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Counter-Revolt of the Elites

Few Americans predicted the explosion in populism with greater precision than Christopher Lasch in his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites. In the book’s second chapter, Lasch savaged America’s “elites,” exposing their rootless cosmopolitanism, their walling off of “refined” culture from the common man, and their intellectual-cultural arrogance. After all, if you are a […]

Few Americans predicted the explosion in populism with greater precision than Christopher Lasch in his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites. In the book’s second chapter, Lasch savaged America’s “elites,” exposing their rootless cosmopolitanism, their walling off of “refined” culture from the common man, and their intellectual-cultural arrogance. After all, if you are a product of individual striving and view your country as a mere geographical expression, what do you owe to the place where you were raised? 

Currents of Lasch’s thought can be found in many contemporary critiques of the globalist-managerial class. While Lasch’s arguments focus on the role universities and elite institutions play in acculturating that class, the question remains how its dominance can be opposed.

In a recent Twitter thread, Hadar Hazony described how universities uproot students and seek to mold them into global citizens. But instead of churning out radical individualists who have no allegiance to their country’s religious and national traditions, publicly funded universities can and should place special emphasis on these traditions for purposes of national cohesion. Imagine a college-educated elite who are taught that obligations to national heritage, community, and family don’t end at age 18. Such a concept is alien to both the expressive-individualist left and the “just move to Texas” right. 

Professor Ted McAlister’s work builds a critique of conservative intellectual elites who have pivoted away from universities and colleges and sought to make their mark in think tanks and policy centers—a pursuit of “power” more than “beauty,” a focus on the present at the expense of multi-generational struggle: 

[W]e lack a strong and traditionally conservative intellectual — and specifically academic — class. The easiest measure of this weakness is found in both the number and the intellectual range of conservative academics. Of particular importance here is the dearth of conservatives in the humanities. Indeed, the number of conservative scholars devoted to such studies as philology, literature, theology, philosophy, and history as well as themes such as imagination, beauty, and truth, has dwindled.

“To a disturbing degree,” McAlister adds, “conservative intellectuals deploy the categories and language appropriate to the Left when defending conservatism.” By attempting to create a right-wing Frankfurt School, conservative academic-deconstructionists inadvertently abet the enemy.

Mario Fantini, editor of the European Conservative, likewise recognized the impotence of a young conservative elite that seeks assimilation into the world of the woke instead of rebelling against it:

When I look around the U.S. and parts of Europe, I see so many of those old, prestigious colleges and universities completely taken over by ‘woke zombies.’ They’re all in the hands of the ‘politically correct’ and they’re all pushing various interrelated agendas onto both students and faculty.

At the same time, you still have young conservatives desperately trying to get accepted into—or get an academic appointment at—places like Cambridge, Princeton, Sciences Po. This is outrageous, since these are the very institutions that are pushing the ideas and values that we conservatives are against. These institutions will stifle or suppress certain ideas until conservative academics have ‘taken a knee.’ So I’ve completely changed my mind about all those institutions that I used to admire. Now I tell young people: forget those institutions. Walk away from them. You don’t need them.

Fantini makes an excellent point: Why do conservatives still covet acceptance into institutions that vilify them? As Patrick Deneen observes, once “conservatives” are integrated into elite institutions, they inevitably play the role of “useful foils” in “propping up” the globalist socio-economic superstructure; they become “true cons,” the conservatives who are still accepted in polite circles of the Beltway and brandish their never-Trump credentials at the drop of a hat.

How many conservatives of elite pedigree “walk away,” as Fantini puts it, turning down what Deneen calls “institutional comforts—jobs, sinecures, status, nice offices in Washington, D.C.”? How many shun the soothing balm of acceptance so craved by conservatives who fear of being pathologized as racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc.? What makes this all the more complicated—if the elites, as Lasch and countless others refer to them, brought us the status quo, then don’t we need at least some of the elite to get us out of this mess?

