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?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

If there's one epithet the right never tires of, it's "elitism." Republicans are constantly accusing Democrats of it this campaign season, as when Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul attacked President Obama as "a liberal elitist … [who] believes that he knows what is best for people." With the Tea Party's rise, conservatives have even begun accusing each other of it, as Sharron Angle, the Nevada GOP nominee did when she charged that Robert Bennett, the outgoing senator from Utah, "has become one of the elitists that is no longer in touch." Other days, they simply lament that the entire country is falling prey to it, as California Senate nominee Carly Fiorina recently did in asserting that "the American Dream is in danger" because of the "elitists" in charge of the government.

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Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

When the rich former CEO of one of America's largest companies casts herself as a victim of elitism, we have surely strayed far from any literal definition of the term. So what do Republicans mean by this French word? Unlike the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, who popularized the term to describe shared identity based on economic interests, Republicans use it with connotations of education, geography, ideology, taste, and lifestyle—such that a millionaire investment banker who works for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard, and reads the New York Times is an elitist but a billionaire CEO who grew up in Houston, went to a state university, and contributes to Republicans, is not.

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Brian Williams picked up on this blurriness when he interviewed John McCain and Sarah Palin together on NBC in 2008 and posed a brilliantly simple question. "Who," he asked the Republican running mates, "is a member of the elite?"

Palin responded first. "I guess just people who think that they're better than everyone else," she said.

McCain then elaborated. "I know where a lot of them live—in our nation's capital and New York City—the ones [Palin] never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown—who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves."

Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn't remember how many houses he owned, accuse his mixed-race opponent, raised by a single-mother and only a few years past paying off his student loans, of being the real elite candidate in the campaign.

Though they sound nearly identical, there's a significant distinction between the Palin and the McCain definitions. Palin's definition says elitists are those who think they're better than other people—a category in which by Election Day, on the evidence of her autobiography, included many of the people working for her own campaign. Palin is raw with the disrespect she feels and takes offense at being condescended to by people who, she thinks, think they are better than she is. Her anti-elitism takes the part of all Americans who feel similarly snubbed, and not necessarily in the context of politics. This version is a synonym for social snobbery, with the wrinkle that it's not based on family, ethnicity, or wealth, but rather on the status that in contemporary American society is largely conferred by academic institutions.