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.