The Toronto Elite

It used to be the left who were concerned about “elites”,  about the concentration of wealth, power and influence in the hands of a few.  The conversation here was about how to constrain that power, how to achieve greater social and civic equality,  how to make democracy work.  Over the last decades, the term and with it the pursuit of equality went into decline.

It seems, however, that “elites” is making a dramatic comeback, this time around from the right.  Although still pejorative, the term is not being used in the same way; the target is different and so is its purpose.    It is no longer focused on money  – wealth is a good thing in this view, a cause for admiration and aspiration at best, envy at worst.   So who are the elites that are getting all the new attention?  How has the term evolved and what does this tell us about contemporary politics?

Jeremy Weisberg, the editor of Slate, in his recent analysis of how the U.S. right were using the term, concluded that there were at least two targets, those who think they know what’s best for us and those who simply think they know best.  In other words, it is a way of dismissing their political opponents as social engineers and snobs.    It is taking on the liberal establishment, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the largely urban intellectuals who support them,  the very ones who used to talk about leveling the playing field and pursuing some measure of justice and fairness.  In Canada, it is targeted against those who support the census and the long gun registry, for example,  who apparently often hail from Toronto.

It is, I suppose, in some ways, a repudiation of the idea of progress, the belief that rationality and knowledge would improve our collective well-being.  It is the extension of the view that government is more problem than solution.  So it is clearly not about equality in any sense of the word, not about closing the gap between rich and poor, nor about the civic equality upon which democracy depends.

At its worst, this new anti-elitism translates into disdain for the educated and worldly and, not surprisingly, has created huge controversies even within conservative ranks.  Conservative intellectual leaders increasingly wonder just where or whether they fit in.  This is disturbing and ironic given how education has been an important leveler in our society and how knowledge has helped constrain the arbitrariness of power.

It also seems hypocritical when it comes from the rich and powerful themselves.  Indeed, there is something distinctly unseemly about privileged and influential politicians talking disparagingly about the influence of these so-called elites.  That is not to say that we should not have a debate about the limits of government, or how best to ensure our freedom, only that this is not the way to do that. The accusation of elitism is in the end too often a political tactic, another slogan, an attack ad.   It  is at its core anti-democratic, not just because it inhibits civil discourse but because if it is about anything, it is about rotating the elites – out with the old guard, in with the new, just a new set of players deciding what’s best for us, a different set of snobs and engineers.   When our own government criticizes the “Toronto elites” what can they possibly mean other than that there has been a turning of the tables, the old elite is out and the new elite is in.

This pretend populism of slagging so-called elites is not about the concentration of wealth and power, nor is it about real people, ordinary or otherwise, in all of their diversity.   It may be about ideology.  It is certainly about politics.  But whatever its benefits for retail politics, it is destructive and dangerous.  It divides the world up in ways that diminish us all, turns us all into stereotypes,  the hard-working and hard-done-by taxpayer versus the bloated and out-of-touch inelligentsia, the plain-talking ordinary citizen versus the politically correct intellectual.   It makes compromise difficult, a sign of weakness, sleeping with the enemy.  It destroys the trust we place not only in government but in one another, trust that is essential if we are to achieve anything together.

It is dangerous because it not only feeds off anger, it fuels it and the despair that goes with it, and surely history has taught us how dangerous that particular combination can be.  The Tea Party and its paler Canadian versions reflect no coherent ideology; they are an expression of a growing anger more akin to nihilism than some libertarian utopia.

Rather than fuel and manipulate this anger for political gain, or, for that matter, rather than ridiculing it, it is time that we tried to understand  and rein it in.  Christopher Lasch, the late historian and social critic, reminds us that  the privileged among us, the so-called liberal elites, are in many respects the authors of this backlash and loss of trust.  Says Lasch, the privileged became increasingly disconnected from how the rest of us were living.  They were more and more mobile, less and less tied to geography, to physical space, more and more comfortable with theoretical models of what to do, bloodless models, where the individual was the object of analysis and where tradition, family, community, religion, moral discourse had no place. In this modern, or better, post-modern frame, immigrants too easily became economic units, communities became economic clusters, citizens no more than consumers, moral considerations only superstitions, distractions, and democracy a messy, dangerous and inconvenient thing.   Policy talk was no longer about moral choices but about economic imperatives, not about good and evil, but about pathologies and treatments.  And they invariably over-promised.

No wonder there’s a backlash.   The “liberal elite” had arguably lost its way, had become remote from real people living ordinary lives. The “new conservative elite” is certainly changing the game, shifting government from social and economic policy to security and punishment, focusing on what makes us afraid and angry rather than hopeful and generous. But like all “elites”, they too pretend to know what’s best for us. So, the anger grows and mutates into the destructive and divisive forces we are now seeing.

