The New Patricians

During a recent PBS panel on Washington politics, This Town author Mark Leibowitz said our Founding Fathers were like the patricians of ancient Rome -- prosperous landowners who returned home as soon as their civic duties ended. Unlike the Founders, Leibowitz warned, our elected leaders in Washington today "have no intention of going back to the farm." There's too much money to be made in the halls of political power.

Washington has long been a honeycomb for career politicians. Since 2006, however, that phenomenon has spawned a city state completely separated from the rest of the country. No matter how important an issue may be for the nation at large, members of congress now seem incapable of negotiation and compromise -- the essential catalysts of a working democracy.

The executive branch is even more intransigent, not only refusing to negotiate such critical issues as the debt ceiling but openly threatening to "go around" Congress on everything from key White House appointments to foreign policy. Yet, despite the president's repeated calls for "redistributive justice," it is some of America's wealthiest and well-educated who continue to support Obama's most transformative initiatives.

In Fortunes of Change (Wiley & Son, 2010), Demos blogger David Callahan has tallied the hundreds of super-rich liberals who have pumped their own inherited millions into buying an office in Obama's army. These include such wealthy heirs of private fortune as Colorado's Jared Polis, Illinois' Blair Hull, Washington's Maria Cantwell, and Massachusetts' John Kerry. All are members of America's New Patrician class.

Today's crop of progressive patricians may be best represented by current Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Grandson of Target store chain founder George Dayton, Mark went to private school in Minneapolis and then to Yale where he majored in psychology and joined the DKE house with George W. Bush. Mark's biggest interests at Yale were partying and playing hockey until the summer of 1968 when he saw in real time the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Mark was instantly radicalized.

Simultaneously graduating from Yale and inheriting his first million in 1969, Mark jumped on the social justice bandwagon by getting a teaching job at a Lower East Side school in New York City. During his first summer there, he also volunteered to live in a two-room apartment with six members of an African-American family on welfare. Radicalized again, Mark soon quit teaching the poor and moved to Washington where he worked as a legislative aide for Senator Mondale. There in 1978 he met and married the daughter of John D. Rockefeller III.

Having moved from riches to rags to even more riches in less than a decade, Mark saw himself as a man with a mission and spent $8 million of his family fortune on political races -- first for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and then for state governor in 1998. He lost both times. Undeterred, in 2000 Mark upped his personal ante to $12 million in another run for the U.S. Senate. The big money talked.

Frustrated yet again by his failure to convince Senate colleagues to vote for his plan to create a cabinet-level "Department of Peace," Mark quit the Senate and returned home to make another try for state governor. This time he won, thus proving the truth of the old saying: "Where there's a Will there's a way." One can't help wondering, though, what happened to the six African-Americans Mark lived with during the summer of '69.

"Doesn't matter," the governor would probably say. "You've got to look at the big picture and keep your eye on the prize." Such platitudes are the coinage of today's patrician realm. As columnist Peggy Noonan observed in the Wall Street Journal on November 2, 2009: "We are governed at all levels by America's luckiest children, sons and daughters of the abundance, and they call themselves optimists but they're not optimists-they're unimaginative. They don't have faith, they've just never been foreclosed on. They are stupid and they are callous, and they don't mind it when people become disheartened. They don't even notice."

These do indeed seem to be the most conspicuous traits of our New Patrician leaders. For many American voters, though, how those traits are revealed is not so conspicuous. Partly that's because the news media are fierce defenders of the New Patricians. No matter how "callous" or "stupid" their behavior, it's never reported on ABC, CBS, or CNN and rarely mentioned in the faux news from "The Daily Show."

There's much more than Comedy Central behind the stealth evolution of the New Patrician class, however. It goes back at least to the late 19th Century when American intellectuals like Thomas Dewey were formulating their progressive education theories and economists like Thorstein Veblen first used the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the buying patterns of America's leisure class. It was also nurtured by the growing sense that our free-wheeling democracy somehow needed the social equivalent of Europe's landed aristocracy.

Many Americans who struck it rich in banking and railroads during the 1870s began sending their sons to be educated in Europe or to one of several private "academies" such as Exeter in Massachusetts or Lawrenceville in New Jersey. Since then, thousands of private secondary schools have sprouted up across the country. When federal school integration laws went into effect during the early 1960s, these private "non-profits" proliferated like mushrooms to meet the demands of Americans able to afford the luxury of de facto segregation in education.

