Organization Kids

organization-kid-next-ruling-class-atlantic-coverIn his most recent column, David Brooks laments the rise of Organization Kids, of whom he suggests Elena Kagan is an archetype:

Kagan has many friends along the Acela corridor, thanks to her time at Hunter College High School, Princeton, Harvard and in Democratic administrations. So far, I haven’t met anybody who is not an admirer. She is apparently smart, deft and friendly. She was a superb teacher. She has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.

Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious. She does not seem to be one who leaps into a fray when the consequences might be unpredictable. “She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life,” John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor, told The Times. “She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen.”

Tom Goldstein, the publisher of the highly influential SCOTUSblog, has described Kagan as “extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade.”

But Kevin Drum says this is an example of Brooks’ “annoying habit” of “plucking individuals out of the news and then turning them into poster children for whatever cultural theory he’s peddling at the moment.”

As several commenters have already pointed out, Brooks has been peddling this particular cultural theory since April 2001. Regardless, Kevin cites Donald Berwick, Obama’s choice to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who has taken positions far, far outside the American mainstream on his main area of expertise, and concludes,

So maybe the Organization Kids aren’t taking over Washington DC after all. Maybe, in fact, there are just lots of different kinds of people in the world, and Kagan is one kind while Berwick is another. And maybe that’s OK.

While that’s doubtless right in a macro sense, it strikes me as highly probable that “Organization Kids” are much more highly represented in elite Washington than in society as a whole.   Aside from nepotism, the way to get ahead in this town is to go to the right schools, punch the right tickets, and not piss too many people off.  (Unless you’re trying to make it as a political commentator, in which case the last can be safely disregarded.)

Indeed, I’d argue that Obama himself is an “Organization Kid.”

Certainly, there are some mavericky, outspoken types who occasionally rise to prominence in the public sector.  But they’re usually either cantankerous Congressmen from very safe districts or appointees to obscure positions.  Or, oddly, economists.

Post-Bork at least, every successful Supreme Court nominee has been a cipher who claimed to have no opinion on, well, anything.  The less that’s known, the harder it is to mount an attack.   That’s not a slam on the nominees but rather on the system.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily think being an Organization Kid is a bad thing.  Certainly, it’s not a sign of bad character or anything.   Nor, from reading his most recent column and his original feature article, do I gather Brooks does.   Rather, it’s more an Andy Rooneyesque lamenting of a perhaps idealized version of the past.    He’s wistful for a time when kids were kids, damn it, and engaged in free play with their friends rather than being shuttled from one organized event to another.   And when going to college was a time for personal growth rather than just another job and ticket to be punched.

While I think that’s somewhat overstated, I do wish our political culture hadn’t evolved in such a way as to make it extremely hard for colorful, outspoken folks to rise to the top.   But I don’t harbor any ill will to those with the self discipline to play the game by the rules as they actually exist.

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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. sam says:

    Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious.

    Christ! And all this time I thought she was a liberal.

  2. Triumph says:

    Christ! And all this time I thought she was a liberal.

    This is the characterization of liberals. They push their political correctness, anti-innovation, foreign policy weakness, and atheism on everyone.

    She does not seem to be one who leaps into a fray when the consequences might be unpredictable.

    This is the essence of conservatism. This accounts for the heroic bravery of recent conservative leaders like Bush and Palin.

    If you want some milquetoast, namby pamby libbie, pick a Jon Lovitz-lookalike such as Kagan.

    I prefer the bold action–even if it falls in the face of “rationality”–of patriots like Alito and Thomas.