The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ‘highly educated elites’ are stuck in a nightmare of their own making

Boden Winchell, 6, of Wilmington, Del., with family and friends, waits for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris to deliver their victory speeches Nov. 7.
Boden Winchell, 6, of Wilmington, Del., with family and friends, waits for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris to deliver their victory speeches Nov. 7. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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This was supposed to be a happy time. It has been nearly four years of the insufferable Donald Trump and nine months of the pandemic he mismanaged. But Joe Biden is president-elect, and promising results are starting to roll in from vaccine trials. Light is beckoning at the end of the tunnel.

In the here and now, though, things still look pretty dark. The president is cycling through far-fetched accusations of fraud rather than acknowledge that, indisputably, voters gave him the old heave-ho. Meanwhile, after rolling regional epidemics, covid cases are spiking nationwide — just in time for Thanksgiving gatherings to multiply opportunities for this virus to spread.

Nor are these problems being addressed. Most Republicans humor Trump, like he is some demented uncle who insists the mailman is stealing his lottery winnings. Only the president’s delusion has real-world consequences that include eroding the legitimacy of a democratic election. As for covid-19, gently suggesting that maybe this year people could Thanksgiving at home calls forth the white-hot fury of a thousand suns.

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All this has left a certain class of people — those whom economist Arnold Kling dubbed the “highly-educated elites” — feeling as if they are trapped in a nightmare. The building is on fire, and you scream in vain for everyone to get out, but no sound comes out, and everyone blithely carries on with their day while the roof caves in.

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The catch, from which there is no waking, is that those blithely carrying on can hear the screaming; they’re just not paying attention. And as tempting as it is to simply yell, the uncomfortable fact is that those highly educated elites, myself included, contributed to that deliberate deafness with our past behavior — as a class, if not as individuals.

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I warned about this in June. That’s when public health authorities, politicians, journalists and various academics who had been decrying beach parties and anti-mask protests fell silent as the streets filled with people protesting the death of George Floyd. Correction: Many were silent. Many others endorsed these events as vital civic engagement or argued that such activity would actually save lives because Systemic Racism Kills.

There were many good arguments in favor: Floyd’s death was an outrage, police probably couldn’t have stopped the protests anyway, and systemic racism does kill. But it strained credibility to think that those protests could reduce systemic racism enough to save lives on net, while still insisting other outdoor mass gatherings were dangerous. That credibility was critical, and it was eroded as experts started offering special passes from pandemic precautions to causes they considered important. Looking back, I can see that I, too, pulled punches I might have let fly on softer targets. A problem that continues.

There was, you’ll remember, much tut-tutting about South Dakota’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which may have strewn new covid-19 infections across the Upper Midwest. Yet when revelers filled the streets to celebrate Biden’s victory, few voiced the opinion that maybe, with the whole country turning into a hotspot, it would be better to stay home. I’ve heard a lot more harsh words for South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem’s laissez faire approach than for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser violating her own quarantine order so she could attend Biden’s victory party in Delaware. (She absurdly deemed her action “essential travel.”)

Arguably, the Sturgis rally is worse than a spontaneous street party since many Sturgis attendees eschewed masks and crowded into indoor after-parties, the sort of sites where the worst contagion is apt to occur. And Bowser’s hypocrisy is not as bad as Noem’s defiant refusal to do much of anything as cases spike. But the people who need to hear those explanations don’t trust us highly educated elites enough to listen.

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Nor can I blame them, exactly. Even though the media has gotten right the big story of the pandemic and the election, we, and the experts we cite, have too often been an unreliable narrator on important details. On politics as well as pandemic, for which some highly educated elites have given themselves quite a few passes in recent years: lampooning conservative conspiracies while tacitly agreeing not to delve too deeply into their own multiyear Russia obsession; hyperventilating when Trump says he won an election he clearly lost but bashful when, say, Stacey Abrams refused to concede or when Hillary Clinton called Trump an “illegitimate president.”

It’s soothing to retort that such things are worse when they emit from the White House. And it’s correct. But it’s also useless. Right or wrong, society still needs conservative cooperation.

We’re asking them to serve the common good by temporarily giving up things they consider vital, even if others don’t: church, Thanksgiving, political power. If we’re not willing to walk the talk and put our own values on the line, how dare we ask it of others? And, if we do, why on earth would they listen?

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