Elites and Elitists

One can be an elite and not be elitist and vice versa.

My declaration in Thursday’s “NPR Shouldn’t Exist But I’m Glad It Does” that one of my objections to public broadcasting was that it is an example “where money is taken from the masses to subsidize the elites” sparked quite a discussion in the comment thread over what constitutes an elite.

As almost always seems to happen, “elite” and “elitist” got conflated.

NPR is aimed at an elite audience, although obviously there are people who wouldn’t consider themselves “elites” who enjoy the programming.   And the notion that highbrow news presentation that couldn’t survive in the marketplace because the great unwashed masses are too stupid to select the “right” kind of show must therefore be subsidized is elitist.   But the two don’t have to go hand in hand.

I was using “elite” in the dictionary sense of “A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.”  NPR’s news programming is aimed at a small strata of the overall population that’s relatively affluent and well educated.    I’d consider myself as part of that strata, based on education and income.

Now, of course, there are gradations of elite status.  A PhD from the University of Alabama isn’t a PhD from Harvard and membership in the lower strata of the upper middle class isn’t the same as being truly wealthy.   I am by no means a mover and shaker in society at large.  But I recognize that, while I by no means started out as privileged, I’m there now.

Elitism,” on the other hand, is different:  “The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.”

I’m situationally elitist.   I don’t believe in aristocracy or inherited status, nor do I believe that those lucky enough to be born smarter or even those who have become more wealthy through dint of their own achievement are better than those less fortunate.  But I do think that people with superior intellect and achievement ought to, say, sit on the Supreme Court or occupy the vice presidency.

Elites do, however, tend to develop preferences different from non-elites, owing to wider exposure and greater resources.  During the 2008 campaign and occasionally since, there was much discussion of Barack Obama’s “elitist” tendency to eat arugula and put Dijon mustard on his burgers.   Alex Knapp lampooned this discussion in “What Makes Someone An Elitist?

In the ensuing comments, Dave Schuler argued that we must “distinguish between being elite and being an elitist” and that it was a matter of “not what you choose but the attitude with which you choose them.”  I agreed, adding, “If you prefer to drink microbrews because you think they taste better than Budweiser and can afford to pay the higher cost, as we both do, that perhaps makes you an elite. If you think it therefore makes you better than the poor losers who drink Bud, you’re an elitist.”

FILED UNDER: General
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. john personna says:

    A gym machine once told me I was “elite.” I got a kick out of that. It now seems a scene out of Futurama. I’ve been tested.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Elitism,” on the other hand, is different: “The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.”

    On the other hand Jim you will leverage every advantage you have to ensure that your children, and I hope you have many more, enjoy every possible educational and situational advantage. This is how elitism works in practice and you’d have to be very naive not to realise it. I see nothing wrong with this, it fact it would be odd if you didn’t. Elitism is not about micro brews it’s about something much more substantive. Despite the casuistry there isn’t much difference between elites and elitism in reality since the former generally practices the latter in most matters financial and social.

  3. john personna says:

    This ties from elitism back to sodas:

    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/07/soda.php

    I think “elitism” is claimed sometimes when we are really doing something to change “our own” (collective) behavior. It’s a little bit of a false argument to think the people supporting the taxes aren’t the ones drinking the sodas.

  4. James Joyner says:

    On the other hand Jim you will leverage every advantage you have to ensure that your children, and I hope you have many more, enjoy every possible educational and situational advantage.

    You’re conflating elitism and affluence. I haven’t the slightest doubt — indeed, I noted it in the posting above — that I’ve moved into a relatively privileged class. And, absolutely, I want the same for my daughter and any subsequent children I might have (although the clock is quickly running out on that).

    But I don’t think my kid is necessarily any “better” than the relatively poor kids who live less than a quarter mile from us and dominate the public schools that I pay for but won’t send my kid to. I don’t think she is any more deserving of a good education and every chance to succeed than they are. But I’ll certainly use whatever means are at my disposal to give those to her.

  5. john personna says:

    (Amazing that _rats_ fed diet soda get fatter.)

  6. john personna says:

    I think definition 2b, “Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class” is more related to past discussions. That is “elitism” in a political sense.

  7. James Joyner says:

    I think definition 2b, “Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class” is more related to past discussions. That is “elitism” in a political sense.

    Well, not necessarily. Indeed, it’s quite possible for the masses — or a non-elite minority — to dominate if they’re properly mobilized.

    Regardless, our discussions have mostly been about such things as Obama’s love of arugula or educated people’s attraction to NPR, which is simply about elite habits in the definition 1a sense.

  8. JKB says:

    Sadly, many try to do a one to one substitution of education for intellect. While many of those with superior intellect will go to the best schools and achieve the highest levels, it is not true that those who obtain the highest degrees at the best schools are necessarily superior in intellect. Quite frankly, many who consider themselves elite are not that special.

    Elitism generally arises from those trying to signal an elite status that is undeserved or of which they are insecure.

  9. Janis Gore says:

    Off topic, but you mentioned Dave Schuler, so perhaps you elite users could answer a question.

    Why can’t my machine access The Glittering Eye? Whether I use my blogroll or the Google reference, my machine grinds on and on, never bringing the site up. I can read the cache.

  10. john personna says:

    I think the “arugula” thing is a path to 2b. Do we (“real Americans”) want some arugula-eating elitist running things? It is an indirect attack on Obama by first binding him to a “ruling elite.”

    The NPR thing is similar. The listeners are first cast as elites, which wouldn’t matter much, except that we don’t like “ruling elites.”

    In the worst case it becomes an excuse to ignore the informed. Don’t listen to … what did someone say … “two-bit scientists” on the oil spill. They are just part of the elite. They probably even listen to NPR.

