Elitism: A Good Thing Too
A flurry of discussion recently centered on Senator McCain’s suggestion that Senator Obama is an elite or an elitist (terminology McCain notably used when so characterizing Obama’s comments on guns, religion and the prevailing mood in America). Pieces in the mainstream media and blogs alike promptly observed the irony of the accusation, noting McCain’s own qualifications. Less attention was paid to the many different meanings and usages of the concepts or of the ultimate question whether elitism is an appealing trait for a US president or other leader.
Exact meanings of elite and elitism are not always self-evident. As a beginning, elite persons may be those possessing skills, talent, achievement, resources or training that are recognized within a civilization as extraordinary. These attributes earn for elites respect in their fields of distinction and enable them to assume leadership roles in a civilization’s governance. Under this formulation, Obama likely qualifies as an elite, as would McCain. If so, both are also qualified to lead the nation and may be recognized as achievers. Recent McCain campaign theme flirtations that portray Obama as famous but unqualified to lead, and criticism of his asserted lack of achievement, are thus in tension with any claim that he is an elite.
Elitism, in turn, often refers to a system where such governance, leadership and other powers are consolidated in the hands of the select great and good, the elitists. This usage is then contrasted with antipodes, such as populism. Theory investigates the relative influence that elites have within a society. Extensive elite influence may be designated as elitist and limited influence as populist. In some usages, elitism also can describe settings where elites enjoy special privileges, in addition to duties, within a society, and this can carry negative connotations. In this context, the US is not easy to classify. True, there are strong strands of populism punctuating and pervading its history; yet there is little doubt that considerable power is lodged in discrete hands and those wielding power, including certainly members of the United States Senate, enjoy inordinate privileges. McCain and Obama, in this view, are both elitists.
It is an extension of this conception that enables elitism to assume its pejorative connotation and potential political punch. This usage is harnessed in US politics to suggest to ordinary people that some elite politician is out of touch with them. It can suggest the accused is arrogant, snobbish and unfamiliar with the plight ordinary people. This explains President Clinton’s famous declaration “I feel your pain.” It likely explains McCain’s denigration of Obama’s comments about the malaise in middle America manifesting in its embrace of guns or God. Yet McCain is undoubtedly out of touch with most Americans too. Last week, he offered the good avuncular caution against excessive exposure to the sun, adding that we should all consult our dermatologists for expert advice. Few ordinary Americans have a dermatologist and there’s a good chance that many do not know off-hand what medical specialty the term refers to.
Finally, elitism can be situated contextually according to various policy preferences held by certain select individuals or classes. Common examples offered to explore elitism in America are affirmative action and progressive taxation. It may be tempting to suggest that those tending to support these policies in strong forms are elites or elitists and those opposing or weakening them more populist. On the other hand, both kinds of policies may be precisely anti-elitist. They are intended, in theory at least, to promote access to resources, skills, training and other traits associated with elites. Obama clearly supports affirmative action and progressive taxation enthusiastically and McCain’s tepid acceptance appears more nearly a matter of political expediency. It may be difficult, judging from the substantive positions on these and other subjects, to conclude that either candidate is more or less elitist than the other.
Ultimately, then, the truth seems to be that both Senators are elites and elitists—and it probably is a good thing too. Leaders should be distinguished and that will, ipso facto, set them apart from the ordinary population. This suggests it is delicate politics to so paint one’s opponent using pejorative connotations. Certainly, calling the competitor elitist risks legitimate charges of hypocrisy and may even show misunderstanding of what it takes to lead and govern. Ideally, campaign discussion will address substance, such as the optimal level of tax progressivity and whether affirmative action should concentrate on poverty and class as well as race and gender, not characterizations using contestable labels.