Misbehaved Elites

The author of this post is Melissa Schonberger.

In the analysis of Federalist opinion, it is apparent that they believed elites should be leading the government. In their minds, elites were more educated on societal issues, had higher education and were therefore more intelligent and were capable of making sound decisions for the good of the public. Though the Constitution only gives three requirements for presidential nominees which include age, residency in the U.S. and citizenship status, the wishes of the Federalists for the government to be headed by elites have been handed down as unwritten law through the years concerning the candidates for Presidency. Looking at the educational background of the past presidents and the current presidential nominees, it is unquestionable that they fall in the category of elite. Most held a bachelor’s degree and many also attained law degrees. Despite the elite status attained by the presidents and current presidential candidates in their educational background, the status quo for their behavior has come to campaigns in which both candidates relentlessly hurl insults toward the other. The question is has the elite nature of the leaders of our nation the Federalists so greatly treasured dwindled? And should there be higher standards in regards to behavioral conduct over this elite status?

Currently around a third of the population holds a bachelor’s degree, though that may seem like a large number it is still considered a characteristic of an elite. This was held in even higher esteem in decades past. In examining the education of past presidents, 34 out of the 44 presidents earned at least a college degree (Tilus, 2013). Many attended Ivy League schools and several went on to attend law school with a few attending graduate business school. Beyond this education, many became school presidents, school trustees or governors and faculty members at esteemed universities. The current presidential candidates have similarly impressive academic credentials to their predecessors. Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley College, went on to attend Yale Law School where she met her future husband Bill Clinton and then moved to Arkansas where she joined the faculty of Arkansas Law School (Patrick, 2016). Donald Trump attended Fordham University for two years and later transferred to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania from which he graduated with a degree in economics (A&E, 2016). Their Ivy League educations set them up for immense professional success. They both were no doubt members of the elite class as they transitioned into their professional careers and into the political realm.

In looking at the backgrounds of the current presidential candidates, there is little question that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are intelligent, highly educated Ivy Leaguers with all of the potential to successfully lead a nation. From their credentials, they seem to be the epitome of the type of elite that the Federalists would have hand-picked to run their government. This assumption gets a little blurred when we being to speak about behavioral conduct. Hillary Clinton has been under FBI investigation concerning leaked emails and Donald Trump has been allegedly tied to Vladimir Putin and the recent Russian hacking of the DNC emails. In addition to their own scandals, Clinton and Trump have consistently been hurling insults at each other throughout the duration of their campaigns, which have reached every media and social media channel. The point of having elites in the most powerful seats of the government is that they are supposed to be highly intelligent, highly educated and able to make sound decisions for the good of the public. It is hard to believe that these two candidates hold Ivy League degrees and have achieved such immense professional success with behavior like this. An even more surprising point is that Abraham Lincoln, who is considered a president of high integrity had the least formal education of all of the presidents. It could be argued that there should be a shift in these elitist standards in favor of higher emphasis on integrity and a clean conduct record. Perhaps this shift in thinking would produce presidential candidates with equally impressive resumes in addition to high moral standards rather than individuals who feel the need to insult each other at every opportunity.


“Donald Trump Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, 4 Aug. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

Patrick, Jeanette. “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2016. 18 Sep. 2016.

Tilus, Grant. “Rasmussen College.” U.S. Presidents with College Education: From Learners to Leaders. N.p., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

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9 Responses to Misbehaved Elites

  1. kassandracarol says:

    There is a problem with the disconnect from “ordinary” citizens and those who represent us on a federal level. You’re right also that from a federalist stand point this is an ideal form of representation. However, I would like to make the point that we are focusing so much on a federal level that we almost forget about local and state elections. If we were to show people that local elections are important we would begin to see that there are people representing us that we are connected to and similarities with. The problem with the qualifications of presidency that you’re discussing is that these are unspoken. But, as we more people have access to education we would expect the President to be well-educated and have experience in some form to benefit his term. The counter argument would be that education is increasingly more expensive, which is true. But this then changes from a problem with elitism and forms into an issue of divide in privilege and class. Overall, I would say that we are setting higher standards for presidential candidates because they have more influence than an “ordinary” individual.

