Groupthink

Based on some of the commentary from respected conservatives distressed over the SCOTUS nomination of non—judge, non—scholar, non—intellectual Harriet Miers, one would think that the Supreme Court has always been populated by Olympian figures, debating esoteric yet penetrating points of law, precedent and historical insight, and employing complex logic to persuade the majority to accede to the most brilliant minds among them. Would that it were so.

It is a pretty vision to contemplate, but it's a bit of a fairy tale. That cannot be the Supreme Court which discovered the Constitution's penumbra, and in its most recent completed term transmogrified 'public use' into 'public purpose' so as to enable government entities to seize your property and give it to others who will pay more taxes to them on it.

In a way, this faith in an idealized vision of the Supremes — as a rarified body of immortals elevated to a higher plane of being by virtue of merit — is quite touching, like many other fairy tales. But I always thought it was liberals, not conservatives of the caliber of Mark Levin, George Will, and David Frum, whose vision of government service assumed absolute intellectual superiority as the necessary prerequisite without which none may enter. To be sure, we should all hope for reform of the nation's highest court, so that it would return to the vision of the Founders, a group of men for whom the highest aspirations were worth pledging their life, liberty, and sacred honor. That's a vision I embrace, and readily grant is shared by many who think differently than I on the Miers nomination. So the question is one of means, not ends.

The big difference is that some see changing the Supreme Court as a matter of inserting superior intellects into a collectivity of minds waiting to be persuaded. I see it as moving a group of nine imperfect human beings toward better decisions. Values, emotions, and even politics seem to enter deliberations in the marble Greek temple across the street from the Capitol with some regularity. It may take more than superior citations of precedent to move problematic opponents on the Court toward better decisions. Effective groups do indeed act on excellent ideas, testing and selecting them by a process that may often include intellectual rigor. But the messy world of real human beings also always includes sentiments, conflicts, status—seeking, subjectivity and other elements of the imperfect package into which we are born as souls incarnate.

In the real world, the world populated by actual mortals, getting things done in concert with other complicated bundles of human qualities requires many facets of excellence beyond mental brilliance. Even when the object is assembling five or more votes for a Supreme Court decision. One problem common to young folks and intellectuals is an unrealistic faith that reason alone moves human beings to change their behavior. Anyone responsible for ensuring that a work group accomplish its purposes through peaks and valleys learns otherwise.

People who have worked all their lives to cultivate the powers of reason and expression in writing and speaking tend to value others who demonstrate a visible commitment to the same goal. It is a fundamental principle of human groups that those who personify the norms aspired to by other members, tend to earn their trust and become leaders. Those who seem to violate or be indifferent to those norms become pariahs of various sorts.

It would appear that by devoting herself to the practice of law in her hometown of Dallas following graduation from her hometown law school, Harriet Miers may have violated the implicit norms of many prominent conservative pundits: thou shalt strive for nationally—recognized educational credentials, present thine ideas in law reviews or intellectual journals of the first water, and above all, demonstrate to all that conservatives are smarter than their liberal rivals unjustly holding sway in the fortresses of academic and journalistic prestige.

A figure who stayed close to home until brought to D.C. by her boss, who spent her career managing a large law firm and reforming a problematic public lottery instead of arguing the minutiae of jurisprudence, and who has kept her views out of the national spotlight violates these norms. Another fundamental characteristic of human groups is that those who conspicuously violate group norms find themselves on the receiving end of rather painful sanctions. This might explain the extraordinary vituperation heaped upon Harriet Miers by some who imagine themselves her superior.  When those who violate the norms are rewarded by those in authority, it is much worse for the others who cling to the old norms by which they have lived their own lives. Fight—to—the—death levels of adrenalin can come into play at peak moments.

The cold hard truth is that none of the chattering class (including me) really know the depths of Harriet Miers's mind, heart, and soul, so we look at visible manifestations of her life's work. To me, a person who can move others with her humble sincerity, who has led hundreds of hard—driving colleagues (even if in merely a provincially prominent law firm), who was honored with leadership of the Bar of one of the nation's largest cities and its second largest state, and who has experienced a religious awakening after achieving her worldly dreams, is not to be cavalierly ruled out before any further data is available.

