The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Meritocracy, Thy Name Is Chelsea

In another win for the famously blind meritocracy that rules American life, rewarding the ultra-talented and pushing the less brilliant and skilled into the outer darkness, Chelsea Clinton has landed a coveted position at NBC News.  This was almost as much a surprise as her admission to Stanford; one can only marvel at the sheer guts and talent that have enabled her to overcome our society’s fixed aversion to giving a chance to the relatives of the rich and the prominent.

On a more serious note, I know of no reason why the younger Ms Clinton should not have this or any job.  But the increasing sense that this country is run by a hereditary celebrity class is one of the most corrosive and dangerous forces eating away at our common life.

The children of famous politicians could do our country an immense service if they sought out ways to serve that were more low profile.  This would be particularly true for the children of extremely rich politicians.

It might be argued that it is unfair to expect a wealthy, smart and well connected young person to sacrifice natural ambition for the common good.  But surely the poor and obscurely born also have to eat their share of the world’s injustice.  Maybe the rich and famous could also have a small taste?

This is not a point that will often be made in our celebrity crazed, wealth obsessed culture.  It should be, and it is a sign of the deep trouble we are in that it isn’t common wisdom.  Meritocracy is not the same as nepotism and the mix of media, money, celebrity and politics, while to some degree inevitable, is also toxic and should be taken in the smallest possible dose.

Via Meadia wishes Ms Clinton and her far-sighted employer all the best; it also wishes the best to the millions of young people without wealth or connections who are struggling to launch their careers in these difficult times.

Published on November 14, 2011 9:54 am
  • David Smith

    I’ll continue to do my bit to encourage meritoracy by never seeing Ms. Clinton-Mezvinsky (or any of her colleagues) in her new role at NBC News.

    That said, it would be sweet to watch her cover OWS…ex-Avenue Capital Group, on the Board of IAC, Goldman Sachs spouse – wonder what she’d have to say, or what they would have to say to her?

  • vanderleun

    Shame of Via Media. Everyone knows that it wasn’t her family connections that got her this job but her looks.

  • SE

    wait was it ok for princess bush to have her own tv show? and book deal? and what about the young teen mom palin who got herself on to prime time tv as a celebrity star? your double standard is astounding, especially since those two did NOTHING to earn their spots while ms clinton has worked very hard to work her way up on her own.

  • WigWag

    “But the increasing sense that this country is run by a hereditary celebrity class is one of the most corrosive and dangerous forces eating away at our common life.”

    Absolutely right.

    Bravo to Professor Mead for pointing it out.

  • Roy

    I think that cuts in different ways. In the early nineties, I was told by the head of personnel at a major television network that she liked me, but that I didn’t fit the profile of someone from an underprivileged background to whom she had a mandate to give preference when filling a job vacancy.

    It was frustrating–we were in a recession at the time, and I needed a job. But, philosophically, I was more or less in agreement with it.

    My point would be that a lot of our private and public sector, as well as our educational institutions, have done a great deal in the interest of promoting an egalitarian society.

  • Richard F. Miller

    This is one reason why Chelsea isn’t encamped in Zuccotti Park.

    In a Marxist, but nevertheless resonant point made by Kenneth Anderson, OWS’ core represents a conflict between two tiers of the upper class: those financiers, industrialists, consultants, celebrities and pols that survived the Meltdown just fine (and whose children can still exploit their parents’ network of political, business and foundation connections for work) and those of the “lower upper tier” who did less well–what Orwell once called the “lower upper middle class.”

    Anderson makes the point that dissatisfaction is highest among these “lowers.” They were educated in gender/race/class, and told they were entitled to positions in the “Virtueocracy” of NGOs, foundations, progressive government and the like. With the encouragement of their debtophiliac parents, they leveraged their educations only to discover that in more austere times, what they were told was “theirs” has vanished.

    Chelsea is decidedly not a member of the lower upper middle class.

  • higgins1990

    Are we allowed to say anything negative about Chelsa? I thought Hillary mandated that no one could criticize Chelsa in 2008.

  • Soul

    I’ve seen a few bits about the poor ratings of the “big three” night news shows. Makes me wonder if this hiring was done mainly in hopes of generating greater publicity for NBC.

