In Defense of Excellence?

By PBS Newshour – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

In his column in The New York Times today, David Brooks writes “Excellence is hierarchical. Excellence requires work, time, experience and talent. Populism doesn’t believe in hierarchy. Populism doesn’t demand the effort required to understand the best that has been thought and said. Populism celebrates the quick slogan, the impulsive slash, the easy ignorant assertion. Populism is blind to mastery and embraces mediocrity.” Though he doesn’t seem to know it, this encapsulates his own intellectual failure and is one of the beliefs that has led to the destruction of the Republican Party and even to the rise of Trump.

First of all, he implies an equivalency between hierarchical success (what he calls “excellence”) and “work, time, experience and talent.” The assumption is that those who get to the top are the best—and we all know this is not true. The hardest working people tend to be those who are kept at the bottom, who have nothing but time on the job and experience and whose talents are exploited, not rewarded.

In his rose-colored vision of the past of the Republican Party, Brooks claims that it once admired “intellectual excellence,” cherry picking a couple who he claims attained it but ignoring the much larger group of pseudo-intellectual frauds such as Newt Gingrich and David Horowitz whose impact on the party has been much greater. He says that Republicans once admired the “moral excellence” of a couple of non-Republicans while forgetting the cheering for such purveyors of moral rot as Henry Kissinger and New Gingrich (what? Him again?). He speaks of “excellent leaders” but names two enablers of authoritarian tendencies, including the brutal Argentinian regime of the 1970s and 1980s and the Contras of Nicaragua and omits the hapless Bushes and New Gingrich (why does he keep coming up? Maybe he’s really the heart of the Republican Party Brooks “grew up with.” His crude, immoral and grasping ethos is more in tune with it, certainly, than any of the people Brooks mentions).

Contrasting “excellence” with “populism” (I don’t think Brooks understands either), Brooks writes that the latter “doesn’t demand the effort required to understand the best that has been thought and said.” As what Brooks describes as “excellence” (“elitism” in a fancy coat, actually) doesn’t require it either (witness the real stars of the Republican Party, not Brooks’s few), this distinction can only be seen as a self-serving self-promotion. Brooks wants to see himself as excellent, everyone else (in the current Republican Party, if not elsewhere) as smelly failures. He writes that populism “is blind to mastery and embraces mediocrity.”

Though much of this column strikes me as right on target, I am disappointed that Brooks feels he has to include this bit of support of the concept of a meritocracy rising from the great unwashed. I shouldn’t be surprised, though: this elitism is at the heart of almost all he writes. Though I applaud him for opposing Trump, my suspicion is that, were Trump dressed up in the imaginary clothing of “excellence” that Brooks mis-remembers of his party of the past, Brooks would be supporting him.

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