rebuilding the idea of elitism in America

Founding Fathers

Elitism has earned an ugly name over the past decade or so. A sure way to accuse someone of having poor judgment or lacking real-world experience is to tar them with the “elite” label. The use of “elite” as a derogatory term has been most pronounced in politics. Political leaders sneer at elites – holding up underachievers as role models – while at the same time aspiring to become the elite of the political class. The “wealthy elite” are also villainized in political campaigns as people who don’t pay their fair share.

I would like to be elite. I like to say – mostly to myself or maybe to my immediate family – that I AM elite. It would be a shocking thing to claim or aspire to in a public conversation, though. Some of my elitism was earned: education, both formal and undertaken on my own, and some was just the lucky accident of my birth – I was born a Caucasian citizen of the wealthiest nation on Earth. Nobody likes to admit the fact that they have some claim to the status of elitism. The term has been damaged over the years.

I want to be elite, and I want others to want to be elite. In private moments I’m not ashamed of being well-read, or well-educated, or having a liberal mindset (in the open-to-all-ideas sense, not the political sense). I want to come out at the top of the heap. I think that the goal of a family, or a community or whatever group you choose to look at should be the creation of elite individuals: Jeffersons, Einsteins, Ataturks. You want people to rise above the average and lead.

I’m not there (yet). I’d like to be. To admit to wanting that would probably seem gross in most company, and I’m most comfortable making that claim on my semi-anonymous blog. We need elite people, and anyone who derides or attacks the elite is, well, an idiot. You can disagree with the particular ideas or approaches chosen by elite members of society, but in business, politics, science, art, religion, whatever area you choose to examine, you NEED an elite. It’s not the elite as determined by birth, or Ivy League education. It’s the elite chosen by intelligence; by drive; by perseverance. I don’t know when that became an ugly attribute in this country, but that attitude needs to disappear – and fast.

photo credit: INeedCoffee

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  • http://www.thewriterscoin.com Writer's Coin

    Why would I want to do the dishes? No, but seriously, I think you have a point about people reacting to a word they know is “bad” without thinking it through. Kind of like “ignorance.” All it means is that you don't know something, but now it's used as an insult.

  • guest

    This the last time I read your blog.the 'elite' I know have their heads up their ass.

    • bripblap

      @guest: Well, sorry to hear that – but lacking much detail in your comment, I'd argue you might be proving my point.

    • I read every day

      That is very, very funny (and kind of pathetic!). he, he, he, he, ha, ha, ha, ha.

  • http://taxfix.co.uk/blog/ David

    A great post which allows for a great debate.

    I don't normally comment but felt compelled after the negative comment above.

    Keep the great blog/posts going.

    • bripblap

      Thanks, David! I usually figure if I write something even vaguely controversial I'm inviting negative comments, but support from others when I do get them is always great to hear :)

  • anon

    Last I heard the elite used to work on Wall Street. Now they're waiting on some line somewhere. Or are sitting in front of Congress right now with their tin cups out.

    Ever hear of the expression: “too smart for his own good?”

    Go say that 12 times to yourself while you stand in front of a mirror.

    Only the strong will survive. Your brain power ain't gonna get you anything in this new, new economy. Uh, but you're an elitist and you knew that already, right?

    • bripblap

      @anon: If you think the elite are waiting on line somewhere, you and I have a different idea of elite. A lot of middle managers and junior execs may be, and the CEOs may be sitting in front of Congress with their tin cups out, but trust me – if GM goes bankrupt, Rick Wagoner is not going to be the one suffering. Just ask Stanley O'Neal or Lloyd Blankfein or any of those guys.

      And I've got to be honest with you – I think brain power will be the ONLY thing that matters going forward. Sure aren't going to be a lot of manufacturing jobs…

  • http://toughmoneylove.com Mr. ToughMoneyLove

    I like the concept. Can we start with making sure those who vote have some minimal level of knowledge of American institutions and language?

    • bripblap

      @Mr. ToughMoneyLove: Personally I have no problem with that at all. Totally off subject, I stood in line this election behind someone who – seriously – asked the poll worker who he should vote for. I have no problem giving someone a pop quiz before voting: “can you name the current president?” or “how many states in the US?” Doesn't seem like much to ask.

