Friday, January 04, 2008

Meritocracy Delivers: The Clintons and the Obamas

Good Things for the New Year 4

There few institutions more intensely meritocratic these days than the Ivy League law schools. The applicant pool of any of those institutions contains perhaps half the people who will be running the country, and the world, a generation later. Those who make it in are awesomely talented. (Full disclosure: I am married to one).

I have found the story of the Clintons' courtship a wonderful tale of knowledge-class romance. Their eyes met in the Yale Law School library. Their first date was a private viewing of the Yale Art Gallery collection, which they earned by picking up the gallery's trash together during a garbage strike. Her Wellesley-graduation-speaker was brought together with his poor-boy/Georgetown/Rhodes-Scholar. A match made in meritocratic heaven.

And now their successors as the great Democratic couple -- and truly possibly as President and First Lady -- are two Harvard Law School graduates. OK, the Obamas did not meet at law school, but rather at a fancy law firm. They nonetheless were winnowed by the sorting machine. His Hawaii-prep-school/Occidental-College/Columbia-University/Harvard-Law-Review was joined to her Princeton (sociology major, by the way)/Harvard Law/Sidley & Austin.

The meritocratic sorting is not confined to Democrats - Chief Justice John Roberts and his wife Jane have an equally impressive dual c.v. Ever since the Ivies started downplaying social credentials and raising the bar on personal achievement in the 1960s, the entire ruling class has been drawn more and more from couples with what David Brooks appreciates as "titanic resumes."

And it is working. To be sure, we will still have powerful people with rough-and-tumble backgrounds, especially in business. And we still have quite a few "gentleman's C" students carried to power by social connections. But the drift of the ruling class, more and more, I think, will be to power couples sorted and brought together by the great American meritocratic schooling machine.


rdbush said...

The whole meritocratic power couple idea sounds appealing, but I think these couples seem more the exception than the rule. In practice, I think it's incredibly difficult for two extraordinarily talented, ambitious individuals to make a go of it.

In reality, one person's ambitions inevitably subjugate the other's ambitions. And while that may seem like a compromise at first, the person who made the sacrifices may become resentful. Or worse, the one who goes on to be more successful may come to see the person who made the sacrifices as a weak extension of him/herself--someone who, in giving up possibilities at personal success, has lost their original appeal.

It's great that these couples seem to have worked it out and balanced their talents/ambitions, but I don't know that it's a healthy or realistic model for the plebs of the knowledge class.

Gruntled said...

For two high-powered careers to work out requires providential assistance as well as strong resumes. And the great men that I have known do have supportive wives who enable their careers. I have not known enough great women to know how it works the other day.

Nonetheless, the normal well-educated man or woman is, I think, better off in every way with an equally well-educated spouse. Some of them will rise to heights of power, but most will remain "plebs of the knowledge class" -- a wonderful phrase.