Bari Weiss’ groundbreaking article on ideologically dissenting parents at elite private schools, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” draws attention to the fact that even those who disagree with the ideas behind far-left identity politics are unwilling to opt out of the system that perpetuates those politics. Without the veil of anonymity, Weiss’s story would never have materialized. Presumably, all those anonymous sources who expressed their disapproval of post-George Floyd anti-racism efforts at their schools have remained anonymous. Presumably, they are still cutting checks to the institutions they denounced, crossing their fingers for the privilege to cut even bigger ones to like-minded colleges in the years to come. 

Extrapolating from there, how many conservative or classically liberal members of America’s elite would walk away from Harvard, Stanford, or Brown? How many would challenge their children to do the same? How many would refuse to donate to institutions that indoctrinate students with ideals that undermine the foundations of Western civilization? Most of them, however genuine in their indignation with the state of affairs, choose the path of becoming the “controlled opposition” or a “useful foil,” to use Professor Deneen’s words. They become the pluralist puppets buttressing our post-nationalist, anti-Western overlords. 

But what if the same elites that revolted against America this time revolted in its favor? What if this time they turned their ire not at benighted middle America but at the institutions, organizations, and careers that have coddled them into complacency? 

Rusty Reno hinted at such a notion in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why I stopped hiring Ivy League Graduates.” He points out that while he himself is the product of an elite education (Yale), he more often than not prefers to hire from schools like Hillsdale and “quirky small Catholic colleges such as Thomas Aquinas College, Wyoming Catholic College and the University of Dallas.” 

I say, great—this is exactly the kind of inside-out anti-status quo thinking we need. Here’s the problem, though, from where I sit: As a 36-year-old, I am only now aware, well after my formative years that set me on my career track, that there is even an alternative to Elitism, Inc. 

I endlessly chased the shiny objects of elite institutions and elite careers. I only partly blame myself for that. As a teen and a 20-something, I did not know that tenable alternatives to the Big Tech/Big Finance/Ivy League definitions of “success” existed. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that there are rebel “elites” who think like I do and measure success in ways other than those defined by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal Mansion section, or elite law firms and investment banks.  

Until recently, I was unaware of publications like First Things and The American Conservative. I was unaware that there are viable alternatives to brand-name schools, ones that foster fealty to the American political inheritance, family, religious faith, and community. I was shaped—and I suspect most ambitious young people are still shaped—by the idea that meritocratic duty calls you out of your community and away from your family in pursuit of upward mobility at all cost.

The sad truth, despite protestations to the contrary from people who extol neo-agrarianism—not all of us are cut out for homeschooling or subsistence farming—is that most members of America’s elite are not going to renounce the comforts of the world for a life of asceticism. Where does that leave us?

I am struck by an observation Rusty Reno made to me in a previous interview for this publication: While Wall Street broke big for sleepy-Joe, small- to medium-sized (regionally important) companies and business owners overwhelmingly favored Trump. What this tells me is that there is a vestige of an economic order that pines for a return to middle-America economics—that is, to an economy in which small- and medium-sized cities and businesses in the American heartland can flourish. 

The question now is whether conservatives with elite credentials will put our money where our mouth is and divest from the institutions, careers, and mindsets that have made Conservatism, Inc. an abettor of globalization and leftist cultural hegemony. Will those in the upper rungs of the conservative socio-economic ladder choose revolt or continue down the path of cushioned acquiescence?  

Politics, of course, will play a significant part. But the right must also create—or expand—the dissident institutions, values, tastes, and beliefs needed to replace the ones that reign today. A new revolt of the elites is in order—one in which the wealthy and influential spurn the trappings of cosmopolitan comfort and look instead to foster a culture in which jobs and community, family and social mobility, success and the ties that bind, are no longer exclusive of one another. 

Intellectual foundations for a new pro-American elite have been laid, but it’s well past time for the frame to go up.


Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school. His writing can also be found at The European Conservative.