    • http://earlyretirementextreme.com/ Early Retirement Extreme

      That is the main problem of democracy. The question is how difficult are you going to make the test? You see, almost anyone can pick up a pitch fork and partake in a rebellion if they don't feel like they got anything to say. Democracy has been fairly effective in preventing such things.

    • bripblap

      I think I've got a fair proposition about a voting test – it can take random questions from the citizenship test for immigrants (which is not simple at all).

      It's never going to happen – voting “tests” were a mainstay of segregation, so I can't see them widely adopted in the future. It's a shame though – asking someone to know how many US senators a state has before allowing someone to vote for senator doesn't seem that harsh to me…

    • http://freefrombroke.com FFB

      We're not really a democracy. No one I know voted for the president, we all voted for electors which isn't democracy. In fact true democracy means that anyone could rule and that's simple not the case. Just saying.

  • vilkri

    Good point and good post! Another expression of this development can be found in recent politics. The folksy type of politician who connects with Joe Sixpack or who speaks like a regular Joe seems to have a leg up. If it is up to me, I prefer a self-made, intelligent, and accomplished person to lead the country. I would not want my drinking buddies running the country. (Just in case, let me say that I hope this comment is not taken as partisan.)

    • http://smallstepstohealth.com asithi

      Exactly. Drinking buddies are for entertainment…..just like Paris Hilton is entertainment…..

  • http://earlyretirementextreme.com/ Early Retirement Extreme

    Hello, my name is Jacob and I am an elitist. In addition, I strongly desire to become a person that deserves to be part of the elite. Yeah, I won't use it as a conversation starter in polite company, but I'm not afraid to come out and say it either if the opportunity is there.

    I am not ashamed to admit that I think that those who are smarter, more experienced, better connected, and wiser probably have better ideas and a more accurate grasp of the situation than those who are less so. Yeah, I seriously believe that. If I'm on the board of some company and I have to select a management or if I were to vote for some politicians, I will prefer people with the better educations, the higher intellects, the better experience, etc.

    There are several words that have turned into derogative terms and lost their original meaning. Elitist is one term, liberal is another, and fascist is a third.
    For instance, you will see that the principles that founded the United States define the original meaning of liberal (individual freedom, small government, free markets). Today liberal means “anything on the left wing that I disagree with”. Fascist colloquially means “anything that is bad and evil”, but if you look up what fascism is as a political system … you will probably feel sad (and worried).

    I think people who slam “elitists” often think of certain academics or “experts”. Academics come in two flavors. The first kind are the intellectuals, the ones that realize that the more they know, the less they know. They are widely read and they have a certain humility that comes from knowing that there is so much more to know. At the same time they know that they know more than most other people (it is a horrifying thought actually) and so they are more likely to express an accurate opinion on a given matter. The second kind are the, what I would call academics. Unfortunately academics are frequently the best “fit” for academia. Academics know a lot about one highly specialized topic while they know about as much as “normal people” about everything else (because they don't have the time for anything but their subject). This is not a problem unless the person starts thinking that all other knowledge is worthless yet at the same time believe that they are better and more qualified to express any kind of opinion regardless of the subject because they are a professor of some obscure topic. Well, celebrities do the same thing but at least they are not arrogant about it. I think it is the latter that get and deserve the term “elitist” with its derogatory connotation.

  • Rhonda

    Interesting post. I must say I agree with much of it, in as far as what is considered elite is something that is available (with effort, not entitlement) to everyone. As you say, education can be earned, the effort to appear polished and articulate can be practiced, contacts, knowledge can be cultivated, etc. As long as we don't end up with some kind of caste system where you can only be born elite, then I think elite is a good thing. Also, I hope along with re-invigorating the idea of elite, we would at the same time re-invigorate the idea of “nobless oblige” (sorry if I don't have the spelling correct). But the idea of giving back, of helping others get a leg up, community involvement, etc., that you haven't gotten to where you are without help, even if it is just being born Caucasion in an affluent country. I, too, think it is bizarre that it seems to be a handicap in politics right now to be intelligent, articulate, cultured, to speak another language fluently. Thanks for the great post.

  • http://retiredsyd.typepad.com Retired Syd

    Yay, someone finally said it! Thanks Steve and Jacob.

    I like Chris Matthews' take on the issue, there's a difference between “smart” and “intellectually curious,” and it is the latter group that he holds high esteem for. It's these people that know what they don't know and strive to learn it.