Fortunately, more data, in the form of grilling by Republican and Democratic Senators alike, not to mention inspection by a national press establishment only temporarily holding its fire as conservatives duke it out in intramural combat, is about to be presented to us. I hope that we can agree to examine it carefully and make up our minds then and only then.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

Based on some of the commentary from respected conservatives distressed over the SCOTUS nomination of non—judge, non—scholar, non—intellectual Harriet Miers, one would think that the Supreme Court has always been populated by Olympian figures, debating esoteric yet penetrating points of law, precedent and historical insight, and employing complex logic to persuade the majority to accede to the most brilliant minds among them. Would that it were so.

It is a pretty vision to contemplate, but it's a bit of a fairy tale. That cannot be the Supreme Court which discovered the Constitution's penumbra, and in its most recent completed term transmogrified 'public use' into 'public purpose' so as to enable government entities to seize your property and give it to others who will pay more taxes to them on it.

In a way, this faith in an idealized vision of the Supremes — as a rarified body of immortals elevated to a higher plane of being by virtue of merit — is quite touching, like many other fairy tales. But I always thought it was liberals, not conservatives of the caliber of Mark Levin, George Will, and David Frum, whose vision of government service assumed absolute intellectual superiority as the necessary prerequisite without which none may enter. To be sure, we should all hope for reform of the nation's highest court, so that it would return to the vision of the Founders, a group of men for whom the highest aspirations were worth pledging their life, liberty, and sacred honor. That's a vision I embrace, and readily grant is shared by many who think differently than I on the Miers nomination. So the question is one of means, not ends.

The big difference is that some see changing the Supreme Court as a matter of inserting superior intellects into a collectivity of minds waiting to be persuaded. I see it as moving a group of nine imperfect human beings toward better decisions. Values, emotions, and even politics seem to enter deliberations in the marble Greek temple across the street from the Capitol with some regularity. It may take more than superior citations of precedent to move problematic opponents on the Court toward better decisions. Effective groups do indeed act on excellent ideas, testing and selecting them by a process that may often include intellectual rigor. But the messy world of real human beings also always includes sentiments, conflicts, status—seeking, subjectivity and other elements of the imperfect package into which we are born as souls incarnate.

In the real world, the world populated by actual mortals, getting things done in concert with other complicated bundles of human qualities requires many facets of excellence beyond mental brilliance. Even when the object is assembling five or more votes for a Supreme Court decision. One problem common to young folks and intellectuals is an unrealistic faith that reason alone moves human beings to change their behavior. Anyone responsible for ensuring that a work group accomplish its purposes through peaks and valleys learns otherwise.

People who have worked all their lives to cultivate the powers of reason and expression in writing and speaking tend to value others who demonstrate a visible commitment to the same goal. It is a fundamental principle of human groups that those who personify the norms aspired to by other members, tend to earn their trust and become leaders. Those who seem to violate or be indifferent to those norms become pariahs of various sorts.

It would appear that by devoting herself to the practice of law in her hometown of Dallas following graduation from her hometown law school, Harriet Miers may have violated the implicit norms of many prominent conservative pundits: thou shalt strive for nationally—recognized educational credentials, present thine ideas in law reviews or intellectual journals of the first water, and above all, demonstrate to all that conservatives are smarter than their liberal rivals unjustly holding sway in the fortresses of academic and journalistic prestige.

A figure who stayed close to home until brought to D.C. by her boss, who spent her career managing a large law firm and reforming a problematic public lottery instead of arguing the minutiae of jurisprudence, and who has kept her views out of the national spotlight violates these norms. Another fundamental characteristic of human groups is that those who conspicuously violate group norms find themselves on the receiving end of rather painful sanctions. This might explain the extraordinary vituperation heaped upon Harriet Miers by some who imagine themselves her superior.  When those who violate the norms are rewarded by those in authority, it is much worse for the others who cling to the old norms by which they have lived their own lives. Fight—to—the—death levels of adrenalin can come into play at peak moments.

The cold hard truth is that none of the chattering class (including me) really know the depths of Harriet Miers's mind, heart, and soul, so we look at visible manifestations of her life's work. To me, a person who can move others with her humble sincerity, who has led hundreds of hard—driving colleagues (even if in merely a provincially prominent law firm), who was honored with leadership of the Bar of one of the nation's largest cities and its second largest state, and who has experienced a religious awakening after achieving her worldly dreams, is not to be cavalierly ruled out before any further data is available.

Fortunately, more data, in the form of grilling by Republican and Democratic Senators alike, not to mention inspection by a national press establishment only temporarily holding its fire as conservatives duke it out in intramural combat, is about to be presented to us. I hope that we can agree to examine it carefully and make up our minds then and only then.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.