Miers Debate Shows Elite-Mainstream Conservative Divide
Noam Scheiber has an interesting look at the divide between mainstream conservatives and conservative intellectuals, as exemplied by the Harriet Miers embroglio.
In many ways, the biggest fault line emerging among conservatives is between East Coast elites, on the one hand, and rank-and-file conservatives elsewhere in the country. As soon as the nomination was announced, Beltway conservatives began griping that Miers, a former Dallas lawyer and a graduate of Southern Methodist University Law School, lacked the credentials to serve on the Supreme Court. “An inspiring testament to the diversity of the president’s cronies,” quipped National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum argued that the conservative movement had spent decades grooming legal talent for the next Republican Supreme Court nomination. Promising young conservatives had attended top law schools, written weighty academic papers, embarked on distinguished careers as professors and judges–all to hone their legal philosophy for the day when they would be able to impose it on U.S. jurisprudence. For Bush “to take a hazard on anything other than a known quantity of the highest intellectual and personal excellence” was “simply reckless,” Frum concluded.
Away from the Eastern seaboard, however, conservatives were warming to Miers. Irate National Review readers wrote to accuse the magazine of elitism. A conservative Texas lawyer complained that calling Miers’s old firm “undistinguished” was “the kind of thing that only an absolute snob–someone who takes the position that no Texas firm could ever be anything but undistinguished–would say.” Meanwhile, prominent evangelical leaders were busy singing Miers’s praises. James Dobson, the president of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, gushed that “Harriet Miers appears to be an outstanding nominee for the Supreme Court.” Marvin Olasky, the compassionate conservatism guru, noted with satisfaction that Miers had been active in a conservative evangelical church for 25 years, with all that implies about hot-button social issues.
What explains the divide? Some of Miers’s harshest critics are just as conservative as Dobson and Olasky when it comes to abortion and gay marriage. Which suggests that what’s important here isn’t ideology but sociology. Frum was reflecting a basic sociological truism–that conservative elites are frequently as credentialist, even snobbish, as the liberal elites they scorn. Many conservative pundits and wonks attended top schools, read highbrow publications, and belong to exclusive professional societies. They firmly believe that elite credentials signify merit. This has important implications. For example, one of the reasons conservative elites are offended by affirmative action is that they equate it (wrongly, it turns out, but not preposterously) with a relaxation of standards. In their minds, in fact, cronyism and affirmative action are equivalent, since both undercut meritocracy for political reasons. “It’s not just that Miers has zero judicial experience,” wrote commentator Michelle Malkin. “It’s that she’s so transparently a crony/’diversity’ pick.”
Hinterland conservatives had none of these reservations. An article on Focus on the Family’s website talked up Miers’s record at the “prestigious Dallas law firm of Locke Purnell Rain Harrell” and quoted the organization’s legal analyst, who pronounced himself unconcerned by Miers’s lack of judicial experience or fluency with constitutional issues. Contrary to the widely repeated axiom that conservatives wanted Bush to appoint a “strict constructionist,” most rank-and-file conservatives don’t really care about legal philosophies. They care about their political objectives, such as abortion and gay marriage. Finally, while conservative evangelicals may oppose affirmative action when it favors minorities, they don’t oppose it in principle the way conservative elites do. In fact, they’re all for it when they stand to benefit. In a Fox News interview on Monday, Dobson hailed Miers as the first evangelical nominee in decades.
No voter is ever going to walk into a voting booth wondering whether the president’s Supreme Court nominees share her legal philosophy, for the simple reason that most voters don’t have a legal philosophy themselves. That may be unsettling to conservative elites. But, then, George W. Bush has never been one to worry about elites of any kind.
All likely true. This doesn’t make the elites wrong, of course, just outnumbered.
The title of Scheiber’s piece reflects an interesting analogous point not really covered in the text: Conservatives love to make fun of “elites” but we are not without our own. Indeed, until the incorporation of Evangelical Christians into the movement in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatism almost certainly had more elites as a percentage of the movement than did liberalism. At least the George Wills, William F. Buckleys, and Bill Kristols of the world recognize that they are themselves part of an elite and eschew use of that rhetoric. Others, including Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Bill O’Reilly don’t see that irony.