    • bripblap

      @retiredsyd: Thank YOU for saying “yay.” :)

      I certainly had my say about intellectual curiosity, too (http://www.bripblap.com/2008/intellectual-curio…). I'd think a combination of smart and intellectually curious is better than one or the other alone, though…

    • retiredsyd

      Probably you're right, but the truth is, I'm not sure I really know what “smart” is, or whether I'm it (doesn't everyone think they are smart?)

      For leaders, I think it's mandatory they are both (and I think Obama is definitely both, some other leaders, who shall remain nameless, neither.) Someone like Sarah Palin, probably smart, but not intellectually curious. If I'm going to be one or the other, I prefer the latter, myself. It's just more fun.

    • http://earlyretirementextreme.com/ Early Retirement Extreme

      Smart alone is dangerous (Hi Wall Street).
      Intellectual alone is useless (Hi … uh me? :O) )

    • PDF digitale Signatur

      how can you tell if your smart or not.. and the difference between elite and elitist.. got me confused a lot..

  • bripblap

    @retiredsyd: Thank YOU for saying “yay.” :)

    I certainly had my say about intellectual curiosity, too (http://www.bripblap.com/2008/intellectual-curio…). I'd think a combination of smart and intellectually curious is better than one or the other alone, though…

  • http://freefrombroke.com FFB

    It seems the intellectual elite has become looked down upon in this country. When did everything become so dumbed down? If the smartest, brightest people aren't the ones figuring things out then who will be? Yet people worship the athletic elite!

  • Curmudgeon

    Hmmm. You got me thinking, as usual. I generally consider the elite as a state of mind, rather than the product of a specific set of experiences. I suppose I have the education, income, and life station to be considered elite, but I'm still the son of a steelworker, and I have many of the attitudes inherent in that heritage. I can't say that I consciously aspire to one or the other role; I just wear the persona that seems to fit.

  • http://paradigmshifted.org/ deepali

    what's the difference between elite and elitist? i'm thinking the first is the real deal, and the second is simply displaying the trappings…

    personally, i'm all for plato's philosopher-kings…

    and as someone who had to take the citizenship test, i absolutely agree that everyone should have to take it to vote. i had to, why shouldn't someone who is a citizen by accident of birth?

  • June

    I am very happy with this post because you bring up an important point. Elitist is a word that has been badly misused. And yet, if you believe George Orwell's belief that words do not lose their original meaning, and gain a new incorrect one, haphazardly, then America has a problem. The notion of elitism is important. Without it, a nation can sink into mediocrity.

    Elitism, or the intrinsic motivation to achieve excellence is NOT a negative attribute. I hope you teach that to your children, and you continue to pursue it yourself.

  • KevinW

    I mostly agree, I am finishing a science PhD, and according to public sentiment, dedicating 10 years of my life to mastering a single subject makes me an “elite” and somehow LESS qualified to speak on that subject. I share Jacob's disapproval for academics that behave as if their training makes them experts on everything. But I'm distressed at how quickly we collectively dismiss the professional opinions of highly trained experts such as doctors, scientists, professors, judges, etc. Ultimately, when we ignore experts and make all our decisions using lay common sense, we waste the large societal and personal investment in advanced education.

    However I disagree strongly with the idea of a voting quiz. In practice I think there is a lot of overlap between the people that would fail, and the people that don't bother to vote. When someone abstains, in a sense they are saying “I have nothing to add to this decision, so I'll leave it to everyone else,” whether that thought process is conscious or not. I'll spare everyone the pertinent Rush quote. The fact that voting is optional naturally filters out the uninterested, and the fact that it requires some fundamental organizational skills filters out the grossly incompetent. When you start adding preconditions to voting you disenfranchise large groups who may be motivated to overthrow the system rather than participate in it. Yes, a few people will make uninformed decisions, but our government needs to sustain a basic level of “buy-in” from the uninformed to remain viable.

  • whatever

    *yawn*

  • Sarah

    I have to say I disagree. The word 'elite' in and of itself refers only to the quality of being chosen as the best, not the reason for being chosen. And that's the problem. People have different criteria for choosing the best. That's most likely why the word has acquired a negative connotation- there's always somebody who disagrees with how 'the elite' are chosen. You want it to be by intelligence and effort. What if somebody else wants it to be by the ability to manage people and public opinion?

