Why Do Super-Elite Universities Produce So Many Awful Politicians?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I offered some observations about the pro-insurrectionist Senator Ted Cruz, drawing lessons from the one major life experience that he and I have in common: competitive college-level parliamentary debating.  I will not expand here on what I wrote in that column, but I want to use my two writing slots this week (today and Friday) to pick up on some issues that were raised on the comment board for that column.  In a pointed -- but refreshingly trolling-free -- discussion, three of our readers raised a number of interesting points.  Here, I want to take a stab at answering one reader's provocative question:
"Whenever I think of a Cruz, a Hawley, a Franken, or some other Ivy alumni, I want to find someone to tell me just what those universities think their academic missions are. To create comedy writers? Hedge fund managers? Elected officials? Or just to reproduce more of themselves? Whatever the weaknesses of the noblesse oblige of an Elihu Root, or Franklin Roosevelt, or a Henry Stimson, it seems to me less bad than the naked ambition and relentlessness that seem now to be the primary qualifications for admission."
I concede in advance that I am not a scholar of higher education or of its most selective and elite variants.  It is possible for people who have never gone to an elite institution to offer deep insights and trenchant critiques, just as the late sportscaster Howard Cosell admitted that he "never played the game" but was a keen observer of the world of sport.  My role here, to extend the analogy, is like a jock who had some success playing the game and who has direct experience with a lot of the people and institutions involved, but ultimately mine are still subjective and not deeply researched observations.

Having so stipulated, I want to suggest that the reader's query in the quote above ultimately leads to another one of those "it's the worst, except for all of the alternatives" defenses.  That is, American elite educational institutions do a lot of damage and have a lot to answer for, but the way it is now is better than what came before.  There might be better options, but I will limit myself here to comparing the new status quo with what it replaced.

Broadly speaking, the change to which the reader points -- the move from the Harvard of FDR to the Princeton of Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz -- is a post-WWII move toward meritocracy and away from the plutocratic American version of aristocracy.  When I first enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Harvard in the 1980's, I met a lot of undergraduates (mostly through the parliamentary debate team), and they emphasized with pride that Harvard was no longer a place where being the guy whose family name was on a building (a la Oliver Barrett IV in "Love Story") could slide in and earn gentleman's C's.  (Side note: I spent my undergraduate years at Vassar, which is relevant here in that it is an elite institution with many similarities to the Ivies; but I was new to Harvard as a graduate student.)

Of course, money still talks, and even though we had supposedly moved on from the world that allowed the first President Bush's sons to expect to go to Yale (although Jeb claims to have turned down Yale when he went to UT-Austin) and that allowed the second President Bush to get by in New Haven on frat-boy pranks and family connections (before somehow being admitted to the Harvard Business School), we still have people like Jared Kushner and his father's strategically timed donation to Harvard during admission season.  The difference is that, even if there is still some of that crap going on, it has at least been reduced to a significant degree, and places like Harvard will now bother to deny that it is happening (usually truthfully).

But our reader is not asking whether there was truly a change in the approach to admissions among the Ivies (by which I mean not only the Ancient Eight, but also places like Amherst, Duke, Stanford, and so on).  He takes as a given that things have changed, and he suggests that this was a bad thing.  He might have a point, but I am skeptical.

Looking at the power players in Republican circles, the list of those how attended one of the Ivies, either for undergrad or law school or both, includes not just Cruz and Hawley but Tom Cotton, Ron de Santis (governor of Florida), Steve Bannon, Elise Stefanik, Ben Sasse, Stephen Miller, and many others.  Meanwhile, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is a Harvard grad (and Rhodes Scholar), and many other liberal politicians graduated from the top-tier places as well.

To a certain degree (no pun intended), this is how a meritocracy should work.  The "best" schools look for the most promising students, who in turn want to go to those schools.  Being the best, those schools then give those already outstanding students a superior education, and the distance between them and everyone else grows.  Rather than being "born to lead," the idea is that these are the kids who can be turned into the most effective leaders.  Certainly compared to the pre-meritocracy years, the Ivies have accepted and groomed many more "talented kids" of non-plutocratic means, which is an improvement.

