Elites Who Get It

One of the more surprising things I’ve noticed recently is impeccably-credentialed elites who basically agree with Chris Hayes’ new book (make sure to catch our review) about the institutional crisis we are facing, and their use of what would normally be called “hysterical” or “unserious” language to describe it. For example, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, of Brookings and AEI respectively, who are usually usually paragons of boring, calm DC consensus, wrote an amazingly blunt op-ed in the Post (based on their similarly blunt book):

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

(In case you’re not familiar with those two, try to imagine Mr. Rogers lambasting corruption on Sesame Street.)

The latest example of this kind of language comes from Richard Posner, an appeals court judge and Chicago law professor with a gold-plated CV:

The institutional structure of the United States is under stress. We might be in dangerous economic straits if the dollar were not the principal international reserve currency and the eurozone in deep fiscal trouble. We have a huge public debt, dangerously neglected infrastructure, a greatly overextended system of criminal punishment, a seeming inability to come to grips with grave environmental problems such as global warming, a very costly but inadequate educational system, unsound immigration policies, an embarrassing obesity epidemic, an excessively costly health care system, a possible rise in structural unemployment, fiscal crises in state and local governments, a screwed-up tax system, a dysfunctional patent system, and growing economic inequality that may soon create serious social tensions.

A notable characteristic of failed states is a bone-deep cynicism about officials, politicians, and institutions. No one in the DRC would say something like Mr. Posner, because everyone knows that of course everything is broken and top leaders are corrupt. An underrated buffer against this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is incubating a sense of civil responsibility and public virtue, which is surely part of what motivates people like Posner, Mann, and Ornstein to speak up. It’s time for more elites who see what is happening to do the same.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.