The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius called it “the solid foundation of all virtues.” Nineteenth-century South African theologian Andrew Murray said the loss of it represented “the root of every sin and evil.” One of Murray’s contemporaries—the renowned British art critic John Ruskin—described it as “the first test of a great man.”
They were talking about humility, the supply of which never seems to match society’s demand.
Thus far, the twenty-first century has been a humbling period for Americans of all backgrounds, and especially for the country’s elites. From our failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks; to our myriad intelligence and planning failures in Iraq; to our disastrous creation of a failed state in Libya; to the housing bubble, financial crisis, and Great Recession; to the decline of labor-force participation among prime-working-age men; to the recent spike in violent crime in some of our largest cities; to the spread of a deadly opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities from Maine to Hawaii—a great many things have gone wrong since the millennium.
And yet, our elites don’t seem all that humbled. If anything, their collective arrogance, condescension, and decadence have gotten worse. How to explain that? Part of it may be the increasing economic, cultural, and ideological segregation of American society. On a deeper level, many members of the new upper class appear to view themselves as the justly entitled champions of a robust meritocracy. This sense of entitlement has blinded them to their own shortcomings, including their own unseemliness.
That’s the word— “unseemliness”—that American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray used in a 2016 interview. He elaborated:
“By the unseemliness I mean the willingness of people with a lot of money in this country, now, to strut their stuff, to flamboyantly spend their money, to flamboyantly proclaim to the rest of the world “I’m richer and by implication I’m better than you are.” That’s fairly new in American history. . . .
What we see now is large enclaves of really affluent people forming these large communities in which they live conspicuously different lifestyles than everybody else—that’s new in the United States. The extent to which the upper class rather openly disdains ordinary Americans, that’s also really, really new.”
The upper class includes men and women of genuine achievement. But it also includes more than a few mediocrities whose snobbery is, to put it charitably, unearned.
Peggy Noonan made note of this following the WikiLeaks email dump back in October. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, she observed that the Democratic political operatives who had sent the emails were “the worst kind of snobs, snobs with nothing to recommend them. In their expression and thoughts they are common, banal, dumb, uninformed, parochial.”
Just to be clear, this is not a partisan argument. After all, 2016 was also the year when large numbers of haughty Republican power-brokers discovered how little they actually knew about their own voters. Indeed, the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign proved utterly humiliating to GOP strategists and consultants who had built their reputation on “expertise” that, in the end, they did not truly possess. As for Trump himself, his own lack of humility could undermine many of his plans for the presidency. We’ll have to wait and see.
I have worked and/or lived in the Washington area for nearly fifteen years now. Without fail, the most impressive people I’ve met have also been the humblest. One of those people is former U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, for whom I worked from 2009 until his retirement at the start of 2013. Shortly before leaving the Senate, Kyl spoke to Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and described a childhood trip to his local county fair in Iowa. Upon arriving at the fair, Kyl said, his father made sure that he saw the man who managed parking for the attendees. “He does that better than anyone else,” his father told him. “Everybody can do something better than you can.”
Everybody can do something better than you can. Imagine how much different our society would be if each of us embraced those words as a daily mantra.
For that matter, imagine how much humbler the Washington–Wall Street crowd would be if they asked themselves a few basic questions, such as: Are political strategists and consultants really more impressive than welders and carpenters? Do pundits and lobbyists really serve a more important societal function than plumbers and electricians? Is the work done by financial engineers really more economically productive than the work done by civil engineers?
The point here is not to denigrate anyone’s livelihood. The point, rather, is that people with elite jobs could do a lot to improve social cohesion simply by showing greater self-awareness and greater respect for those Americans who actually build and repair things.
This is particularly important in light of the Trump phenomenon, which has inspired a wave of self-pity among some of our country’s most privileged individuals. As Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle noted after Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump rant at the Golden Globes, “There is in this whole world no sight less rhetorically compelling than that of successful people with fun and rewarding jobs, and a decent income, complaining that they’re victims of the unglamorous folks who labor at all the strenuously boring work required to make their lives nice.”
Writer Nicholas Pell puts it less diplomatically: “The worst thing about this present moment in time is the smugness with which zillionaires and their sycophants on the coasts piss all over anyone who does actual work for a living.”
Their smugness has contributed to an unhealthy cultural divide—one that recalls a key theme of British sociologist Michael Young’s dystopian satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. (Young coined the term “meritocracy” and used it as a pejorative.) Published in 1958, Young’s book imagined the Britain of 2034 as a highly stratified society in which “some members of the meritocracy . . . have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.” What the self-satisfied meritocrats needed, Young wrote, was “a more proper sense of humility.”
A more proper sense of humility among America’s current elites would go a long way toward restoring some of the cohesion and solidarity that our country has lost. The alternative—continued polarization, growing tribalism, and the hardening of mutual contempt—would be a grim future indeed.