The right's favorite scare word is "elitism." What does it mean?

The thinking behind the news.
Oct. 2 2010 7:38 AM

Elitist Nonsense

The right's favorite scare word is "elitism." What does it mean?

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McCain, by contrast, defined elitism not as believing you are better than other people but believing that you know better than other people. This is Rand Paul's point about liberals: "They think they can tell us what to do and that most Americans aren't smart enough to take care of themselves," he said in his recent rant against the lower-Manhattan mosque. (So much for libertarianism.) "And I think that's a really arrogant approach to the American people." It also seems to be what Newt Gingrich has in mind when he pops off about "government of the elites by the elites for the elites." In the McCain-Paul-Gingrich usage, an elitist is someone who thinks the opinion of a minority should sometimes prevail over the opinion of a majority.

It is easy to grasp the political resonance of both definitions. Palin's umbrage at liberals who act superior to conservatives plays upon the American ideal of social equality. In a meritocratic society, rejection can bring an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can't blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system. Palin's posture of victimization is a response to this sense of exclusion. The irony is that she assumes this posture in the service of policies whose effect is to deepen the inequalities of American life.

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McCain's protest against anti-majoritarianism likewise strikes a deep popular chord. It has the further advantage of providing an escape hatch from the substance of issues by reframing them in cultural terms. Arguments for raising taxes, expanding health insurance, and fighting climate change are all met with by the rejoinder that some people should quit telling the rest of us how to live our lives. The irony of this position is that this sort of automatic populism is the least conservative of political philosophies. It was Edmund Burke who most famously articulated the principle that elected legislators owe their constituents their best judgments rather than acting as conduits for majority opinion. In fact, it's both valuable and necessary to have experts guide decision-making on complex subjects. I'd rather have a nuclear-energy policy set by Nobel Laureate Steven Chu of Berkeley than by a plebiscite—or have military procurement rules led by John McCain, for that matter.

The problem with the GOP's elite-bashing is not their definition but their contradictions. In practice, conservatives are no less inclined than liberals to adopt superior stances or to tell people how to live their lives. Palin's counter-snobbery holds those who live in the middle of the country, own guns, and go to church are more authentic, more the "real America," than those who live in coastal cities, profess atheism, or prefer a less demonstrative style of patriotism. But the insistence that gay people not be married, or that some go without health insurance, or that gas be lightly taxed, reflect choices about "how other people should live" no less than the opposite positions. Gingrich and others cast democratic decisions as illegitimate only when they conflict with right-wing ideology. If an unelected judge upholds gay marriage, he's practicing liberal elitism. But if the same unelected judge were to invalidate Obama's health care legislation, he would be defending the Constitution. Such hypocrisy is based on the construct of a pre-political state of nature, where we lived in abstract freedom until government arrived to limit and control us.

In the real world, we suffer from self-righteous conservatives as well as smug liberals, from as many Republicans as Democrats who think they know best. Arrogance and paternalism remain bipartisan attitudes. Elitism, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

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