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.

Conservatives were above elitism. Then came Miers (TNR)

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.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Puloone says:

    This argument is idiotic. Miers is the epitome of an elitist candidate. She has worked in the highest levels in the cooridors of corporate power in Texas; she has worked in the highest levels of power in Washington.

    It’s not like Bush nominated a country-lawyer, Matlock-type here.

    In fact, her profile is even more “elite” given the fact that she was nominated by Bush primarily because of her closeness to the prez–not because of any distinguished record of merit.

    This is the epitome of an elite, “old-boy network”-type of appointment. It should not be surprising coming from Bush given the fact that his entire career has been based upon leveraging his blue-blood background and contacts for personal gain.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Puloone: Sure, but that’s not the point of the piece. Anyone who gets nominated to the Supreme Court is almost by definition “elite.”

    Scheiber’s thesis is that the things that make Meirs seem mediocre to intellectual elites–going to a lower tier school, not having published major journal pieces, not having a judicial philosophy–don’t matter to rank and file conservatives.

  3. G says:

    The debat is stupid yes, but I think it shows a very clear problem with the Repub party. There are a great many that only wanted to see Bush start a fight with this nomination. They feel it would have been epic to put someone up that would have given them fits.

    But they then ignore that this would have, once again, stalemated the Congress, and thus led to another session of Washington doing nothing productive.

    I am glad (even though I am leary of her creditentials) that the President picked someone that wont end up causing much ado about nothing.

    The nomination of a judge is a very important issue, but it is not the ONLY issue on the plate.

  4. Scott says:

    What’s interesting is that conservatism, at its roots (i.e Burke), recognized the necessity of elitism: that not everybody was created equal (egalitarianism), and that some were gifted with the skills and means to devote themselves to public service in positions of leadership, and indeed had a duty to do so. As opposed to true, pure democracy, as envisioned by the liberals of, say, the French Revolution, that didn’t see the need for any sort of “ruling class.”

  5. Scott says:

    I wonder if this sort of reporting reflects the liberal misunderstanding of conservatism, and in fact projects a little bit of liberalism onto the conservative movement.

  6. James Joyner says:

    G: Aside from sending troops to war, there is scarcely anything a president can do that has more impact than a Supreme Court appointment. The Court makes some of the most important decisions in American political life and members serve 25 to 40 years, long after a president has left office.

  7. going to a lower tier school, not having published major journal pieces, not having a judicial philosophy

    These are three very different things. I went to an Ivy League college and law school, but I’m not qualified to be on the S.Ct. Similarly, the fact that Miers didn’t go to the Ivy League means nothing. Publishing major journal pieces isn’t really a big deal, either, but it’s a stand-in for what IS the big deal — having a judicial philosophy. It’s inconceivable to me that someone would be nominated to the S.Ct. without having thought about the role of judges in deciding cases and their role more generally in our political system. That’s not elitism; it’s asking for a qualified candidate.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Attila: Agreed. But that’s an intellectual elite’s view of what the Court does.

    As a ‘Bama PhD, I certainly agree that the lack of an Ivy League degree is dispositive. It is, however, a proxy for a given level of intelligence and training that a candidate without that credential would have to demonstrate otherwise. Ditto refereed journal articles.

  9. bryan says:

    This is really no different than you’d expect at hiring anyone for an extremely competitive position, or even as professor at a top university. Sure, a candidate from SMU might be able to crack the ranks at Harvard or Princeton or whatever top school. But the presumption is that such a candidate would be twice as good in another area, like research and publications. Miers is good at *none* of the areas traditionally important for court nominees (judicial experience, top academic qualifications/publications, or constitutional expertise).

    I’m hardly an elitist. My step-father is a labor union electrician, and I went to a small state school for undergrad. But I expect the supreme court to have some pretty elite minds who have shown that they are such.

  10. Dodd says:

    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.

    Patently false. A great many conservatives who were not at all pleased with the big government impulses of George Bush voted for him largely for SupCt reasons. It was right behind the War on Terror on my – and many other right-leaning voters’ – list of reasons to prefer Bush over Kerry. Had the Democrats actually nominated someone (like Lieberman) I could trust on national security, it would almost assuredly have been the deciding factor in my vote. And I am hardly alone.

    Perhaps TNR’s logic applies to a great many voters, but it is plain nonsense for a significant minority, left and right.

  11. McGehee says:

    …this would have, once again, stalemated the Congress, and thus led to another session of Washington doing nothing productive.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

  12. DL says:

    It is facinating to see the right slip into the dirty tactics of the left so easily, namly, name calling those with whom you find disagreement, elitists.

    It is not being elite to be uncomfortable with this key choice after many years of battle, when the main argument in favor of her is that we should trust Bush-he knows her well. There is no one more trustworthy than Jesus, but he hand- picked Judas after knowing him better than anyone. It turned out to be a disaster. We, not being omnipitant, can’t turn a disasterous choice into salvation as did Christ.

    There were far better choices, better strategies than splitting ourselves in two while the Dems sit laughing at their woundless victory. Karl and George blew this one!

  13. jimbo says:

    No doubt Bush really believes that Miers will be the substance of his legacy. The important thing about Miers as far as Bush is concerned is that she is a conservative Christian. IMO Bush believes that, with the possible exception of Scalia, who, as a Catholic, is suspect, conservative Christians, a very important part of the electorate, are not now but should be represented on the Supreme Court. Elitist conservatives, Tories, would want a Justice who is guided by the constitution and the country’s traditions, and they are horrified by the thought that the only document that would guide Miers is the Bible. By now, after all these years, conservatives should realize that Bush is not one of them. Next up will be a Jacksonian Fed nominee ready to drive the money changers, people who worry about deficits and inflation, from the temple. Harry Reid will love this person too. Is it time to buy gold?

  14. bryan says:

    IMO Bush believes that, with the possible exception of Scalia, who, as a Catholic, is suspect, conservative Christians, a very important part of the electorate, are not now but should be represented on the Supreme Court.

    Clarence Thomas has a degree from a catholic seminary.

  15. Herb says:

    In my many years of travel and living thruout many parts of this country, I learned one very important lesson. That is, there are three parts of this country.

    There is the west (Left) coast.

    There is the East Coast, (Often thought of as mainly the Northeast only) that is very liberal.

    And in between, there is America.

    Is was America that put Bush in office.