  • Kenny

    “One can only marvel at the sheer guts and talent that have enabled her [Chelsea Clinton]to overcome our society’s fixed aversion to giving a chance to the relatives of the rich and the prominent.

    Mr. Mead, please tell me you’re being sarcastic here and not serious. If it’s the latter, then the men in white coats will be coming to throw a net over you.

  • John Burke

    This is another sign of the reduction of network TV news to a business run by entertainment values and ratings. Not that we needed more proof of this as of about 1980 but it’s useful to keep in mind when celebrities like Brian Williams lecture us.

    Not incidentally, the most nepotistic industry in the nation is Hollywood.

  • alanstorm

    SE, you are demonstrating the fabulous lack of reading comprehension that is painfully evident on the left. This post mentioned the Bush and Palin offspring precisely nowhere, yet you immediately assumed the writer’s approval of their circumstances.

    You also assume that Ms. Clinton “worked very hard to work her way up on her own” with absolutely no supporting documentation. Why should anyone assume that? After all, we currently have a president who graduated some variety of cum laude without leaving any kind of record, so Ms. Clinton’s path could be reasonably suspected to have been greased as well.

    If this is an example of liberal “critical thinking”, how do conservatives ever lose to cretins like this?

  • JamesG

    Her prior job at an investment bank was probably far over her head intellectually and endurance-wise. Those outfits work the heck out of junior employees and I can’t imagine Miss Clinton doing the 80-100 weeks of her peers.

  • david

    Cashing in on celebrity has been around for as long as Billy Beer in the 1970s. I believe that venture ultimately failed, as will Ms. Clinton if she has nothing constructive to offer.

    I don’t really like Obama and didn’t really like Clinton (but in retrospect, he’s looking better and better), but I think both of those guys should give us a lot more faith in remaining fabric of an American meritocracy than Chelsea’s open door here discredits it.

    And better to have Chelsea blathering on the tele than having her run the country / world a la the likes of Bush and Gore.

  • Luke Lea

    @ – “rewarding the ultra-talented and pushing the less brilliant”

    A good case can be made that defining a meritocracy on this basis — SAT’s as a lower-bound cut-off for example — is a blind and pretty stupid approach, even when supplemented with grades. (Teacher recommendations, oth, make sense as do outside activities and signs of leadership.)

    Why do I say this? Because it has manifestly led to a talent pool in our elite gateway institutions, from which tomorrow’s leaders are chosen, which is grossly unrepresentative of the geographical and ethnic diversity of the nation. Not a healthy situation in a liberal democracy, as is now plain to see.

    The answer? Allowing as there are plenty of students of sufficiently above-average intelligence and character graduating from high school every years among all the major ethnic groups and geographical regions — which is true in my opinion, and I’d like to see evidence to the contrary — the answer is AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR ALL in all our elite liberal arts institutions, law schools, schools of education and public administration, but not in schools of science and engineering or medicine.

    Also needed is a concomitant curricular reform: re-establishment of a core curriculum for all centered around history, anthropology (widely construed) and political economy. Of course basic math up through statistics would also be mandatory, as would a general introduction to science, from the Big Bang to genes.

    The notion that the core mission of our elite liberal arts colleges is to teach critical thinking skills is vacuous in the absence of core knowledge.

  • SE

    so where is your peice criticizing jenna bush on her rise to tv show host and published book author? bristol palin’s metoric rise from naughty girl to prime time celebrity? thats an example for kids to follow from peopel that pretend to care about family values? please.

  • Mogden

    The dynasties in American politics are disgusting. I could never vote for anyone named Bush or Clinton, or indeed Obama some years hence.

  • Chase Crucil

    Professor Mead, you should read “class” by Paul Fussell, a retired English professor who is, in my view, the best American cultural critic of the past fifty years.

    While this book is in some respects dated, it makes an essential point that your post overlooks. Those belonging to the highest echelon of society, which Fussell calls “top out of sight,” as opposed to those merely in the “upper class,” tend not work at all (even in stupid cushy media jobs) in the sense that working is something you do to earn needed money or to increase your status. Furthermore, according to Fussell – who did quite a bit of research before writing this book – they tend to stay as far away from the limelight as possible, and tend not to participate in overt politics, as this brings unwanted attention.

