When Elites Fail the People

A favorite pastime of conservatives who are unhappy with the rise of Donald Trump and his hijacking of the Republican Party is trying to figure out why it happened. If the circumstances that led to Trump’s nomination could be recognized, the thinking goes, effort can be expended into fixing those circumstances so as to preclude it from ever happening again.

Of course, it is easier to deal with that question when the possibilities discussed are not those which mean that the burden of the responsibility is with the very people doing the discussing. And too often this sort of discussion turns into a pointless finger-pointing exercise, which accomplishes nothing other than to help the discusser assure himself that he bears no responsibility for that which he finds to be outrageous.

And while the truth is that it is the confluence of many different causes which made this possible, there is one possible cause that is worthy of debate; specifically, whether we can blame the “elites” for the Trump phenomenon.

That exact question was the subject of a debate between four respected conservative writers last week, with two (Ben Domenech of The Federalist and Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner) arguing that they should be blamed, and two (Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal and Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post) arguing that they should not.

There is definitely an argument to be made laying the blame for Trumpism at the feet of the “elites.” This case can be made whether or not you plan on supporting Trump in the upcoming election, and whether or not you believe his candidacy is a net positive or a net negative.

I don’t think there is any question that it has been years now during which the country has been failed by those running it. At the debate, Domenech ran down the list:

“9/11. Iraq. Katrina. Congressional corruption. Financial meltdown. Bank bailouts. Failed stimulus. A health care mess. Stagnant wages. Rising distrust. Diminished hopes. Sixteen years of promises from Republicans and Democrats alike that failed to live up to what people wanted. This distrust was earned.”

Failure on the part of a ruling class is certainly something that ought to be held against them. How, exactly, failure is defined is something that is left entirely in the hands of the electorate.

But for us, in our lives, where that which holds the greatest sway over us are not the politicians nor the unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., this idea has very different implications.

Just a few weeks ago we read the passuk in Shoftim (17:11) which directs: “Lo sasur min hadavar asher yagidu lecha yamin u’smol — you shall not veer from what [the chachamim] tell you to the right or the left.” Rashi, quoting a Sifri, explains that this means that “afilu omeir lecha al yamin shehu smol v’al smol she’hu yamin — even if they were to tell you that your right is left and that your left is right.”

The Sifsei Chachamim explains that even if it appears to us that the very opposite of what our leaders tell us is true, “…lo titleh es hata’us bo elah bach — don’t attribute the mistake to him, [but] rather to you.” Because, as he explains, Hakadosh Baruch Hu gives our leaders the siyatta diShmaya to make the right decisions, and if there is a mistake being made, it isn’t by them.

But the elites of American society, l’havdil, don’t have this same special gift that our Gedolim do. They can be wrong — and there’s little doubt that they have been wrong, time and time again.

That’s not to say that the solution to the problem of elites who have failed the voters is to have a country wherein the mob rules and there is no “elite” class that takes charge. While it may sound appealing to some, it is an approach fraught with negative consequences.

The Sefer HaChinuch makes this point when he explains the mitzvah of lo sasur. While there are real differences between the Gedolim in every generation (not the least of which the Chinuch delineates as something we would refer to as daas Torah) and, l’havdil, the political elites, the broader point remains true for the outside world as well.

Even if those who were in charge were to be wrong, says the Chinuch, it would still behoove us to follow their direction and not have a society that is every man for himself. That, he writes, would cause “chiluk lev haam v’hefsed ha’umah l’gamri — division of the heart of the people and loss of the ‘nation’ entirely.” To preserve that, he writes, it’s worth following leadership even when they make an infrequent mistake.

So while the elites have certainly failed, the solution is not to do away with them. It is, put simply, to get better elites.