    The problem with elitism in politics is groupthink. But it doesn't stop there. Similar people (families/upbringings/educations/social classes) tend to make decisions in the same way. Such a lack of diversity leads to poor decisions, and that's not what I want for my country, science, or the development of society as a whole. Diversity is necessary for improvement. 'Elitism', in the sense of favoring the 'elite' over dissenting opinions as a shortcut for evaluating every possibility to the fullest extent possible, is damaging in a real-world context.
    Exceptional people in terms of knowledge are not exceptional because they are chosen by others ('elite'). They just are. As you have observed, it is a quality that they have and nurture. 'Elite' is just a fancy word for popular. And providence help us all if it's some drunken frat boy running the place (oh, wait….)

    • bripblap

      @Sarah: I understand your point, and you're right that if the 'elite' standard is judged by who has the prettiest hair, it's a bad sort of elite. But that's really what I was getting at – I would like to think the idea of 'elite' could be reclaimed and rebranded from simply “people who inherit wealth” or “people who attend an Ivy” to something better and more – in my opinion – useful. Whether you think that's possible is probably a function of optimism (and I was feeling optimistic when I wrote it).

      And yes, I'm sure we've all seen what having an “old definition” elite President has done for us. Let's see what the “new definition” elite President will do for us now… :)

    • Sarah

      Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

      But actually, what I was getting at is that once there is -any- “definition” of what is an elite, the definition itself becomes a self-reinforcing enemy to progress. I think it's important to have a dialogue about what the definition -should be-, but beyond that, there needs to be room for the definition to evolve.

      I think right now, we both agree that there needs to be change. What I'm saying, though, is that the change cannot be just another change in a static definition. The change needs to be a move from a static definition to a dynamic definition, if you will. Today we need people who are dedicated and intelligent. What if we have different needs in the future? In other words, I do not think 'elite' should be a word that is agreed upon, because it would indicate a sort of stagnation.

    • Ruth

      There are several fascinating books by a guy named Richard Florida about the new/future creative class, and about how certain cities seem to be welcoming and attracting this new creative class. This sounds like what you are getting at.

  • http://plonkee.com plonkee

    Hmm. I'm not sure what I think. I'm quite a proud liberal in many senses of the word, and you're sort of implying that you'd never be so low as to stoop to being politically liberal. Hopefully that's not what you meant, you were simply trying to state your actual position accurately.

    I've often thought that voting tests would be good, possibly including questions on which newspapers you read and believe. But, as the US experience in the southern states shows it's too easy to rig such tests to disenfranchise some group or other unfairly. In Britain, it used to be the case that you had to own property to vote – I believe, though, that's one of the things that the American founding fathers didn't like.

    A meritocracy would be really nice, but that's because I am intelligent and well-edicated. One of the problems we have over here (which may or may not be true in the US) is that middle class, elite parents would hate to admit that their child was actually not all that bright – if people come up though, it stands to reason that some must go down as well.

    • bripblap

      @plonkee: In the phrase about a liberal mindset I was just trying to draw the distinction between the political use of the word and the “open mind” sense of the word, just in that phrase. I wasn't making any statement about politics. Politically I'm sure it's fairly obvious that I am a center-left American, although I know that probably still leaves me to the right of 99% of Europeans :)

    • http://plonkee.com plonkee

      @bripblap:
      That's ok, I'm forever qualifying words I use about myself. I normally end up saying that I'm liberal by every definition – because it's kind of true, not better.

      I think it's funny that I claim to be well educated, and yet failed to spell it correctly earler :)

  • http://www.moneysmartsblog.com/ Four Pillars

    I would love to be the elite – intellectually, financially etc – I think the mark of every ambitious person is that they want to be better than everyone else.

    As for voting tests – I know it's almost a cliche, but how but minimum standards to be a parent?? Hmmmm?? :)

    • bripblap

      @FP – no, you're absolutely correct – some of the most important things in life don't require a test, and (somehow) it would be nice if they did. You have to get a license to clean out plumbing, but not to have children. It's a little bit crazy.

  • guinness416

    It's getting very Daily Mail in here! I've been following an interesting freakonomics blog thread about where south asian immigrants should give their charitable donations (I'm married to a SA guy and he has his own opinions on the subject) and some comments there are just appalled at the elitism they see built in to the original article. You do see that in some immigrants – a complete befuddlement as to why youse natural born yanks don't have the attitude in your third paragraph there by default.