    Also, just in case you think Fussell is wrong, it’s worth noting that John Hazard Forbes drew similar conclusions in his book, “Old Money’s America.”

    Here is the book

    http://www.amazon.com/Class-Through-American-Status-System/dp/0671792253/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1321302895&sr=8-2

  • Bekah

    Not to sound cynical, but can Mr. Mead point us to a society in history that has never flirted with nepotism? By all means criticize it when you can, but let’s not get too excited here; our Founding Fathers hardly pulled themselves up to our nation’s helm by their bootstraps. As I believe was mentioned earlier: shouldn’t we all just be thanking our lucky stars she isn’t running for president?

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Great fun (gee, is it just my imagination, or has Via Meadia been letting slip more and more evidence of actually enjoying the things it writes?). And all the more so because, as with all good satire, one gets the sense that nobody is exempt – i.e., all of us are fallible, hence none of us is unpersuadable. And yes, maybe I’m being simple-minded (historic first, right?), but I don’t think Team Meadia was in any way exempting either Jenna or Bristol – if anything it’s just more grist for the mill. And the fact that we may have equally (or more?) grievous offenses on the self-proclaimed “family values” side only proves how endemic the problem is throughout the culture. Meanwhile, if anyone can think of other ways in which we great ones of the Internet Age (AKA boomers) have surpassed our forebears in wisdom, prudence or charity, be sure to let me know.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    By the way,

    “The children of famous politicians could do our country an immense service if they sought out ways to serve that were MORE LOW PROFILE [emphasis mine].”

    Prince Anne, anyone? Oh darn, I keep forgetting: Her useless hanger-on parents did nothing to EARN their way to the top, unlike our own crop of our ambitious, self-motivated leaders (again, long reign meritocracy). God forbid that anyone, even in a position of largely symbolic leadership, should be graced with an overwhelming sense of what she OWES to society at large, on account of what she’s RECEIVED. So much better – don’t you think? – to have one’s dynasties scioned by those who’ve worked, clawed and schemed their way to the top, and having reached it, now figure it’s time for “payback” and settling old scores. (One strange realm, if I’m not mistaken, in which Government and Business are not QUITE the Manichaean opposites presupposed by our flamestream popular media.)

    No, again, thank Heaven we don’t have never-worked-a-day-in-their-lives parasites like Princess Anne cluttering up our political landscape. Why, at that rate, next thing you know we might actually recover an ethos of PUBLIC SERVICE in the upper reaches of our political-corporate life. And as anyone knows who’s ever REALLY worked a day in his life (if I may rudely paraphrase Lady Thatcher):

    “There’s no such as PUBLIC; there are only private individuals and their families” (the latter of which, last time I looked, don’t seem to be holding up too well either).

  • Eurydice

    It all comes down to who wants to play Performing Monkey and the obscurely born have been doing just as well in that respect (see Snooki).

  • John Burke

    I think SE has a point about Jenna Bush landing a job at NBC’s Today Show — but it really reinforces Mead’s. NBC News is driven by ratings and Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush are celebrities of a kind — by virtue of their last names — who can help boost ratings.

    But we all know that if these two young ladies at about age 31 or so were named Smith and Jones, had graduated from Columbia Journalism, and had worked tirelessly at local TVs here and there, they would have one chance in many thousand of landing a high-profile on-camera job at one of the major network news organizations. With their names, they leap to the head of the line — and that’s without their ex-president fathers making any calls to NBC execs.

    Nepotism is never attractive — but it does seem inevitable. At least by going to NBC, Chelsea and Jenna won’t be running for office. At least for a while!

  • WigWag

    To Chase Crucil (at November 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm)

    I couldn’t agree more; Paul Fussell is one of America’s greatest living intellectuals. The 87 year old retired Professor has written some of the best books on the intersection of culture, economics war and politics that have ever been penned in English.

