In an op-ed piece from the BBC (which has inexplicably disappeared off the BBC News website, so you’ll have to take my word for it), a very class-conscious Brit was observing that class has become the driving force in American politics. He further observed that Americans are so ignorant of class distinction that they fail to understand it when it slaps them in the face. It therefore takes a Brit to explain to an American the influence of class in American politics.
What caught his attention was the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. If she is confirmed, she will replace Midwest-educated John Paul Stevens (Northwestern University School of Law). And for the first time in history, every Supreme Court justice will have been educated at either Harvard (Breyer, Ginsberg, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Kagan) or Yale (Alito, Sotomayor, and Thomas). As observed by the class-conscious Brit, the law schools at Harvard and Yale, long-time symbols of the American upper class, have become necessary stepping stones to the rarified air of the Supreme Court.
What the op-ed piece failed to comment on is the similar trend in Presidents. Both Bushes and Clinton were Yale grads and Obama is a Harvard grad (and G. W. Bush received his business degree from the Harvard Business School in addition to his Yale undergraduate degree). This means that we’ve had Yale or Harvard trained presidents for over two decades. (You have to go back to Kennedy and F.D.R. to find the previous Harvard grads. Gerald Ford tried but failed to get into Yale Law School, so his JD comes from Michigan.)
What this most likely means is that the perceived diversity that we have on the Court – male/female, black/white/Puerto Rican, Catholic/Jew (there are no Protestants currently on the Court), straight/gay, or appointed by a Republican or Democrat President – are all relatively insignificant compared to the fundamental similarity that they all come from the ruling class.
Turning our attention to another interesting oddity in current American politics, why is it that pretty much everyone is afforded freedom of speech, except for the Tea Party Movement, which has been labeled as hate speech by most of the Harvard/Yale upper class of Americans? Could it be that this hatred against the Tea Party Movement is only political in a tangential sense? Could it be that the Harvard/Yale Upper Class (for lack of a better term) is offended by the uppity-ness of this lower-class, blue-collar movement that assumes it has the right to take back America from the aristocrats? Those people were born to be rulers! What are those working-class tea-partiers thinking?
The Brits – ever conscious of class distinction – suspect this is the case.
But back to the elitism of the Supreme Court: Prof. Jeff Taylor observes many of the same things in a recent article in the Front Porch Republic e-zine, and then says, “When it comes to the Supreme Court, I don’t care about ethnicity, religion, or sexuality per se. What bugs me is hypocrisy, phoniness, and the age-old problem of aristocracy. If only the few really were the best! But they aren’t. So we’re left with the worst of all possible worlds: Rule by the incompetent and wicked few.”
It is worth observing that Jeff Taylor has a decidedly more negative view of the American Elite than the British editorialist. But in spite of his distaste, Taylor goes on to say that, as much as it bugs him, this is likely what Founding Father James Madison had in mind in the Federalist Papers:
The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, was interested in protecting the rights of the nation’s wealthy minority, in guarding against oppression by the unpropertied majority (Federalist no. 10). It could be argued that the Supreme Court has generally operated exactly as it was intended to operate. It has kept democracy in check. Since the 1930s, it has exemplified the dual nature of the welfare state: discreet, large subsidies for the wealthy and powerful; well-publicized, small subsidies for the poor and unpowerful.
Members of the Court have often handed down decisions which benefit lowly members of society, but rulings have rarely disturbed the infrastructure of state capitalism and they seem to emanate more from a sense of noblesse oblige or upper-class mores than from principled, constitutional interpretation. For minority groups to place their destiny in such an arrangement seems disempowering, if not dangerous, depending as it does on the magnanimity of five remote individuals rather than on creating solidarity among themselves or good relations with their neighbors.
By the way, the folks over at Front Porch Republic generally do not treat Madison nor the Federalist Papers kindly, seeing them as the first step toward the big government mess we’re in today. For instance, read Patrick J. Deneen writing here or John Wilson writing here and especially here. And this very snarky comment by Jeremy Beer here.
But back to Taylor, love it or hate it, elitism (or, as he calls it, the American Aristocracy), because of the influence of the Federalist Papers, was built into the system. George Washington may have tried hard, by being the people’s President, to be the exact opposite of a king, but James Madison tried just as hard to assure that “proper” aristocratic influence would remain in the Supreme Court. With the presumed appointment of Elena Kagan, it seems that the aristocracy has a clean sweep on the Supreme Court and Presidency for now. Don’t be fooled by all this silly discussion of diversity; while they may not talk with an Eton stiff upper lip, they all know the secret hand-shake.