  • http://www.prominentthought.com Layneh

    I agree, elitism is something any educated person would aspire to achieve. The fact that on is educated is a step in that direction as well.

    Most often heard in politics and on wall street, by those who class themselves as populists, or “of the people”, as to say commoners. Yet the idea that they do not seek elitism itself is hypocritical. To suggest that they (the populists) do not want to become elite would suggest they never want to achieve the highest levels of education, intellect or wealth (the later something all people seem to desire).

    These reasons alone tell me to think hard and long on political parties, one seems based upon a lie, where the other seems labeled an atrocity.

  • http://www.freeby50.com/ Jim

    Good post.

    I for one am absolutely in favor of having the 'elite' among us rise to the top of our leadership. Isn't that just common sense? You'd think it would be but our society somehow has decided that elite = bad.

    I think the problem with the perception towards elite or elitism is mostly a result of some clever political marketing spin plus peoples built in dislike of arrogance. When I think of the word “elite” I think of the “best”. Thats good. When I think of the word “elitism” I think of “arrogant” or “snob”. Thats bad. If you are running a political campaign and your candidate isn't part of the establisment or isn't viewed as highly intellectual as compared to their opponent then its in your best interest to paint the other side as bad. You can use that “elitism” word to your advantage. This is how the “washington elite” has been marketed as a bad thing. Talking heads on TV and politicians will spit the phrase out in connection of everything that is bad with our government then tie it to the other political side. If they repeat the lie often enough then it can become truth. Over time “elite” becomes associated with bad things. Because people who are trying to get their guy elected said so and we heard it enough that we as a country start to buy into it.

  • http://www.freeby50.com/ Jim

    Good post.

    I for one am absolutely in favor of having the 'elite' among us rise to the top of our leadership. Isn't that just common sense? You'd think it would be but our society somehow has decided that elite = bad.

    I think the problem with the perception towards elite or elitism is mostly a result of some clever political marketing spin plus peoples built in dislike of arrogance. When I think of the word “elite” I think of the “best”. Thats good. When I think of the word “elitism” I think of “arrogant” or “snob”. Thats bad. If you are running a political campaign and your candidate isn't part of the establisment or isn't viewed as highly intellectual as compared to their opponent then its in your best interest to paint the other side as bad. You can use that “elitism” word to your advantage. This is how the “washington elite” has been marketed as a bad thing. Talking heads on TV and politicians will spit the phrase out in connection of everything that is bad with our government then tie it to the other political side. If they repeat the lie often enough then it can become truth. Over time “elite” becomes associated with bad things. Because people who are trying to get their guy elected said so and we heard it enough that we as a country start to buy into it.

  • http://www.prominentthought.com Layneh

    I agree, elitism is something any educated person would aspire to achieve. The fact that on is educated is a step in that direction as well.

    Most often heard in politics and on wall street, by those who class themselves as populists, or “of the people”, as to say commoners. Yet the idea that they do not seek elitism itself is hypocritical. To suggest that they (the populists) do not want to become elite would suggest they never want to achieve the highest levels of education, intellect or wealth (the later something all people seem to desire).

    These reasons alone tell me to think hard and long on political parties, one seems based upon a lie, where the other seems labeled an atrocity.

  • http://www.freeby50.com/ Jim

    Good post.

    I for one am absolutely in favor of having the 'elite' among us rise to the top of our leadership. Isn't that just common sense? You'd think it would be but our society somehow has decided that elite = bad.

    I think the problem with the perception towards elite or elitism is mostly a result of some clever political marketing spin plus peoples built in dislike of arrogance. When I think of the word “elite” I think of the “best”. Thats good. When I think of the word “elitism” I think of “arrogant” or “snob”. Thats bad. If you are running a political campaign and your candidate isn't part of the establisment or isn't viewed as highly intellectual as compared to their opponent then its in your best interest to paint the other side as bad. You can use that “elitism” word to your advantage. This is how the “washington elite” has been marketed as a bad thing. Talking heads on TV and politicians will spit the phrase out in connection of everything that is bad with our government then tie it to the other political side. If they repeat the lie often enough then it can become truth. Over time “elite” becomes associated with bad things. Because people who are trying to get their guy elected said so and we heard it enough that we as a country start to buy into it.

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