  2. You make a good case that the elites of our nation that possess both education and a proper sense of integrity and decorum are an ever dwindling minority, particularly in this last Presidential cycle. However, I would ask you to consider the differing nature of campaigning and the media; the impact of this has, I argue, changed what it means to be an elite. I believe your understanding, and therefore expectations, are incorrect given the modern political field.

    Campaigning is so fundamentally different than it has ever been before. Consider the role of television, the internet, and ESPECIALLY social media. All of these much less informal media (as compared to that of the written word) focus on sound bites, controversy, absurdism, and outlandish conduct of any kind. Indeed, if you want to win an election in the United States in this media environment, you need to be able to tantalize the media, and quite simply put: elitist, intellectual argument simply will not cut it anymore. Donald Trump himself has made a campaign purely off of free media coverage because of his outrageous comments (this is not to mention that he is the plutocratic demagogue that both the federalists and anti-federalists feared). So while our elites have not changed in their social standing, wealth, or education, their conduct has HAD to adapt to the times that they are in. I would say that hurling insults is now part of what IT MEANS TO EVEN BE AN ELITE.

    Secondly, our the scrutiny that candidates are subjected to is far more excoriating than any in history. The ease with which media can convey messages, and the need to constantly have a story requires that networks, and ones’ political opponents, latch onto the most substantial potential scandal and blast it to the world non-stop. This scorched-earth tactic has fostered negative attitudes towards many candidates in the past ten years or so (like Obama’s birther issue – most students laugh, but almost half the country believed this at one time). Establishing mistrust in elites is far easier than ever before, and exponentially more profitable. Thus, it is impossible for elites to dismiss doubts of their integrity, and they must instead endure through them.

    Thus, with these two fundamental shifts in the nature of media, we see that the role and capabilities of elites have changed in such a way as to REQUIRE the behaviors that you claim undermine the Federalists’ original conception of them. Sure, if the Federalists of the past were to see the politics of today, they would be very disappointed, but nonetheless, I believe they would see the necessity of this abhorrent behavior (one could even say their hyperbolic writing regarding the state of the union in our readings was their own form of “hurling insults” that we see today).

  3. offthewals says:

    Over the years, the way campaigns have been conducted have changed with the invention of new technology. Before, candidates participated in formal debates and wrote papers, while today candidates are subjected to constant questioning from reporters and a barrage of comments from social media sites. Due to this drastic change, I don’t believe it’s fair to ask if we should hold “higher standards in regards to behavioral conduct” pertaining to our modern day elites because today’s public’s standards are very different comparatively. All this aside, I do agree that the actions of Clinton and Trump often appear childish and I like your idea of putting and emphasis on integrity; however, I think it would be difficult to make that transition.

  4. offthewals says:

    In response to the above comment: I’m NOT a proponent of Trump, but it can be argued that Clinton matches the concept of the plutocratic demagogue much better than Trump does because of her wealth and her tendency to change her beliefs in order to match the most popular opinions/ beliefs of the people. For example, her stance on gay marriage. Amy Sherman from Politifact writes, “Clinton came out in support of same-sex marriage in 2013 after more than a decade of opposing it”. Trump, on the other hand, is wealthy but seems to disregard the majority opinion and just says whatever (often poorly thought out idea) is on his mind. Therefore, I believe that the more feared candidate would be Clinton.

  5. giamarucci says:

    This was a really interesting read on a current take of the Federalists/Antifeds papers. I also love what kassandracarol says about local elections. Yes, the way the Federalists meant for our government to be structured was by a group of elites. What we forget sometimes is the role we play in electing our local constituents, that elect the elites represented in what the federalists dreamed would be a small government. I also agree with tanner’s comment, that hurling insults and negative behavior has become that of a second nature unfortunately. Hopefully, as Schonberger points out, there will be a shift in what it means to be an elitist, and we can have candidates with higher moral standards for our next presidential election.

