I initially was puzzled by the cries of “elitism” being flung at critics of the Miers evaluation. She’s got a respectable resumé for being the president’s lawyer, but could anyone really find it “elitist” to require some more relevant experience in a Supreme Court justice? Then I got to thinking about availability heuristics—the way we decide (for instance) how common a certain phenomenon is by referring to memorable examples, not a full data set. In this context, it’s really just a sort of sample bias.
Now, assume even people who follow politics don’t make a huge habit of familiarizing themselves with the resumés of government officials in any detail—at least beyond the moment of confirmation hearings. People are going to decide how impressive Miers is by reference to some comparison pool. The vast majority of conservatives out there are probably going to look around at their extended circle of acquaintances, and notice that Miers has at least as good a background as any of the smarter, more successful people they know. Inside the Beltway, or at good law schools, though, you can’t swing a dead muskrat without hitting someone who was on Yale Law Review. The bar of what’s minimally outstanding, so to speak, is higher.
Conservative populism has always had a hint of “what, you think yer better‘n me?” anxiety about it, and so especially among the grassroots of a movement where it’s generally held that any Joe with common sense can see how wrong various Supreme Court decisions are (which might well be true in some cases without making it a bad idea to demand the highest qualifications of prospective justices), it’s easy to imagine much of the base taking a certain amount of umbrage at the way Miers is all but being painted as an idiot child. Relative to the pool of plausible candidates for the Court, that may not be all that unfair. But if you’re not tightly focused on that pool—if you’re not thinking in terms of other people whose names were bandied about for the post, but how she stacks up next to Me, Garden Variety Conservative and My Friends—well, you can see how they might take umbrage. That doesn’t make them right, of course, but it makes the charge intelligible to some extent.