New England was the last redoubt of the Federalist vision of hierarchical conservatism, from limited white male suffrage to established churches. Additionally, the rise to the fore of what during the Enlightenment would be termed “Enthusiasm” is notable, as democratic politics turns into a quadrennial performance. In religious terms there was an alliance at both ends of the theological spectrum; Free Thinkers & Deists in Philadelphia made common cause with Baptist “Back Country” farmers and nominally Episcopalian “Low Country” planters against the urbane Congregationalist ascendancy of New England. The historical reality of the rise of democratic populism, and something of an amnesia about the nature of the republic during its early years (when democracy was something of a term of insult), leads to the peculiarities of the American Right, which is in many measures a descendant of classical liberalism.
I find this interesting because we seem to have gradually replaced explicit barriers to political participation with more subtle cultural and social hurdles. Much has been made of President-Elect Barack Obama’s sterling establishment credentials. And while Obama is undoubtedly a unique historical figure, his academic pedigree reflects certain core assumptions about where our presidents should come from. Similarly, John Kennedy may have been our first Irish Catholic president, but his background and political advisers epitomized establishment thinking. Given these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the United States’ first black president came to the White House by way of Harvard Law School rather than Howard University.
Poll taxes and property requirements were blunt instruments for stymieing populist anxieties, but mediating cultural institutions like elite schools serve much the same function. The backlash against the bailout, for example, was largely ignored by experts driving government policy. In the midst of an economic meltdown, the credentials of a Paulson or a Bernanke were certainly reassuring, but it’s worth remembering that their approach to crisis management wasn’t nearly as considered as many of us (myself included) first assumed. All of which begs the question: do soft cultural barriers actually do a better job of weeding out incompetence and diluting the influence of an excitable public? Elite groupthink is probably an inevitable result of any non-egalitarian social arrangement, but the recent crisis suggests our unique brand of meritocratic elitism is particularly susceptible to arrogant short-sightedness