  6. cckremer says:

    Along the lines of Tanner’s and offthewals’ comments, I think the changing media spectrum has so heavily modified what it means to run as an elected official that even who we would call an elite would have to go to these levels and lengths to get their positions. Other than debates and speeches given by the candidates, the ads that they run are some of the most important (and annoying) things they do. The most effective way to reach the largest amount of people is with short snippets and clips that distill the “spirit” or “nuance” of the candidate within seconds. Oftentimes, it is much easier to paint the competitor as a villain with a few clips, because this instantly gives us an idea of what the person running the ad wants. First, we know what the competitor wants, and there is an a priori assumption that the competitor wants something bad; next, we know that the candidate that the ad takes the opposing opinion to the competitor. In a mere 30 seconds we understand the stances of these two candidates on a critical issue. Unfortunately, this so often is built around attacking the competitor, and using lines without context. In this current world of media, however, this is the most effective way to convince someone; you throw an intense emotional issue out for an instant, and say that one candidate is better. Like it or not, there is a section of the voting population that does not have time to follow the political world, and the products of these elite candidates that we expect (such as essays, extensive well reasoned arguments based around respect) would fall on deaf ears. To reach as many people as these elites need to be voted in, they have to go to these levels.

  7. It is very difficult to assess what aspects a candidate should have to be considered a “noble” prospect for presidency. Sure, there are a few basic, agreeable characteristics that the people of this nation look for in a presidential candidate; however, like a few of the previous comments discussed above, it is not possible for candidates to win in today’s time upholding the values and level of integrity past elitists were expected to maintain. Does that make it okay? Not necessarily, but with the system of government we have in place, as well as the immense advancements made in technology and communication, candidates are left with no choice but to conform to what society is entertained by. I would place a lot of the blame for our declining quality of presidential candidates among the general public. The negativity that has come to surround the election process is driven by what society deems is important. Candidates are able to get the attention of their audience much more easily by entertaining society’s obsession for aggressive behavior. Media outlets provide a perfect hub for spreading candidates’ inflated messages, which helps get them recognized and talked about. Similarly, nowadays it is much easier to discredit your opponent than it is to out-talk them in policy agendas, while maintaining a likable personality. In other words, I agree that the nominees we have chosen to run for president are not of the best quality, but I would not go as far as to completely place the blame for this occurrence solely on those running in the election. I don’t think people have come to realize the importance of their understanding and participation in political affairs. I do not expect everyone to be up-to-date on all political matters; however, it is important to be well-informed (by something preferably other than social media) about governmental affairs, because in the end it affects each and every one of us.

  8. Clopez says:

    This was well written and an enticing article! I think it holds some very valid and applicable questions to not only today’s struggle with class-ism(elite) then and now. In particular I think the argument could have outline a history per decade of “elite” individuals. Also take into consideration the high amounts of candidates whom are related to each other and how it either affects the role the elites have in America. Personally I think it is a by product of the elites which then in turn reinforces the structure and therefore creating an even more prevalent role for the elites.

  9. amcorell says:

    This post kind of assumes that good character is connected to intelligence or even that being an elite means being of “good character.” Hillary is a neoliberal surrounded by neocons. She does not care about weapons deals to Egypt, Saudi Arabia (ISIS that made it), or Israel, nor does she care that her foundation is a front for pay to play corruption, so isn’t more surprising that she’s trying to act like the adult in this election? Trump is blowing the dog whistle hard, at times just being racist, and it’s working. What should be surprising is our acceptance and promotion of politicians acting in a more absurd manner: they’re more properly reflecting us. The CEOs of Halliburton and Lockheed Martin are probably both well mannered and extremely intelligent, but they still push to continue to profit off war. International bankers are probably both better at calculus and more reserved in a social manner than I am, but that doesn’t stop them from straining whole populations with austerity programs. If we’re going to talk about Lincoln in a “clean conduct” manner, then why not mention that he hung 38 Dakotan right after freeing the slaves? It is absolutely not unimaginable to me that Ivy League scholars are able to act in a “scandalous” manner. It’s not even close to inconceivable that the ones who commit war crimes and reward corruption are Ivy League scholars. In my view, a Federalist elite acting mannered is no different than a Genteel Southern elite acting mannered.

    With that said, yeah it’s pretty disgusting that the media hardly airs policy debate.

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