The End of the Academic Washingtonian Complex?

I have some doubts about what a Biden administration will or can do, but I’d be grateful if Biden delivers on this:

He relishes freewheeling discussion, interrupting aides and chiding them for what he deems overly academic or elitist language. “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me,” he likes to say, according to aides. “If she understands, we can keep talking.” Aides made a point of editing out all abbreviations other than U.N. and NATO.

Politicians have their own jargon, but one of the irritating features of the Obama administration (Professor in Chief?) was the proliferation of academic tropes in everyday political conversation, among leaders, their staffers, organizers, and journalists.

Go to the Twitter profile of some mid-level official from the Obama administration or of a staffer with a Democratic-related nonprofit, and you’ll see in their bio some cloying reference to “Obama alum” or “MMFA alum.” It’s as if, rather than wielding the power of the American state or serving as its propagandist, they spent a year on a college campus, shooting the shit and playing beer bong pong.

That’s why the most common cultural reference among the Obamanauts, after The West Wing, is Harry Potter (set in a school that looks like a college) or St. Elmo’s Fire, where several of the characters are caught up in the college to Capitol pipeline that is life in DC.

If Biden can discourage that self-styled culture of DC, that’d be something.


  1. Charles Ward January 18, 2021 at 11:03 am | #

    Thank you Corey, I agree… Hopefully we will move on and into just plain and understandable communication.

  2. klmccook January 18, 2021 at 11:19 am | #

    Or how about land grant or HBCU signifiers not the same intertwined NYer, Atlantic, NYT, NYRofB, NYTM crowd?

  3. Benjamin David Steele January 18, 2021 at 11:22 am | #

    On the opposite side, I’d hate to see public debate become further dumbed down. I’m all for eliminating arcane terms and acronyms. But as someone without a college degree, I can handle high level intellectual discussion. I don’t want politicians and officials who talk down to me as if I’m a child. There needs to be a balance.

    • Steve DC January 18, 2021 at 7:28 pm | #

      This kind of West Wing Brain politics is dumbed down politics. It’s serious issues reduced to vacuous, self-serving tropes. They also model themselves on the most precious, twee aspects of popular culture. I’d respect them more if they cited Game of Thrones as their motivation. It’s closer to power politics than all that high-minded, serious, virtuous stuff.

      • JCW February 17, 2021 at 8:28 pm | #

        100% …I personally think that “the author/sponsor of the RAVE Act”(Biden) has nothing valid, benevolent, or even “vaguely positive by accident” to offer humanity. Then again, maybe James Simons can influence him in some sort of positive direction….he spent enough money helping Biden win to set several U.S. States completely free.

  4. Chris Daniel Morlock January 18, 2021 at 2:32 pm | #

    Just was watching one of my favorite political economists Mark Blythe on a Jacobin interview the other day. He said that within the Democratic party in DC, everyone comes from Ivy League and maybe 2-3 other universities (Berkeley etc.). Meanwhile the Republicans are actively recruiting from all sectors of academia, including State colleges.

    I don’t know how to be more condescending to the Ivy League and it’s satellites other than to say, just as all elites have done in the last 30 years, how could you clowns have got it so wrong? How does the “Left” not understand why so many people hate them when the party of the working class is run by elites, most of which aren’t intelligent enough to understand that contradiction?

    • Benjamin David Steele January 18, 2021 at 3:43 pm | #

      The Democrats haven’t been the party of the working class in a long time. The turn against the working class began with Jimmy Carter’s opposition to labor unions and the general turn against the Great Society and the New Deal.

      Your comment makes me curious, as I’ve never seen a breakdown of the education background of politicians in each party. But I would note that both Trump and Bush came from Ivy League colleges and yet they resonated with the working class. Bill Clinton had that ability as well.

      As for the “Left,” that is a rather vague category. The fact of the matter is that, according to polls, the majority of Americans are to the ‘left’ of the elite in both of the main parties. The GOP is even more ideologically disconnected from the majority, even as they’ve effectively honed their rhetoric.

      The GOP has the advantage. Because of the Electoral College, they don’t need to win the majority of voters. The GOP strategy has mostly been gerrymandering and voter suppression. If most Americans voted, the present GOP would struggle to win elections, not even in the Deep South.

  5. Jonnybutter January 18, 2021 at 3:13 pm | #

    Yes. “No politics please – we’re technocrats”

  6. Bongmaster K January 18, 2021 at 4:31 pm | #

    It’s charming that you may not know this, but the game is beer pong, not beer bong. It is played with a ping pong ball.

    • Corey Robin January 18, 2021 at 7:30 pm | #

      Aach, a typo. Thanks for catching it.

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