Amy Coney Barrett and Ben Sasse: Traitors to Their Class

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a typically perceptive analysis of why some of the opposition to Amy Coney Barrett seems different from past Supreme Court nominees from Republican presidents. In short: Her background, while obviously still impressive, deviates in certain ways from what those on the left “expect” of someone of her stature — even of her Ivy League and/or Beltway-saturated potential colleagues on the Court. As Michael puts it:

Amy Coney Barrett’s antagonists don’t understand her. Her success strikes them as abnormal and vaguely offensive. It always annoys people who spent so much effort following the rules that someone else did an end-run around them. Successful people, they believe, don’t go to those schools, they don’t have a family like that, and they don’t pray that way. Her ascent is a rejection of the laws of our hardening class divisions. When she sits in front of Senators Feinstein, Harris, and Hirono, Amy Coney Barrett might as well be levitating.

Writing in September for First Things, Patrick Deneen (Barrett’s neighbor and former Notre Dame colleague), had similar things to say:

If confirmed, Amy Coney Barrett would be the first justice in decades not to have received either her law school degree or her undergraduate degree from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, or Stanford. She would be the only current sitting justice not to have graduated from Harvard or Yale Law Schools. Instead, she will have been dominantly shaped by the schools and surroundings of “red America.” She will be the first justice to receive her law degree from a Catholic university. She has spent almost her entire life in the “flyover” places of America where “gentry liberalism” is not the dominant fashion. Rather, she has either been born into, or sought out, places where a different ethos reigns: family, home, place, tradition, community, and memory.

That Barrett’s background is distinct in this way is not in itself a reason to place her on the Court. But a serious assessment of modern American life ought to consider why her background is so unique — that is, why so many people who end up holding positions of political and cultural power, whatever their origins, tend both to go through and then be molded into similar shapes by a set of common elite institutions.

One possible answer suggests itself in the example of Ben Sasse. A Nebraska senator and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sasse has already shared the stage with Barrett and will continue to do so throughout this week. Though born in Nebraska, and now representing it in the Senate, some of his intermediate background — Ivy League credentials, McKinsey consulting, Washington, D.C., government work — would superficially seem to lend itself to the kind of elite cookie-cutterism visible elsewhere. And yet, one of the common critiques of Sasse from the left is that he is a “disappointment” for maintaining a commitment to conservatism.

Many on the left tend to downplay or even deny the extent to which elite and/or mainstream institutions — most universities, much of the media, etc. — are largely controlled by people who share their worldview. But implicit in both the contempt for Barrett and the frustration with Sasse from the left are two assumptions: not only that this is true, but also that passing through such institutions ought to have the desired effect of making their products more left-wing. Hence the frustration with those who manage to succeed anyway, or who emerge from such places without having been “successfully” shaped. In Sasse’s case, what you get instead is this:

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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