Culture wars and a turning of the tables are not the answers to what ails us.  The question Lasch was asking, the question we should all be asking, whether from the right or the left or somewhere between,  is whether our democracy can rise to the challenges before us, whether we can bring knowledge and moral discourse together in truly democratic institutions.  For Lasch the answer was to be found not in a changing of the guard but in the institutions and spirit of democracy, creating the opportunity for meaningful participation and having the faith that citizens could rise above their personal preferences  to engage with others of different views and experiences to confront the big moral challenges facing us.

He, like all champions of democracy, understood that this can only happen if we constrain the worst excesses of social inequality and if we create institutions where all citizens, including the so-called Toronto elites,  can come together as civic equals.  If only all the talk about elites were truly about pursuing equality and revitalising our democracy.

12 Responses to “The Toronto Elite”
  1. B York says:

    Another great point for discussion.

    Many among the left and centre have been caught asleep at the wheel and have let the right define the political landscape. It seems to be happening on multiple fronts in many western countries. These changes have nourished the growth of some very right wing movements and political parties.

    It would be interesting to read any historical overview that might be available on how the right amassed such power and control over defining issues and policies and changing the language of debate.

    For me, it seems like major attitudinal changes began in the 1980s. The US elected a “golly-gee, shucks” ex-entertainer as a President who ushered in an era that brought great gains to the Moral Majority movement. During that period, an alarming marriage between militarization and traditional values was formed with fear of the “other” being manipulated to serve a very isolationist view of the world politic.

    In Canada, we seemed content to rely on our fixation that we are more enlightened and educated than our neighbours to the south. Culturally we have been short-sighted in focusing on distinguishing our identify as Canadians based predominantly on this fact alone. This is where I see some of the failures of the thinkers and policy makers from the centre and left. It ignored that many of our citizens might actually identify with the values and focus being projected by the right in the US.

    Of course it’s more complex than that. The right successfully moved the goal posts on the economic front, where tax breaks for corporations was considered a necessity to run a prosperous economy and create jobs. At the same time, the role of organized labour* was practically made irrelevant and painted as a corrupt/over-bloated bureaucracy that was impeding economic growth.Even the NDP increasingly distanced itself from union support.

    The left and centre “elites” abandoned such terms as workers or working class. They turned their focus to more soft, although important, issues of building healthier communities while ignoring or actively participating in a new economic focus that was leading to the widening gap between the wealthiest and the increasingly poorer employed, under-employed and unemployed. They let the right define people on EI as abusive of the system and lazy. And we saw how this extended to those who depended on welfare during the Mike Harris years.

    These are just some of the observations I have made over the years that strike me as playing a role in creating the current political climate. The left and centre enabled the right to create such a crass dichotomy as Tim Horton coffee fans vs Starbuck latte drinkers.

    *It saddens me that the rich history of organized labour is barely acknowledged anymore. They had such a hand in creating and promoting universal education and health care, increasing access to and opportunities to participate in cultural pursuits, and ensuring a more equitable distribution of societal benefits.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for joining the conversation – this is a very thoughtful comment and you’re absolutely right that we ought to have a closer look at the history of labour in all of this. I think you would find Christopher Lasch’s series of books really helpful on the larger questions of how all this happened. The left often reacted angrily to his work because he gave much room to family, community and religion – and because he chronicled the narcissism of our times.

  2. A thoughtful and well-reasoned argument as always, Dr. Himelfarb, and B York is also correct in pointing out that we’ve let the Right define both the political landscape and the terms used to delineate it. As I may have pointed out in previous comments here, one of the principal techniques it uses in that is stripping words of their meanings — hence the pejorative connotations that have come to be associated with the term “elite.”

    In short, part of the task for progressives is reclaiming the meanings of words and the discursive turf. Why should education, intelligence and the ability to reflect on issues be considered bad things? I

  3. I think this is an important conversation… Dividing our country this way is indeed destructive .. The war on knowledge and evidence allows governments to get away with decisions based solely on ideology. Canada was called an ‘evidence-free zone’ at the recent Women Deliver Conference in Washington. We need Canadians to aspire towards greater knowledge and support governments that will spend their money on policies and programmes that work. Fanning the flames of cynicism erodes our democratic insitutions and further divides our country.

    Here’s the Gable cartoon…
    Carolyn Bennett MP for the not so elite
    Toronto riding of St. Paul’s … Educated but most still tenants.

  4. Dr. Himelfarb,

    I have been waiting quietly in the wings, all the while reading your blog posts with great interest I might add, since our initial meeting and conversation at the Glendon MPIA Orientation luncheon (I was the very animated student sitting to your right at our specific table).

    I should tell you that I have wanted to post on some of your other entries, but to be perfectly honest, I did not want to speak hastily, or lay out arguments which I had not sufficiently developed or thought out. In truth, I find you to be a very intimidating figure, and did not want to appear dull or uninformed. However, the issue you discuss in this particular blog post is something that has been on my mind of late, especially with the results of the recent mayoral elections in the city being as they are.

