Sometimes in politics, as in life, little things reveal the most. Take President Obama’s recent explanation of his party’s losses in the last election. He told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that he and his party simply failed to make “as good a case [for their policies] as we should have.” On the surface this sounds humble. But the framework of the president’s argument also yields to a different interpretation, one that might tap a deeper current in his thinking. While implying that his policies are in fact best, it also implies that people cannot see that fact without his help, in other words, that their unaided judgment is flawed. Seen in this light, his humility turns into an insult. There is, of course, no telling what President Obama really thinks. But if he does have a condescending attitude, he certainly is not alone in government. There the majority of people seem to hold themselves in much higher regard than they do the American public.
On this point, I can speak from first-hand experience. My work in finance takes me to Washington frequently to meet with government people. Whether I am dealing with elected officials, congressional staffers, appointees, or civil servants, there is always one and sometimes more than one who gratuitously asserts that he or she is infinitely better informed and much more insightful than I or anyone outside government possibly could be. Sometimes they are right. I usually know when I am intellectually outgunned, whether in D.C. or elsewhere, and in such instances am quite content to sit back and learn, even if the person in question is rude. But if such situations occur from time to time, they happen a lot less frequently than the folks in government seem to believe they should. Sometimes, it seems, these people wonder why their most casual observations fail to rock me and, by implication, anyone else from outside government.
There are, of course, plenty of a–holes outside D.C., those who hold themselves in similarly and unwarrantedly high esteem. But still there is something that makes Washington’s way particularly irritating. Outside the beltway, the ostensibly impressive tend to claim their superiority in themselves. They pit their brain and their analysis against mine. In doing so, they leave room for a response, an exchange that presumably can demonstrate where insight exists and where analytical flaws lie. Washingtonians assert their superiority in more evasive ways. They claim special associations. They say things like, “we at State,” or “we at Treasury” or “in my conversations with Secretary whoever.” (No one in finance or industry says “we at Merrill” or “we at GE,” not at least with the same intent.) The practice of enveloping one’s opinions in special prestige precludes discussion. It asserts a conclusion in place of an argument. It leaves no room for the exchange that might demonstrate superior thinking. It also allows these people to avoid putting their presumptions and pretensions to a test and so carries an element of cowardly bullying that disappoints even as it frustrates.
The use of school affiliations follows a similarly frustrating playbook. To be sure, Harvard graduates, wherever they work, almost always hasten a mention of Cambridge early in any conversation – not the university in England but the Boston suburb where Harvard University has situated itself. I am sure they believe this gives them an edge. The graduates of other elite schools have comparable practices. The rest of the country discourages such silly droppings by implicitly questioning the speaker about what he or she has accomplished since graduation. Even academia looks at such credentials with a measure of skepticism, implicitly asking about subsequent publications, appointments, and the like. But because government, except at its highest reaches, seems to spare people any such embarrassing comedowns from an early promise, it removes this critical governor of the reference-dropping temptation.
Perhaps Washington’s irritating manners stem from a false notion that the public expects them to be all-knowing. Such a need to claim knowledge despite ignorance is actually widely researched and well described in a recent Pacific Standard piece by David Dunning, entitled “We are All Confident Idiots.” There he tells how those who know the least tend to overestimate their abilities the most. Especially telling is the article’s description of the easy time the comedian Jimmy Kimmel has gulling people into making fools of themselves by asking them to opine on completely fictitious people and things. Rather than admit to their ignorance, they pose knowledgably about nothing. Maybe government people play a variation of this gag on themselves because they feel a need to appear superior in all ways and at all times.
Whatever the reasons for the beltway pretensions, they do serve the country in a number of ways. They offer comic relief for one. They also enhance the average citizen’s sense of moral and social superiority. They do, sadly, also have a dark side. When combined with a sense of near invulnerability, often the case in civil service, this ridiculous feeling of superiority can prompt people to impose their personal judgments where they have no place, to run things for their own convenience or by their own lights instead of according to law. In such instances, these otherwise comical presumptions can produce horrors, like the abuses at the Veterans Administrations, or charades that undermine public trust, like those currently playing out at the Internal Revenue Service, or whatever it is that the people at the National Security Agency think they are doing. These are real dangers, not just irritations, and should impel government managers to quash such pretensions.