    My favorite book of his is one of his greatest classics, “The Great War and Modern Memory” (Oxford University Press. 1975.) It highlights the poetry written by Englishmen who fought in the trenches in World War I. Some of these poets returned such as Siegfried Sassoon; others such as Wilfred Owen did not. Only one week before the end of the war, while attempting to traverse a canal, Owen was shot in the head by a German sniper and killed. The news of his death, on November 4, 1918, was given to his mother on Armistice Day. 93 years after the fact, thinking about it still brings a tear to my eye.

    Owen, who is under appreciated in this country but widely respected in Great Britain, wrote about World War I in a way that few can match. Sassoon was his mentor (and perhaps his lover) but there is no question that the student exceeded the teacher when it came to their poetry.

    Fussell (who for some strange reason I haven’t figured out yet reminds me a little of Peter Berger) captures in a haunting manner the way in which World War I affected our language and culture.

    Of course, as Professor Mead and several of the commentators on this post have pointed out, our culture is sadly in need of rehabilitation.

    What strikes me as the major difference between the World War I era and ours is that in World War I (both in the United States and Great Britain,) all social classes participated equally in the war effort. Every middle and upper class family in Great Britain and many in the United States had sons who served in the trenches right along with the sons of workingmen, laborers and peasants.

    Today, rather than fighting for their country, the children of the rich and famous “do not pass go.” Instead, they go directly to NBC or Goldman Sachs.

    For more on “The Great War and Modern Memory,” go here,

    http://www.amazon.com/Great-War-Modern-Memory-ebook/dp/B000SEVFK2/ref=kinw_dp_ke?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2

    If you haven’t read it, treat yourself and check it out. You will be glad that you did.

  • Kris

    SE, you and your con-frères seem inordinately fond of the “Why didn’t you criticize Bush/… when they did something similar? You are teh hypocrites! Your bad-faith criticisms may be safely ignored.” argument.

    However, dearie, may I recommend you take a look at the calendar? There’s less than one year until the next election, and Obama is not doing particularly well. So when a Republican is elected as president and your lot starts criticizing him, guess what the smirking GOP response will be?

  • Randall Flush

    Yes- Even the British Royals have the decency to serve in their military….and do real stuff….bring back the King/Queen…

  • Rob Crawford

    “The children of famous politicians could do our country an immense service if they sought out ways to serve that were more low profile.”

    Or simply lived lives not dependent on their parents’. Get a job providing a real service or producing a real product.

    “bristol palin’s metoric rise from naughty girl to prime time celebrity?”

    Oh, that’s amusing. The left tried to destroy this young woman and her mother, and when she turns it into an opportunity, they get angry at her.

  • Phil B

    Perhaps there is some justice in the fact that Chelsea has climbed on board the sinking ship of the mainstream media; while her tenure there will assuredly keep her in the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, I don’t expect that it will be particularly long.

  • gs

    Recall also that Barry Diller appointed Chelsea to join Michael Eisner and Edgar Bronfman on his company’s board of directors.

  • Mark J

    Tis an irony of great dimension that the anger that wells up on me when I hear of such favored treatment is what has driven me to succeed my entire life. Were it not for such injustices I would be the worthless bum that resides in the basement of my soul.

    So thank you NBC, you [derogatory term removed --ed].

  • ThomasD

    Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton certainly are two peas of the same (network) pod. But to compare their rather rapid ‘rise’ through the broadcast ranks to a one time appearance on Dancing with the Stars?

    Really?

    Well, that type of argumentation speaks for itself.

  • http://paterzplace.blogspot.com DonM

    I am sure there were some that were upset that John Quincy Adams became president over Jackson, a disgraced General and adulter of note. Look for John Quincy Adams on your 20 dollar bill. (/sarcasm) Sure, children of presidents and senators get opportunities. Ulysses Grant’s son Ulysses was admitted to West Point, and retired as a Major General. Prescott Bush’s son got to be a navy aviator in war time, and a grandson became an Air National Guard pilot. Albert Gore Senior’s son got to go to Vietnam as an Army journalist, so it cuts both ways.

    Talent comes out despite corruption. Despite being given a chance, you have to perform.

  • Yahzooman

    This just in from NBC News/Entertainment:

    Malia Obama has inked a five-year, seven-figure deal to star in a new sitcom for the Peacock Network.

    “Malia O” will track the sometimes hilarious travails of a typical post-White House family as seen through the eyes of a precocious teen.