    In response to the post itself then, I must say that I am also greatly disturbed by this rising sentiment in Western political thought and life that seems to be very much “Pro-Ignorance / Anti-Intelligence”. I have read many editorials ( and being the most recent) and spoken with many people close to me on the topic, and personally, I find that your blog illuminates some of the great questions that are at the core of the issue.
    This passage in particular stood out to me, because it cuts to the very heart of what I feel is the bigger issue behind the issue.

    “The question Lasch was asking, the question we should all be asking, whether from the right or the left or somewhere between, is whether our democracy can rise to the challenges before us, whether we can bring knowledge and moral discourse together in truly democratic institutions. “

    My answer to Lasch, and to you as well, is that I do not believe Democracy can function in any optimal, efficient, or positive way in Western society so long as the population driving it is mired in widespread apathy (low voter turnout / general uncaring attitude towards political life), ignorance (people participating without being truly aware of the issues at hand, the direction and general goals of each party, as well as the consequences of such, and the political system in general), and is susceptible to fear-mongering and emotional manipulation by self-interested people who have no true wish to better society as a whole.

    It is impossible to run an efficient political system on the premise that these average people, who either do not care, know nothing about politics, or are being directly manipulated by self-serving individuals within the system itself, should have a direct say in how things run, and who should be running them.

    As an example of all this, I point to the election results in the mayoral race. Rob Ford played on the sub-urbanite population’s fears, anger, and strongly put forth the “Grass is greener” concept to these people, who bought it hook, line, and sinker. However, his “vision” for Toronto’s future is a grim one, wherein many people are left behind, or marginalized, and the public good is rarely, if ever, considered.

    However, before I get accused of advocating totalitarian or intensely autocratic governance, I should follow this statement with the fact that I am an eternal optimist, and I feel that it is indeed possible to restructure our society in such a way that will allow for something approaching a true and just idea of democracy in exactly the way that you described Lasch as saying when you wrote “The answer was to be found not in a changing of the guard but in the institutions and spirit of democracy, creating the opportunity for meaningful participation and having the faith that citizens could rise above their personal preferences to engage with others of different views and experiences to confront the big moral challenges facing us.” This can and must happen within western society else it continues to degenerate towards an inevitable collapse.

    The three problems within the population I mentioned (apathy / ignorance / malleability) are all solvable ones. However, to solve them we must restructure our educational system to show people why politics are important, and why their participation is necessary. We must give them, not only the tools, the means with which to educate themselves on political processes and actors, but also the will to do so. We must make them strong, so that we can all be strong, so that city, the province, the country as a whole can be strong.

  5. I haven’t read Christopher Lasch – my political readings are more francophone and Latin, and more from Marxist, feminist and ecosocialist traditions – but what little I’ve read of him makes me deeply suspicious. As feminists, we had very good reasons to revolt against the oppressive, patriarchal family and its traditional roles – and here in Québec, you know well what progressives think of the f-ing Church…

    He was against the abortion rights movement and divorce – well, I imagine your blog privileges polite speech, and I have nothing really printable to say about such phallocratic monsters. Piece of sexist filth is about the tamest thing I can say about any so-called progressive who thinks we are baby-plopping machines and that people of any gender and sexual orientation have to stay in brutal or even loveless marriages.

    Wente is well paid to write nonsense, and create false dichotomies. I don’t drink overpriced, bad-quality Starbucks coffee or Tim Horton’s crap (often sold in planet-destroying drive-thrus). I’m fortunate to have some old working-class Italian cafés round the corner where I can get an espresso or an allongé for $1,75. Yes, I’m university-eddicated and speak several language, but I’m locked into precarious work and genteel poverty. And there are a hell of a lot of people like me, and we are part of the working class.

    • himelfarb says:

      Well it is no doubt true that Lasch was stuck in some patriarchal model, but his notion that the “liberal establishment” had lost touch with everyday life as lived by most people has merit. So too, I believe, does the idea that self and other are inseparable, that community and family – in all of their diverse forms – are important institutions. As for religion , I am always made nervous by those who claim to own some sort of certainty, whether from religious or secular sources. But both secular and religious belief systems can be progressive and inclusive – or totalitarian and exclusive. I am glad you commented – thanks. BTW I spent a few years in Italy where everybody drinks fine coffee and good wine while arguing about politics.

  6. Dear Alex, I’ve lived in Italy as well. I wasn’t arguing against religious faith, and obviously there are secular totalitarians, and not just Stalin. But you are aware of how we have reacted against the Church (as institution) here, and this is also the case in some Italian circles and many more Spanish ones.

    Yes, I wrote in anger, but I’m glad I did – I was utterly furious at any man opposing our right to control our own bodies being taken seriously (though I’d be highly unlikely to have a baby past 50, and I confess I’d certainly put a stop to any such last-few-ova pregnancy simply due to the great odds of a tragic outcome).

    I miss Italy terribly, but get very good coffee without the barista attitude right here in the nabe, and well, some of us make our own wine.

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