The corruption of the American establishment doesn’t mean we can do without elite institutions, it means we need to help them recover their integrity. That calls for long-term cultural transformation of the sort exemplified by the Federalist Society and too often resisted and resented by both radicals and populists in our politics.
Conservatives know that people start out fallen and morally stooped, but we should also know that people can be formed into a more upright posture. The institutions that enable such formation are what we struggle to conserve in every generation. We must not deny the possibility, or ignore the many instances, of their effectiveness. We should recognize that elites are unavoidable, but can be made more bearable by being moored to institutions that restrain them and direct them toward responsibility.
And we must recognize that it is not only elites who require such formation. We all need it. And we all get it only from functional, often traditional, social institutions. The orgy of cynical self-indulgence that has overwhelmed our politics from all directions in recent years is evidence of that, not proof against it. The core claims of our populists themselves depend upon the possibility of a responsible citizenry, which should lead us to reflect on what it takes to make such people.
The judges who have insisted on standards of evidence and argument in the midst of our post-election mayhem offer a model of what institutional commitment and professional formation can do for our society. They should help us see the value of a responsible elite, to feel more keenly its absence in much of American life, and so to better understand the nature and the depth of the challenge that confronts our country.