Are Elites Using ‘Elitism’ Charge Elitist?

Marc Ambinder observes, “[I]t’s silly to debate elitism by pointing to the alleged elitism of your opponent. Because this is Washington, D.C., and if you’re a presidential candidate or a national political figure, chances are pretty good that you’re developed a bit of an ego and a bit of a sense of entitlement.” Not much doubt about that.

Then again, I’ve never really understood what’s wrong with elitism. This definition, from the decidedly un-elitist Wikipedia*, is as good as any:

Elitism is the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite — a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

Really, elitism is almost an inherent assumption in politics, especially at the national level. Campaigns involve people asking “the little guy” to trust them to “take care of” them on the basis that their unique experience makes them best suited to do that. It’s hard to be more elitist than that.

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*Then again, despite its populist premise, Wikipedia has a corps of moderators and others with special status who are there to enforce order.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Really, elitism is almost an inherent assumption in politics, especially at the national level. Campaigns involve people asking “the little guy” to trust them to “take care of” them on the basis that their unique experience makes them best suited to do that. It’s hard to be more elitist than that.

    And there’s the dirty little secret, James.but, there’s another level…

    A charge of elitism is saying ‘he’s not one of the little people’. This charge is particularly effective against those who have a lot invested in being seen as being one of the ‘little people’.

    Interestingly in this cycle, I’ve not seen the presumptive Republican candidate play that game, though I’ve seen it in past cycles. Lamar Alexander and his Flannel shirts race to mind.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I think James overlooks the significance of his earlier observation that it is important for citizens to believe their candidate “cares about people like me.” The candidate understands me; thinks like me; appreciates things that I appreciate, etc.

    Sure, some are wealthy or have received the best educations or have accomplished the unimaginable. But despite all of this, some people remain connected to greater society and other’s don’t. Elitism is another way to say “out of touch.”

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think the elitism argument is particularly interesting for a simple reason: IMO members of the different parties talk past each other on the subject. In recent quadrennials Democrats have been inclined to prefer technocrats who, by definition, are elitist. The key point is that they don’t think it’s a bad thing. Whether it’s populism, some odd partisan strategy, or a different view of the role of government Republicans have tended not to prefer technocrats. Consequently, they may complain bitterly about their elitist opponents while their Democratic interlocutors react with puzzlement.

  4. sam says:

    John Adams to Thomas Jefferson:

    You, sir, are an elitist.

    Thomas Jefferson to John Adams:

    Nay, sir, you are the elitist.

    John Adams to Thomas Jefferson:

    Too late. I said it first. Nya Nya.

  5. John Laver says:

    I don’t think anyone has a problem with “the best and the brightest” leading the country. They have a problem with people who don’t respect them and actively condescend to them yet still want to lead the country.

  6. John D. Prince says:

    Are citizens bitter over current political currents, government action or lack inaction, and economic conditions? Yes. How could they not be? Conservatives are bitter over the separation of church and state, the 2nd Amendment, liberals, and any environmental laws or regulations upon business. Liberals are bitter over the lack of EPA regulations, deregulation of the market. The erosion of civil rights, due process, posse commutates, intelligent design and the erosion of scientific thought in schools, and the war by design in Iraq. Both conservatives and liberals are bitter over the economy, and the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the nation. How is it a false, out of touch, elitist, statement to say that Americans or people in Pennsylvania are upset, bitter, disenfranchised, or disgusted by their current or past governmental leadership? I would argue that it is their right to be upset. It is their patriotic duty to remain vigilant by bitterness toward bad policy and the subversion of the constitution. After the past 7 years of this administration I would turn to religion for help. God may be the only thing left once you throw out the Bill of Rights, the value of the dollar, or the thought of 4 more years of Bush dogma and policy.