians, all would follow in due course over the coming decades.
Cooptation of the outlying majority (women) and minorities (people of color) came in spurts. Like so much social engineering, it was in a great hurry and the principle of meritocracy, applied initially, yielded to the overriding principle of inclusiveness.
In that sense, one can draw a straight line from the 1960s to our presidential elections in the 21st Century when voting for a black or for a woman has come to outweigh merit. More generally, those social engineering experiments at Harvard of my day have led to the overthrow of traditional Judeo-Christian values in a headlong rush towards globalization and the Davos culture. Like it or hate it, Harvard was out front in shaping the Political Correctness of today.
With the insights from my study of Russia, I now understand the American Establishment with Harvard in the front ranks as a North American variant of what the Russians call an Intelligentsia, meaning the vanguard of progressive humanity which is enlightened, educated and leads the popular masses forward.
Is this democracy in action? Not at all, because the fundamental implicit principle is elitism and the certitude that this elite knows best what is good for the country. As some well-known political scientists who earned their Ph.D.’s at Harvard have unabashedly explained, the people are lazy, uninformed, absorbed in consumerism and lacking in patriotism, to mention just a few of their alleged deficiencies which militate against their views informing government policies.
My feelings about my alma mater are bittersweet. It was not and is not an unqualified force for good in our country. But then again no human institution ever is.
Are anti-intellectual populists with a distinctively lowbrow prejudice a great improvement on highbrow mandarins who are contemptuous of the people? That is a question which has no definitive answer.
Despite Hillary Clinton current lead in most polls over Donald Trump, when Americans vote on Nov. 8, I will be putting my money on the lowbrow-populist candidate, who just happens to be calling for an accommodating foreign policy that seems more likely to give us four years of peace whereas the Establishment champion and her covey of neocon advisers are spoiling for a fight with Russia and China that may result in the end of civilization as we know it.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016