I read Aisha Harris’s piece in the NYT (Dec 29) – a decent read, but I wanted to get some thoughts down on a subject that was referenced there, elitism. The word is usually used in a pejorative sense, suggestive of a group that feels they share a set of qualities to those who are not in their group. When I reflect on it, I think there are some subtleties to the definition that I suspect matter a bit in considering its impact on us.

I would constrain the definition further to say it means a group who consider themselves to have innate qualities that make them superior to others. As an example, think about the stereotype of a group of highly accomplished high school students who get into a selective college. They could be displaying elitism in the sense that they regard themselves as having the qualities to have accomplished what was required to get into that college. They might think it is because they are innately more intelligent or innately better at working hard,  but there is a notion that most people not in their group could not have similarly succeeded because they lack the innate talent. One sees that in thinking about that example, the idea gets caught up in understanding people’s motivations for aspiring to something and the idea that what one chooses to do is often obviously desirable to other people.

The idea of elitism is not confined to a self-reference to that idea of an innate superiority though – people can confer an elite status on others as well. Those same students who regard themselves as elite are not surprisingly considered as such by many in society as well.

These ideas of identifying people who have some superior abilities has a practical effect on how we construct our society, specifically on to whom we give the ability to influence or make decisions for the larger group. A good example of this is laid out in David Halberstam’s ‘Best and Brightest’ on the Vietnam War. ‘Wise Men’ were regarded as elite by looking at accomplishments and considering them to be reflective of superior abilities that would translate to the mission of our country around the world in the challenging times of the broader Cold War. That’s a good example to sketch out some of the risks that come with how elitism is used. Specifically, because elitism conveys an idea of inner traits, it is not usually something that can be explicitly seen and therefore is ascribed by means of interpretation.

By interpretation, I mean that someone sees all these impressive things that happen in someone’s life and infers, or interprets, them as emerging from that person’s innate talents. It has some similarity to Calvinism which is maybe why it seems to me to be more pernicious in our society.

Interpretation is a messy business in most contexts, but in identifying elites who should make important decisions for society, it can be shaped by the uglier parts of ourselves. It’s not a coincidence that elites in our society have historically been groups of white men. There is a feedback that takes place there too. Having identified who we think are elite and give them power, we, as a society, go to some length to justify the view and start to believe our own case for innate superiority and make it that much more difficult to be honest about why individuals get to where they are. I like to think of Molly Ivins reference to George H.W. Bush: ‘Born on third base and thought he hit a triple’. But society sits in the stands and claps away as though they believe the story too.

Our current president has managed to take advantage of our relationship with elitism in two ways. First, he looks to re-enforce those uglier aspects that got caught up in our understanding of who has great innate talent. He turns nativism and white superiority into reflections of an idea of what success ‘looks like’. Making America great ‘again’, means re-ascribing power based on the superficial, magical way of thinking about talent. There are many people who really do think that a white male is likely to be inordinately better. It’s a very slightly different thing that simply stating they ‘hate’ non-male, non-white people and I think I can see how it emerges from a place that is not evil, per se, but can drive us to evil as we look to continue to be defensive about our own inability to understand what happens to individuals in our society.

The second way the president has leaned on elitism is to inveigh against another set of elites. It would be a mistake of oversimplification to think that Trump is striving to speak for the common man as a populist and against elites. He is doing that, but the targets are more specific – they are identified as fraudulent elites, easily seen as such by lacking the markers that a common man would use to pick out a true elite. Part of the reason he is so effective at this is though timing having applied it on the heels of our first African-American president and at the doorstep of our first woman president. He’s not alone in this regard. As much as I love Maureen Down, I always felt there was a waft of this in her pieces about Barack Obama as well. 

The challenge for ourselves, I think, is to better frame meritocracy and understand how we can formulate a place for it in our society as a way to replace elitism. Meritocracy is not elitism. It is not without it’s own risks similar to those of elitism but I think it has the potential to better serve all of us. I’ll defer thoughts on that for other posts.

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