In the first days of July, 1940, the American diplomat Robert Murphy took up his duties as the chargé d’affaires at the new U.S. embassy in Vichy, France. Coming from his recent post in Paris, he was as impressed as he expected to be by the quality of the Vichy mandarinate, a highly credentialed class of sophisticated officials who were “products of the most rigorous education and curricula in any public administration in the world.”
As the historian Robert Paxton would write, French officials were “the elite of the elite, selected through a daunting series of relentless examinations for which one prepared at expensive private schools.” In July 1940, the elite of the elite governed the remains of their broken nation, a few days after Adolf Hitler toured Paris as its conqueror. Credentials were the key to holding public office, but not the key to success at the country’s business.
As the bumper stickers in Los Angeles assure me every single day, we are now in a contest of mean people versus nice people, and “love trumps hate.” The daily political battle between the horrible man in the White House and the relentlessly pure savior class embodied in the resistance is portrayed as a fight between cruelty and kindness, vulgarity and sophistication, white nationalism and a culture of human decency. But it’s actually none of that. It’s a fight over credentialing.
Who Gatekeeps the Gatekeepers?
In any society, the right to authority is derived from some origin everyone understands: education, bloodlines, swords in lakes. What gives the people who run the place the right to run it? Why are the leaders the leaders?
More importantly, how well does the gatekeeping work? Do the steps for choosing leaders in a society put it on a path to peace, power, and prosperity? If everyone who runs Freedonia gets to hold a position of authority because she found a magic dingleberry on the hidden path, does finding a magic dingleberry on the hidden path demonstrate that a person has consistent and effective forms of practical knowledge?
In China, for many centuries, the path to authority ran through fields of formal knowledge and written exams. Good Confucian scholars ran local matters, really good Confucian scholars ran regional matters, and scholars who crushed their exams on Confucian principle took up their places as national administrators. A great bureaucrat was a great soul, deeply read and greatly inclined to sophistication in art, literature, and cuisine. It was expected that a capable vice-prefect, for example, would also be an exquisite poet.
Then the British navy showed up during the Opium Wars and shelled the living blazes out of the Chinese coastline, and the exquisitely sophisticated scholar-officials of the Qing Dynasty had not the slightest clue what to do about it. China’s highly credentialed leadership class stumbled through 70 years of decline, struggling to find a way to compete in a rapidly modernizing world.
Nearing the end of the 19th century, after a series of crushing defeats by foreign powers, a group of Chinese dissenters attempted to Make China Great Again with a set of radical changes during the Hundred Days of Reform. Among other things, the reformers proposed the elimination of the Confucian exams as a path to authority, and the immediate embrace of Western industry and administrative systems. Elite scholar-officials faced the loss of their status and privilege, and the Empress Dowager Cixi led them in an effort to stop the proposed changes.
The backlash worked, the leading reformers were executed, most of the reforms were rolled back — and imperial China was destroyed by its reversion to a calcified politics. The last Chinese emperor abdicated in 1912; a short-lived republic gave way to a period of warlordism, civil war, and Japanese occupation, leading finally to the victory of the Chinese communists and the abattoir of the Great Leap Forward.
Historical Shifts Undermine Old Credentials
Similar stories can be told for many times and places, with different ways of credentialing a fading elite. Historical shifts, changes in technology and the structure of global power, undermine old knowledge and credentials. An elite status group highly gifted at X may turn out, in a new day, to lack gifts for managing Not X. Yesterday’s talent may not matter today.
Today a well-entrenched class of professional thinkers largely understands expertise as the product of formal education and relationships to elite universities: You become an expert, or start to, by acquiring academic credentials. Extra points for grad school, and more points still for being a professor like Paul Krugman or Jonathan Gruber. Like the administrative class in Vichy France, or the scholar-officials of imperial China, you’re smart if you go to school a lot and excel on your exams, so you get to be in charge of some piece of the political or cultural mechanism.
