Cultivating a Local Elite
Those who return to their hometowns from Ivy League schools are but a small part of this group.
When the American people think of the “elites” in government, we think of the dominance of those who are born and bred with a thoroughly Washington, D.C. mentality. The 2022 Republican primary for the U.S. House seat in Wyoming is a perfect example to contrast the local elite with the “D.C. elite.”
Liz Cheney represented Wyoming in Congress, and her official website prominently displays the slogan “Proudly Working for Wyoming.” Yet her biography page, in addition to her lineage as the daughter of Dick Cheney, reveals she is no local Wyomingite:
Prior to her election to Congress, Cheney served at the State Department as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East. She also practiced law at White & Case and at the International Finance Corporation. A specialist in national security and foreign policy, she was also a Fox News analyst, and is the co-author – along with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney – of “Exceptional: Why The World Needs a Powerful America.” She is a member of the International Board of Advisors at the University of Wyoming.
Look at what is highlighted: service at the State Department, work at a big international law firm (whose current website reveals a deep commitment to the green energy agenda and no presence in the state of Wyoming), foreign policy expertise, a Fox News gig, and membership on an international board of advisors for the state university. Hardly the résumé of someone well connected to and in touch with the community she represents.
Contrast this to the life of Harriet Hageman, who will represent Wyoming in Congress beginning next month. Unlike Cheney, Hageman actually spent her life as a resident of Wyoming, living among and fighting for her people. She has excellent credentials as a lawyer, but they are local credentials: she did not attend an Ivy League school, but received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Wyoming. She speaks for herself on her campaign website:
As an attorney, I battled Bill Clinton’s attempt to block access to one-third of our National Forest Lands, stopped the EPA's efforts to take control of our irrigation infrastructure and operations, blocked the USDA from forcing our livestock producers to use radio-frequency eartags and register all of our ranches with the federal government, and more. Now I am ready to fight for Wyomingites in Congress.
This is a case in point of what we need and what we don’t in political life. Frankly, we don’t need more Liz Cheneys, who make their careers at elite universities, federal agencies, and international law firms, only to condescend back to their places of birth to pretend to be one of the people. We need more Harriet Hagemans. As Pavlos Papadopoulos wrote in an insightful piece a few months back, Hageman “is a reemergence of an older and rarer type: a local elite, rooted in the provinces rather than the capital.” She exemplifies a solution to our elite problem: we need the best among us to use their extraordinary talents to live among and serve their local communities. We need to cultivate a local elite.
What is meant by the term “local elite?” It is not meant to describe the members of a local community who attended the Ivy Leagues or live in the ritzy part of town with large gates and manicured lawns. The local elite consists of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, realtors, people from a wide variety of professions. They share two important qualities. They have superior abilities of intellect, judgment, and a variety of “soft skills,” from making and maintaining connections to reading a room. And rather than setting themselves apart, they are very much immersed in the local community from which they come and in which they live.
And what makes them “elite”? The word has so many connotations, many of them negative, that using it productively requires nuance. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “elite” as “the richest, most powerful, best-educated, or best-trained group in society.” This definition fits when applied to those in the governing classes who attend the Ivy League schools and populate the best metropolitan cocktail parties. But consider the word elite in other contexts. An elite athlete, for example, often becomes rich and highly trained. But his wealth and power and training are not what make him elite. It is his superior natural abilities, honed with time, training, and practice, that make him a better athlete than others can possibly become. It is his superior skill that makes him elite.
A better definition of “elite” appears from Oxford Languages in a simple Google search: “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” This is an understanding of the word we need to recover. The elite are superior only in certain abilities or qualities. If they are rich, powerful, or well-educated, those are, or ought to be, effects of being elite, not the cause. In a naturally hierarchical society, the elite use their superior abilities to obtain a prestigious education and acquire wealth or power. But all it means to be elite is to have superior abilities compared to most of the population.
Given an authentic understanding of the word, we do need to use it. We need a local elite, not just locals. Local politics is too often dominated by ambitious people who do not have the talents, temperaments, or formation to be leaders in government and politics. While all men are created equal, this means they have equal dignity before God and equal opportunity under the law. That equality certainly does not mean that every member of the local community is equally fit and able for public service in politics and government.
Sadly but understandably, the most talented people in local communities often tend to shy away from politics, preferring to put their time and talents into other endeavors. As a mentor recently put the problem to me, the members of our community that he considers the local elite tend to use their free time to coach their kids’ sports teams and find creative ways to make more money. They don’t generally flock to public service.
The question, then, is how do we cultivate a local elite? How do we foster communities where our most talented citizens are encouraged to pursue public service and given the right formation to be effective in it?
It is cliché, but cultivating this local elite starts in the family. While not a typical or perfect example of family life, the example of John Quincy Adams is fascinating and illustrative. In the Adams house, John Quincy had the benefit of parents who offered a serious classical education from his youth: “his doting father and affectionate mother taught him mathematics, languages, and the classics.” He also had the example of his father, who “had been politically active for all of John Quincy's life.” John Quincy received a first-class education and an intellectual atmosphere at home, saw the example of his family’s engagement in public life, and was taken abroad with his father on two years-long trips to Europe on American government business. John Quincy’s family life, education, experience, and exposure to public life from a young age cultivated one of the most talented statesmen in American history.
The Adams family was certainly atypical, and in some ways did not live a model life; John Adams was away from his home and his family for long stretches of time in service to his country. While John Quincy was a successful product of this family formation, Charles Adams sadly did not turn out so well. But even with its flaws, what we find in the Adams home is a basic blueprint for a family and community atmosphere that cultivates preparedness for public life: a classical education, parents who take personal responsibility for forming and educating their children, and an upbringing that exposes children to the intellectual life and public service.
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How do we do this in the modern world? Parents should homeschool children if they can, or at least realize and embrace that they, not the “public education system,” are the primary educators of their children. If homeschooling is not an option, families should find the best school possible and supplement it by reading with and talking to their children about literature, history, philosophy, religion, politics.
Families should join a strong, vibrant church, and forge friendships with like-minded people. And as those communities of like-minded people form, these budding communities should strive to create and share a common intellectual life and life of public service together. Create groups that read good books or publications together and discuss. And put that formation to practical use by encouraging members of these local communities to become involved in public life. This need not mean running for office and becoming a “political person.” Find a local issue that needs to be addressed by government, identify potential solutions, attend meetings for the local council or board that deals with that issue, talk to your elected officials about solutions, and find a way to help make the change. It is crucial that the local elite, those talented individuals who think, read, and discuss ideas and societal challenges, also find ways to participate in public life.
We need to prioritize in ourselves, our families, and our local communities both proper formation and public service. This is where the local solutions meet the big picture, where the endless talk of “little platoons” meets the need for institutional change. We need a local community where the best and brightest are exposed to good people, good books, and good ideas, as well as the desire to put those ideas into practice for the common good. Every child in a well-read, publicly-minded home may not be the next Harriet Hageman or John Quincy Adams. But if more homes foster this intellectual and public life, the natural born leaders we need will emerge equipped with the education and experience they need to lead.