What Does 'Elitism' Mean?

Click to view a gallery of darlings of the Tea Party. Brooks Kraft / Corbis

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.