So much for the idealized version of the story.  What do the Ivies think they are doing?  To the extent that they have a hive mind (and to a large degree, I think they do), they honestly seem to believe their own hype.  The reality, however, is that they have become in far too many ways virtual Petri dishes for the worst kinds of careerism, such that these graduates are not the most effective leaders, as I described it above, but instead are merely the winners of the educational Hunger Games.  Metaphor mixed.  (Whatever else one might think about Buttigieg, and I am very conflicted about him, it is actually a bad sign that he won a Rhodes.)

What I remember most vividly from my years hanging around with, teaching, and advising Harvard undergraduates was that everything was a "comp," that is, a competition.  It was not enough that everyone had beaten the incredibly long odds of getting into Harvard College.  Everything during their college lives had to be a matter of winning a comp.  On the parliamentary debate team, students would sometimes claim that we should run a comp -- not because we had any reason to limit the number of students who could participate, but because it "looked lame" that they were in an activity that did not exclude anyone.  "Anyone" among the already-culled population of Harvard undergraduates, that is.  It even took Harvard years to eliminate the comp to get into the "best" residential houses, where having a hierarchy of coolness was yet another meaningless social divide.

The second-most-vivid feature of Harvard in my memory is the large numbers of precociously political students, late adolescents who had no idea what they truly cared about, but who knew that they wanted to be president.  One kid (and I say "kid" because he was a 19-year-old Sophomore at the time) became infamous for telling a young classmate that he would not date her -- or anyone -- because he could not afford to have anyone haunting him in his future political career with a sex scandal.  That was an extreme case, but I constantly encountered students -- both through debate and when teaching Economics courses, which drew students with political interests -- who were too young to drink but who already had mapped out their political ascents.

Most of these stories are dated, but on the other hand, the Ivy graduates who are now polluting the political scene are from exactly the era that I was in Cambridge.  Nothing that I have seen or heard since, at any of the elite institutions with which I have been affiliated, suggests that the atmosphere has changed very much.

To be clear, most of the students viewed the Buttigieg and Cotton types as "political tools."  Even in a toxically competitive environment, the majority of students were able to see that the Cruz approach to life was not for them.  The same Harvard class that graduated Jared Kushner also produced Natalie Portman, who has said in interviews that her classmates were, ahem, notably unimpressed with the real estate princeling (and not only because he is dim).  This is consistent with what I saw, where a clear majority of the students laughed at the political tools -- and not always behind their backs.

I do, however, want to return to our reader's ultimate concern: "Whatever the weaknesses of the noblesse oblige of an Elihu Root, or Franklin Roosevelt, or a Henry Stimson, it seems to me less bad than the naked ambition and relentlessness that seem now to be the primary qualifications for admission."  And as I suggested above, I find myself saying, "Yeah, I guess, but ... no."  For one thing, there are plenty of students in the meritocratic world who have a very real sense of noblesse oblige, that is, who know that they are lucky and believe that they should give back to the world.  FDR's family wealth allowed him great power, but even the less wealthy Ivy grads know that their credentials give them freedom to do things that they would not be able to do otherwise.  And if not immediately, then certainly they will have the luxury over the course of their lives to do good things.

In FDR's time, the Ivies were filled with plenty of the children of plutocrats who looked down on his side of the Roosevelt family, and they were the "malefactors of great wealth" who opposed FDR every step of the way.  No noblesse oblige there.  The Taft family (including the former president and chief justice) were more Yalie than the Bushes ever were, and they were not exactly championing the interests of the less fortunate.  JFK's "best and brightest" -- architects of the Vietnam mess -- were products of the old system, not the new.
Maybe the best way to think about this is that the Cruzes and Hawleys of the world are going to be awful no matter what.  Yes, they end up at the elite universities, and they bite and claw their way to the top, but they were going to do that no matter what, or somebody like them would have.  They are terrible people who attended elite universities, but correlation is not causation (in either direction).
It is true that the current system allows a (somewhat) wider socioeconomic group to become awful rightwing politicians, but it also benefits many kids who never would have been given a chance to get a very good education that opens a lot of doors.  The system could and should do more to expand that socieconomic range, so this is at most a very minimal defense of the current approach. 
Going back to a system where we must count on the children of the elite to learn the virtues of selfless public service, however, seems unlikely to achieve that goal, and at a very high cost.