The Tribes of Yale

Bush, the Clintons, and Dean at the Birth of a Culture War

At another meeting, some student anti-war leaders went on and on about those who either didn't have the wit to avoid the draft or, dumber yet, actually wanted to serve their country overseas. These student leaders hated the war. They hated the hayseed Southern president who was drowning in it. They hated the Harvard elite that was prosecuting it. But they also either airily dismissed or downright disliked those white ethnics who, with thousands of blacks and Hispanics, were bearing the war's brunt.

What I heard and sensed in some of these anti-war "leaders" was what many hear and sense in the Democratic Party "leaders" to this day—a contempt for the common woman and man, a distaste for all the flawed institutions that conserve traditions or beliefs or cultural patterns (family, congregation, party, military), and a profound faith in their own intelligence and savvy and expertise. Even at Yale, they were smarter and sexier than everyone else. They could talk without notes—about Southeast Asia, or global economies, or a new health care system—for hours on end. They didn't have the time or patience for churches or political parties or marriages that might not work so well. They would replace the protracted play of essential social institutions with brilliant legal arguments and complex governmental programs and overwhelming personal charisma. And if their intricate theories and elegant decision trees didn't quite work out, there would always be someone else to blame and someone else to mop up the mess.

The old elite—the Bush types, for example—despised this nouveau crowd, but knew that the majority of them would wise up and put away their bell-bottoms and bongs and find their way to professional school. They would all meet someday under the tents, on a balmy June evening at alumni weekend, and have a good chummy chuckle over the excesses of the past.

Animal houses: In the late '60s, a raucous Yale saw the rise of competing political elites.
illustration: W. David Fish
Animal houses: In the late '60s, a raucous Yale saw the rise of competing political elites.

But another cadre—the geeky, awkward, young Republican crowd—was truly horrified by the emergence of this upstart elite. Today, they still rage for hours at dinner parties, impassioned and enflamed, about the cultural decadence generated by the '60s. They see themselves as no less smart, and far tougher, than the upstarts. They view Dean and Rodham Clinton as callow and cavalier, as the latest incarnations of Abbie Hoffman and Jane Fonda. They personally resent the attention, acclaim, wealth, and status attained by what has essentially become a second, progressive establishment in this country. They have felt demoted, rejected, spurned. Their hurt and hostility are as fresh and real as if it were still 1968.

The folks in this crowd have learned how to channel their passion into action in a much more effective way these days. They carefully target liberals and moderates and run them out of lobbying firms and county boards. They insert their own people in judgeships and commissioners' jobs and school committees. They wrap themselves in the banners of fidelity, loyalty, and piety. They treat everything—even the deaths of 3,000 innocents at the World Trade Center—as potential chits in their competition with partisan political enemies. They are already constructing their next presidential convention around the tragedy of September 11, in a way that will make most Americans slightly queasy.

They are ably led by the outsider Karl Rove, who attended the University of Utah and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1971 to pursue a career as a young College Republican activist. The driven chancellor of his powerful diocese, Rove has taught his team how to mix more easily and work more smoothly with the Bushes of Yale and the Frists of Princeton. They have disciplined themselves to defend their faith from their own internal extremists. When Trent Lott endangered the party with his outrageous comments, they purged him. Then they let him slowly bleed to death. And they left him hanging in the public square as a message to every loose-lipped bigot and fanatic in their camp: Keep your mouth shut or get cut.

They also play very aggressive and effective offense these days. Anyone who wants to understand their current strategy should refer back to Nicholas Lemann's May 12 piece on Karl Rove in The New Yorker. Lemann describes how Rove is systematically going after the last bastions of Democratic institutional strength—courting the Jewish community, the trial lawyers, and parts of organized labor.

Keep following the money—the literally unlimited amounts of corporate and conservative funding for the enterprises of a more disciplined right. But also follow the people. These new Republicans respect the need for a political machine and are assembling it—in evangelical churches, among married women, among middle-income Hispanic groups, and even on the edges of the African American business community. They are appealing to all of those moderate and conservative Americans whose views, and whose lives, have been ridiculed or reviled by the left. They have revived the practice of door-to-door, face-to-face, relational party building that used to be the strength of the opposition party.

They are angry, and they are driven. They are profoundly and passionately clear on what and whom they are against. They intend to vanquish the upstart elite, the progressive establishment. It's not Osama, Dead or Alive. It's Dean, Dead or Alive. It's Clinton, Dead or Alive. They have only one major problem: They don't know what in the world—in the bigger, broader world where most moderate Americans live and work, play and pray, and try to raise their kids—they are for. Their relationship with their base is better than the Democrats', but still terribly thin. It is not rooted in the interests of families struggling to survive in a service economy, with few or no benefits, in schools that continue to stumble and decline. It is not based on a foundation of respect for the working American, the struggling American, the vast majority of Americans who lack wealth. Not at all. Like the upstart elite, the new Republicans could care less about these matters. No, their newfound commitment to building a base is an instrument and offshoot of their tribal war with the progressive left. It is as clinical and cynical as the attitudes of some of the anti-war student leaders of the '60s.

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