  11. john personna says:

    What os and browser do you use Janis?

    (My elitist position is that anyone using IE6 should switch to Google Chrome.)

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    “And, absolutely, I want the same for my daughter and any subsequent children I might have”

    Jim, all you’re doing is describing the difference between your words and your actions. No you don’t think that philosophically your child is any better than any other (neither did I) but you’re going to use every resource you have to ensure she/they get every educational and material advantage (as I did and my parents did). Maybe you don’t support elitism philosophically but you practise it as all elites do in reality however much they protest otherwise.

  13. Janis Gore says:

    Windows Vista, IE8.

  14. john personna says:

    hmmm. ie8 should be good. fwiw, the glittering eye works for me fine this morning. ubuntu/chrome.

  15. Janis Gore says:

    It hasn’t worked for me since he had problems a few weeks ago.

  16. john personna says:

    Ah, I missed that “arugula eating” is not just elite, it is “liberal elite.” Real men eat iceberg lettuce.

    Probably part of James’ conundrum is how to keep his elitism non-liberal 😉

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    And as an aside. This country as are all countries is run by an elite who can generally be defined as the upper middle class and above. It’s much more meritocratic than it was but birth plays an enormous part in your subsequent financial and social status. There are numerous studies extant on the subject and declining social mobility in the US. In one startling study from about a year ago it suggested that social mobility in the US was even worse than it was in France.

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    Jim, this was how David Leonhardt summed it up in the NYT, and he captured it rather wel I thoughl.

    “A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned.”

    Elitism is not about the consumption of Arugula, it is about the structure of society. Being a good parent involves the practice of elitism.

  19. James Joyner says:

    Elitism is not about the consumption of Arugula, it is about the structure of society. Being a good parent involves the practice of elitism.

    I think we’re having a semantic debate over whether this is “elitism” or “privilege.” Otherwise, we’re in agreement that there are structural barriers to success and that privilege tends to have an inertia that begets more privilege.

    My late father was a high school dropout from a poor family that didn’t value education. He enlisted in the Army and turned his life around, eventually moving us into the lower middle class through dint of a strong work ethic and much greater than average intelligence. It was a much easier jump from where I started to where I am than from where he started to where he landed. And my daughter should have a much easier path still.

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:

    “I think we’re having a semantic debate over whether this is “elitism” or “privilege.”

    We’re not really Jim. My basic contention is that elites practice elitism in all sorts of ways from the superficial like eating arugula to the material like using their alumni status to get their kids into Harvard regardless of whether your name is Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush. It’s not about politics it’s about human nature as any good conservative should recognize. They can express all the philosophical purity they want but when the rubber hits the road they follow the good conservative principle of looking to their own interest. You’ve elevated yourself into the upper middle class by your own efforts as essentially Clinton, Obama and Cheney did. But once there you’re going to assume the mores of that social class and try to ensure your kids also remain in the same milieu. I really don’t find anything contradictory in any of this but you seem to be trying to suggest elites don’t generally behave in an elitist way which with due respect is baloney. Btw I prefer iceberg lettuce to Arugula but do have a taste for dry martinis over bud. I find this whole attempt to position Democrats as “elitists” both dangerous and shortsighted because it’s basically an attack on the whole professional/managerial ethos of competence and good husbandry (it had it’s counterpart on the attack on Kulaks in Russia who were just better farmers than their neighbors). In my book there’s not much wrong with elitism or a class system providing there’s a fair measure of opportunity for all. It’s aspirational, acts as a brake on destructive behavior, and provides people to trim the hedges.

  21. Janis Gore says:

    Isn’t the use of “elite” in current discourse just a new rendition of Spiro Agnew’s words: “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

    Karl Rove brought it out again as “elite, effete snobs” in defense of George W. Bush.

    It’s since been distilled into “elite.” James might be partaking of elitist impulses, but is he an effete, impudent snob? Not to my knowledge. Let’s ask his siblings.

  22. sam says:

    Spiro Agnew’s words — they were probably Bill Safire’s (“nattering nabobs of negativism”, etc).

    Agnew, in addition to being a crook of the first water, was also not very bright. A joke I recall about him was that he was asked if, when he was in Thailand, he’d seen the pagodas. “See them,” he said, “I had dinner with them.” And that is an elitist joke (I’ll cop to it).

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Karl Rove brought it out again as “elite, effete snobs” in defense of George W. Bush.”

    Would be the George W. Bush: Phillips Andover, Yale, Harvard, Bonesman. Or am I mixing him up with someone else?

  24. mannning says:

    Here is is again–elites and elitism–and an attempt to divide elitists into good and bad elitists, or to find those ghostly lines dividing middle class and upper middle class, and then upper middle from upper class. Wealth and education are fair measures, but so is upbringing and accorded status, perhaps from job position or social prominence. If you say that the nation is run by the political elites, fine, but who are they by name, and what is their claim to fame? How many elites have a significant hand in running the nation? Who are the current top 500, 1,000, or even 2,000? Would it not be important to identify and be able to track the influence of these elites? Are they so elite that they cannot be tracked (the powers behind the curtain)? We bandy about all manner of thoughts about these elites without ever being specific as to exactly who it is we are talking about. Are all members of congress political elites? Top-level government employees? What about financial, business, military, and professional elites? What about lobbyists?

    Who has the current book on elitism and elites–if only “situational” elites as James says he is, and I suppose I too fit? Are there any tratorous elites, or are loyaly and patriotism yet other necessary measures of being an elite? Shouldn’t we know? Or, is the term elite meant to be amorphous and loosly defined in order to give us a nameless grouping to blame for our poor decisions?