But is it working? Are our credentialing instruments producing people who are capable of practical action? To borrow a question from firefighters, can our credential-holders put the wet stuff on the red stuff?
Nearly a decade ago, Angelo Codevilla noticed the calcification of the American ruling class, a thing we sometimes pretend not to have. Our elites, he wrote, are “formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits.” Thoroughly enculturated, the American elite gathers itself around a “social canon” that one does not question. Speaking of societal controversy with the wrong words puts a person outside the circle, out there in flyover country with the deplorables.
Edwardian aristocrats recognized members of their status group — and cultural impersonators merely pretending to belong to it — by their ability to use the right fork at the right moment, to speak correctly to servants, to ride a horse with grace and athleticism, to dress in proper attire for the event at hand, to sit just so on a divan. Their sons and grandsons lost a global empire, but they most certainly knew the social rules for hunting partridge.
In 2018, a parvenu is instantly unmasked by the opinion that there are two sexes. Political speech is a class marker; a MAGA hat puts you in the trailer park, and we’ll not have your sort at table, thank you very much.
Our Credentials Aren’t About Actual Competence
For some time now, the credentialing of new American elites has centered not on knowledge and ability but on a set of cultural postures and social signals. No less than with the etiquette of earlier aristocracies, the gestures that hold a place in the upper classes are learned, absorbed, and relentlessly lived. As Codevilla noted, our cultural upper classes and our economic upper classes don’t invariably overlap; a magnificently wealthy pro-Trump owner of coal mines or slaughterhouses is a lower-class person who happens to have a bunch of money. Don Blankenship doesn’t dine in the Hamptons with Lynn Forester de Rothschild.
National political journalists, a status group that once ranked on par with show people and bartenders, are upper class, no matter their salaries. They lose their class status the moment they speak the wrong social code words, like, “I think Trump is doing a good job.” They know this, and live with an existential sense of status anxiety over it.
For 40 years, with gathering uniformity of purpose, our credentialing institutions have taught postures rather than skills, attitudes rather than knowledge. This isn’t invariably true, and many fine scholars have taught many excellent practitioners, especially outside of the humanities and social sciences. But the overarching trend is toward training in intellectual and psychological uniformity, toward the world of excellent sheep.
The hollowing out of our credentialing institutions has been abundantly clear for years, in well-known examples like the discussion of rape law at Harvard and the “it is not about creating an intellectual space!” tantrum over Halloween costumes at Yale. What credentialing institutions teach is mental rigidity, intellectual cowardice, and the fear of disagreement. They narrow the mind and constrain the ability to act. Our elites largely can’t put the wet stuff on the red stuff, because it’s triggering and unsafe to mention that the red stuff is there, and why are you being so hurtful when I don’t want to talk about this?
Credentials Not Worth the Parchment They’re Printed On
So the very finest people, elevated to positions of responsibility, do essentially nothing, but with elaborate demonstrations of rhetorical restraint. Samantha Power was a highly regarded journalist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who taught at our top-ranked school of government at one of our most elite universities. As a diplomat, she accomplished — what? In Syria, In Libya, in Iran, in Cuba, in Russia or China or Yemen or Saudi Arabia or North Korea, what did the highly credentialed mandarins of the Obama administration, led by a graduate of Harvard Law School, accomplish in the real world?
Staffing up a new administration, Barack Obama hired Power, professor Cass Sunstein, professor Steven Chu, professor Christina Romer, and so on. Donald Trump hired generals, CEOs, and governors, people who were credentialed by lives of action and management. This isn’t disagreement; this is a difference of foundational premises.
In short: Trump declines the authority of the cultural sectors that most assertively claim it. That’s the conflict, and that’s why it’s being played in a relentless tone of hysteria. There are credentialing authorities — and credential-holding elites — who can see the path to their own obsolescence. Like the empress dowager, they will not go quietly.