    Episodes will center on Malia’s often-clueless dad as he adjusts to constant foreign and domestic travel without the benefit of a subsidized Boeing 747. Mr. Obama’s adventures on Priceline and Expedia will be a recurring theme.

    Malia and sister Sasha will also document ups and downs in the kitchen as their mom downs Hershey bars and ice cream while they have to snack on celery sticks and carrots.

    “Malia O,” coming to a new star-studded Wednesday night line-up on NBC between the new Kim Kardashian legal drama modeled after “Law & Order,” called “T*ts and A*s” (8PM Eastern) and the new Tipper Gore news magazine, “Green Dreams: The Windmills of My Mind” (10PM).

    Production begins mid-January, 2013.

  • Koblog

    Rush Limbaugh sees Chelsea Clinton getting this job as merely a step in her necessary training in how to handle TV so when she goes into politics later, she will be at ease with the cameras.

    Being at ease on TV, as Rick Perry has shown, is more important than actual policy positions, intelligence or achievement.

  • Denver

    DonM says:
    November 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    “Talent comes out despite corruption. Despite being given a chance, you have to perform.”

    When was our current President ever made to perform? Anyone? Anyone?

  • buzz

    “wait was it ok for princess bush to have her own tv show? and book deal”

    I went back a re-read the article and no where do I find him saying its ok to hire the offspring of republicans, but not democrats. What article were you reading? Or in your case, having read to you?

  • Ed Nutter

    Not so sure about that ruling hereditary celebrity class stuff. Sure Chelsea may have used her connections to accelerate her way through being an example of the Peter Principle, but both her Dad and Mom came from impoverished families. Obama didn’t come from poverty, but certainly from obscurity. Nixon and Reagan both had humble origins, though both Bush 41 & 43 had politically prominent parents.

    You didn’t assert that the “hereditary celebrity” concept was true, but only that it was perceived true. Whether that perception is really out there is something the pollsters may want to take up, but if you take any 40 year arc out of the past century to the present I think you’ll find far more “rulers” coming from obscurity than from the existing elite.

  • Richard

    It might be an overused metaphor and Phil B. in part beat me to it, but: she has landed a first class berth on the Titanic.

  • DamianLewis719

    It’s a case of the 1% taking care of their own. Not that the dolt’s occupying Zuccotti Park will figure it out.

  • bandit

    Being a private company under what obligation is NBC required to be a meritocracy? You could make the case that Ms. Cinton-???? celebrity is her merit. But this is hilarious

    “while ms clinton has worked very hard to work her way up on her own”

    What happened to her analyst job at the hedge fund? Was ther actual work involved?

  • Bruce

    Interesting. In Chelsea’s favor, I will note that her father has an exceptional IQ, and her mother one that is well above average. With her graduation from a very exclusive prep school, I suspect that she probably could have gotten into Stanford even if her last name were not Clinton. Now, after that… And, yes, I agree that the Bush daughter getting into Yale was the same sort of preference.

    Let me suggest though that getting top jobs is less meritorious these days than getting into top colleges. The bulk of slots at schools like Stanford and Yale are going to the very top applicants, scholastically and SATs. The rest are going to those who will ultimately raise the most money, help win in sports, increase diversity, etc. It is really after graduation that family pull really matters.

    I do buy into the theory above about the upper upper versus the lower upper, except that most of the Occupy protesters are probably more likely from the upper middle class. Seen enough of this through life, including, yes, getting admitted to college. We aren’t talking though the upper 1%, but rather, a fraction of that.

  • don

    Wasn’t meritocracy–the conjoining of merit with the nobility (aristocracy) of blood lines–coined by a Harvard President? Seems like a contradiction in terms to me, but apparently mindlessly holding such thoughts and chewing gum at the same time is indicative of superior intelligence.

  • Kenneth Green

    This is clearly the opening of the “Chelsea Clinton for President” campaign. A few years in an artificially produced media spotlight, some time to learn to posture as if she knows something, then a custom-fitted Senate seat for a few terms, and on to the White House!

  • Dave

    Let us not lose sight of the ultra-elitist way in which Chelsea obtained this job. She did not apply; she was literally just sitting around chatting with the president of NBC News when the conversation turned to “what she plans to do with the next phase of her life.” At that moment Steve Capus just dumped the job offer in her lap.

