Elite Speak

Why do we admire ‘elites’ but criticize ‘elitism’?

Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on much of anything today. As cited by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, from 1976 to 2008, the share of voters living in counties where one party won the presidential election by 20 points or more has increased from 26 percent to 48 percent. Keith Poole of the University of California, San Diego Department of Political Science has predicted that the 112th Congress will be the most divided version of the body that has existed since the end of the Civil War.

On one thing, however, nearly every politician in a competitive seat can agree: Elitism is to be avoided at all costs. While this aversion to the leadership of those who are perceived as distinct from the common man has been a political force since the Jackson era, it has intensified recently in conjunction with the Tea Party movement (an ironic development, considering that the modern Tea Party was inspired by the longtime Texan congressman Ron Paul, and its 18th century namesake was originally led by the distinguished “elite” Samuel Adams, Class of 1740).

From whence comes this antipathy toward “elitists”? Furthermore, why is the word “elite” so often used in a positive sense, while “elitism” and “elitists” are almost exclusively negative labels? The first page of a Google search for “elite” turns up nine positive uses, mostly brand names, and one neutral one (a dictionary entry). On the other hand, a similar search for “elitism” is far more mixed, with four decidedly negative results, five neutral dictionary or encyclopedia results, and one World of Warcraft guild.

Since elite status is so sought after in the substance of one’s material possessions, it seem strange that it should be anathema in the substance of politics. Most people expect their cars, computers, and clothing to be crafted by trained professionals and would laugh at the suggestion that they should be responsible for making these things themselves. Governing, however, is apparently an entirely different matter, as it would come as a shock to most political spectators if a presidential candidate were to loudly advertise an advanced degree in public policy or political science as a key component of their platform.

One potential explanation for this is that policymaking seems many times more accessible to a layperson than does electrical or mechanical engineering, so that someone with no formal training in either of these subjects would feel significantly more comfortable if tasked with designing a new tax system than with improving the performance of a graphics card. Nevertheless, this is a wrong intuition. While it is true that normative judgment plays a much larger role in the former than the latter, there is still a high degree of established science involved in predicting outcomes in both of these endeavors that requires some technical expertise.

The lessons that we can take away from this understanding give cause for some optimism and some pessimism, but above all, cynicism. If a politician were to explicitly state that voters should back him because of his “elite” status—the degree to which his understanding of the issues at hand far supersedes theirs, he would be perceived as arrogant and would likely lose support. Moreover, we can’t erase the barrier between elites and non-elites; an attempt to bring the majority of voters to a level of understanding comparable to that of top macroeconomists would fail to inspire and likely be met predominantly with apathy.

On a slightly more positive note, the perception of competence on economic or foreign policy issues does often translate into increased popularity. The downside is that this perception depends heavily on the watered-down versions of the truth that reach the general public with the highest frequency, resulting in an incomplete understanding of what really entails competence.

It is thus unlikely that aversion to elitism will go away any time soon. In the meantime, everyone (especially “elites”) should take time to remember the words of H.L. Mencken: “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Take every effort to not make the mistake of being overly critical of elitism and of overestimating your own understanding of any particular situation, at the expense of missing the more complicated truth.

Christopher M. Lehman ’13 is a Crimson business associate in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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