During the first half of the 20th Century, non-sectarian private schools were the bastions of conservative values in America. Even the most traditional of these were affected by the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, however. Many of the same students who burned their draft cards and bras as undergraduates at Harvard and Vassar saw the genteel poverty of a prep-school teaching job as a much easier career than hawking junk bonds on Wall Street. Thus have they helped spread the gospel of free love and social justice to those born after 1980 -- the so-called "millennials."

Coincidentally, 1980 was the year when Lisa Birnbach first published The Official Preppy Handbook -- a fatuous little paperback that became an instant best seller. Overnight, private school education shot to the top of America's "conspicuous consumption" list.

During the next thirty years, tuition and fees at the most prestigious private schools increased exponentially. When my parents enrolled me as a boarding student at Lawrenceville in the fall of 1950, the annual tuition (including room and board) was only $2,000. Today, it's twenty times that.

The truth is most "non-profit" private schools have always been in the business of making money. It's the only way to keep their wealthiest alums donating and attract more rich kids in the future. From a Board of Trustee member's point of view, a quality education is not so much about lifelong learning as it is lifelong giving.

So what do parents get for all this money? Essentially, it's an animal training program. Their children are not being taught to think but to respond -- in other words, to "channel" the values of secular progressivism. These values involve an obsessive preoccupation with such "hot topics" in the liberal media as environmentalism, cultural diversity, and social justice.

Like corporations and universities nowadays, the top prep schools all have something like a chief diversity officer (CDO). At Phillips Exeter Academy, it's called the "Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMP)." As the school's website explains, "The office is particularly focused on working with the community to create an environment where everyone, regardless of his or her race, gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, geographical origin, physical ability and sexual orientation, is included and respected."

Exeter isn't the only New Patrician school to put diversity, environmentalism, and social justice front and center. In fact, there's a consortium of top-ranked prep schools called "The Diversity Roundtable" or "The Ten Schools Admission Organization (TSAO)." Here's the list, with the state locations:

1. Choate Rosemary Hall (CT)

2. Deerfield Academy (MA)

3. The Hill School (PA)

4. The Hotchkiss School (CT)

5. The Lawrenceville School (NJ)

6. The Loomis Chaffee School (CT)

7. Phillips Academy (MA)

8. Phillips Exeter Academy (MA)

9. St. Paul's School (MD)

10. The Taft School (CT)

If you visit the websites of these schools, you'll discover just how much they are committed to the New Patrician ethos. All are co-educational and make a brave show of racial diversity in the "optics" of their websites. What's less conspicuous in the prep-school circuit, however, is the mission creep of secular progressivism.

Mission creep in private school education was brought to my personal attention recently when I received an e-mail invitation to an Alumni Weekend soiree sponsored by Lawrenceville School's new LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Transgender) group. Suddenly, I was reminded of how Nathan Harden describes the new "Sex Week" curriculum at Yale: "a festival of sleaze, porn and debauchery, dressed up as sex education."

Will something like this soon be added to the TSAO schools curricula?

Sexual promiscuity and ambivalence are only minor symptoms of the moral relativism that is rendering so many New Patricians insensitive to the needs if their fellow citizens.

As columnist Daniel Henninger reported recently, public charter schools in New York City provide "an educational environment of achievement, discipline and esprit" for 70,000 inner city children. If secular progressive Bill de Blazio is elected Mayor next month, though, he threatens to make charter school parents pay rent for the public school buildings their children now use rent-free. Inevitably, this will force the charter schools to close. "Most New York voters" Henninger notes, "...have no direct stake in New York's charter schools. They do, however, have a stake in the integrity of their own political beliefs."

Clearly our first African American president acknowledges the importance of a good education for he sends his own daughters to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School. So why wouldn't he and every member of congress also acknowledge they "have a stake in the integrity of their own political beliefs" by supporting Opportunity Scholarships as well as vouchers to support public charter schools in Washington, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and all across America?

Obama has often compared himself with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln freed the slaves. Are we now to conclude New Patrician Obama can only enslave the free? 

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