    A job that most TV journalists have to work extremely hard for fifteen to twenty years to land.

    Chelsea has precisely zero news media experience of any sort.

    I hesitate to call this sort of nepotism “evil”, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a better term. This is precisely the sort of elitist gladhanding that is eventually going to cause a *real* uprising in this nation, as opposed to the OWS children’s theatre we’re currently witnessing.

  • joe

    Sure this stuff has been around forever. But the modern day audacity of it is staggering. Worse than the NBC gig is being placed on the Board of Directors at IAC. I thought corporate governance was supposed to be paramount in the business world. Instead, they bring on a person with no real world experience, and pay her a hefty sum to meet a few times a year to rubber stamp the CEO’s wishes.

  • Ben Thompson

    Michelle Obama got into college on the coat-tails of her sports start brother. Michelle did not have the grades or SAT scores to get into any university, let alone an Ivy league university, but her sports star brother pulled strings & got her into his college.

  • Rob Richter

    i counter with fox’s steve douchey and son…nuff said

  • William Bell

    The swipe at celebrity favoritism is well-aimed, and, no, meritocracy is not the same thing as nepotism. BUT a meritocracy in a relatively-fair, casteless society will come to resemble nepotism over time, simply because general intelligence is genetically determined to a substantial extent. A truth conveniently ignored by demogogues who point to the positive correlation between parental income and SAT scores as proof that SAT scores are an invalid gauge of aptitude.

  • burke

    Small correction to Ed Nutter, above. Hillary Clinton did not come from an “impoverished family.” Her father owned a textile business, and the family lived in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. I agree, though, that she did not have the kind of background that would have gotten her into Wellesley or Yale Law. She did that on her own.

  • Burke

    Jenna’s NBC gig notwithstanding, both Bush daughters have spent significant time in low-profile service jobs. Jenna spent almost two years as a teacher in a Baltimore public school, and still works part-time at a charter school in the same city. Barbara Bush spent at least a year in Africa, working with AIDS orphans. To the best of my knowledge, Chelsea Clinton has never engaged in this kind of service work.

  • tomw

    Well, we know that Michelle O would not have taken a job like this. She’d want Chelsea to work as a ‘community organizer’ and eschew the high-paying jobs of capitalism. Just as *she* quit her law firm job to take a ‘kick out the poor from the ER’ job at the local hospital, for ~$350k/pa.
    I would not like to be in her shoes.
    tom

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    On the plus side, I haven’t watched anything on NBC for years (it’s the “plus side” because I have absolutely no chance of seeing her.) The legacy networks and dead-tree media just insist on giving folks more reasons not to bother with them.

  • Harry Schell

    Hopefully this exposure will be brief and do for Chelsea what a little TV face time did for Caroline Kennedy…expose her credentialed emptiness and send her back into hibernation “doing good” at some family foundation. Y’know.

  • teapartydoc

    Luke Lea sounds like someone who has brown-nosed his way through life and wants to see his method institutionalized. Well, there is such a thing as raw talent, and if our system is arranged to reward success to sycophants we will see less and less talent on display. We already are.

  • Ayatollah Ghilmeini

    With all due respect, I do not think using Chelsea is quite on target. As first daughter she never gave us a moment of national anguish, and I have tremendous empathy for anyone walking this world in shadow of her particular parents.

    What do we expect the children of the famous to do with their lives? Open a fruit stand and build into a supermarket chain?

    I do not discount Mead’s thesis that the connected do get plums, imagine the challenges facing a kid with the last name of Schwarzenegger or Reagan or Dell or Gates for that matter. Try measuring up to incredibly successful parents; it can be done but the likelihood Chelsea will ever be President is just about zero. Did she take the job some more qualified feckless leftist might have gotten, so what?

    She was smart enough to not flunk out of Stanford and she will actually have to show up to work and do her job description. If NBC wants to give her a sinecure that is on them but let her be a difficult to work with or otherwise a pain and she will get bounced to the curb just like anyone else.

    I am far more concerned at the complete repression of critical thinking in American academic life than I am about this.