Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How ‘Elites’ Became One of the Nastiest Epithets in American Politics - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By BEVERLY GAGE JAN. 3, 2017, New York Times

image from article

Our new president is a private-­jet-­setting billionaire Ivy League graduate, a real
estate tycoon, a TV star and a son of inherited wealth. But he is no longer, by his own
calculations, a member of the “elite.” Nor are the men (and the few women) now
joining his inner circle — 1­-percenters and corporate executives, Harvard and Yale
alumni, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Goldman Sachs bankers. The true elite
apparently sits elsewhere, among those who, in Sarah Palin’s notable 2008
formulation, think “that they’re — I guess — better than anyone else.”

As an adjective, the word “elite” still conveys something positive, even
aspirational: elite athlete, elite model, elite travel services. But as a noun, embodied
by actual living people, it has become one of the nastiest epithets in American
politics. “Elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to
the working­- and middle-­class Americans,” complains Trump’s adviser Steve
Bannon (of Harvard, Goldman Sachs and Hollywood). In this formulation, elites are
a destructive, condescending collective, plotting against the beleaguered masses
outside their ranks.

And in these attacks, the president-­elect and his team are deploying one of the
most effective partisan political stereotypes of the modern age. For most of
American history, anti-­elite sentiment was a matter of up versus down, not left
versus right. But about half a century ago, the conservative movement set out to
claim anti-­elite politics as its own. That meant redefining the term away from class
and toward culture, where the “elite” could be identified by its liberal ideas, coastal
real estate and highbrow consumer preferences. The right­wing Club for Growth
captured this type in a famous 2004 attack ad, instructing the Democrat Howard
Dean to “take his tax-­hiking, government-­expanding, latte­-drinking, sushi-­eating,
Volvo­-driving, New York Times­-reading, body­-piercing, Hollywood-­loving, left-­wing
freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.”

Trump adjusted the formula for the hot topics of the 2016 campaign. “I was on
the right side of that issue, as you know, with the people,” he boasted after Brexit,
adding that “Hillary, as always, stood with the elites.” His complaints against
“political correctness” conjure a world of absurdist campus politics, where
overprivileged students squabble over gender pronouns and the fine points of racial
victimization. “Media elites” come in for special attack, cordoned off in pens to be
mocked and jeered at during rallies, labeled both liars and incompetents.

But Trump has also ventured beyond mere name­-calling, turning the 2016 election
into a competition between knowledge systems: the tell-­it-­like­-it-­is “people” versus
the know-­it-­all “elites.” His campaign insisted for months that pollsters and
technocrats and media would be proven wrong by his electoral success. The fact that
he did win dealt a blow to an entire worldview, one in which empirical inquiry and
truth­-telling were supposed to triumph in the end. The question, now, is whether it’s
possible to run an executive branch based on hostility toward experts and
professionals of all political stripes — and how many billionaires and Ivy Leaguers
Trump can appoint before this rhetorical pose begins to break down altogether.

The notion that distant elites might be conspiring against the people comes
straight from the Founding Fathers, whose Declaration of Independence lamented
the “long train of abuses and usurpations” inflicted upon ordinary Americans by an
arrogant British king. From there on, United States history might be seen as a
repeating cycle of anti­-elite revolt. The Jacksonians rebelled against the Founders’
aristocratic pretensions. Northern “free labor” went to war against the oligarchical
slavocracy. And the Populist revolts of the late 19th century adapted this story to
modern capitalism, with farmers and laborers rebelling against robber barons,
bankers, time-­management experts and college-­educated professionals.

The first historians to study those Populists described them as heroic crusaders,
champions of the “people” against the “powers.” But by the middle of the 20th
century, alarmed by the rise of fascism and homegrown demagogues like Senator
Joseph McCarthy, a new generation of scholars took a more anxious view of the anti-elite
spirit. In his 1955 book “The Age of Reform,” Richard Hofstadter dismissed the
Populists as backward­-looking, provincial anti­-Semites, the latent fascists of their
day. Eight years later, his “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” documented a
dangerous suspicion of “the critical mind” that seemed to course through the
national culture. From his perspective, the 1952 election captured everything wrong
with American political life, with Dwight Eisenhower’s “philistinism” winning over
Adlai Stevenson’s “intellect.”

Hofstadter did not usually describe his ideal intellectually minded citizens as
members of an “elite.” That word conveyed something different — a ruling class that
held direct political and economic power. The most famous articulation of this view
came from the sociologist C. Wright Mills, in his 1956 assessment of America’s
“power elite.” “They rule the big corporations,” Mills wrote. “They run the machinery
of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment.” In
Mills’s view, these people were tied together not by culture or ideology but by their
positions at the helms of large, ever-­more­-complex institutions. As individuals, they
might be Republicans or Democrats, and might live in Ohio or California. The point
was that they were in charge of things.

But that vision never gained much traction in mainstream politics, where a
more partisan, targeted definition was starting to emerge. William F. Buckley Jr.
carved out some essentials in his first book, “God and Man at Yale,” drawing a neat
distinction between respectable Ivy-­educated men like himself and the socialistic
eggheads of the professoriate. Ronald Reagan chose the term “elite” to bring it all
together in his famed 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” delivered on behalf of the
Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. “This is the issue of this
election,” he said: “whether we believe in our capacity for self-­government or
whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual
elite in a far­-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them

Lyndon Johnson won that election in a blowout, but Reagan’s vision of a smug
and detached liberal elite helped spark the oncoming “culture wars,” pitting a
supposedly indignant Middle America against the liberal snobs of the coasts. By the
1990s, with the rise of right­wing media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly,
bashing the “liberal elite” had become a favorite blood sport of the American right.

Despite all the abuse hurled their way, some “liberal elites” have accepted at
least part of their detractors’ critique, particularly on the progressive left. It was
during Bill Clinton’s presidency that the social critic Christopher Lasch published
“The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” which mourned that
“upper-­middle-­class liberals” had turned into “petulant, self­-righteous, intolerant”
scolds, thoroughly out of touch with the concerns of Middle America. Since then, the
torch has passed to a younger generation of writers, including MSNBC’s Chris
Hayes, whose 2012 “Twilight of the Elites” called for rethinking the entire ethos of
liberal “meritocracy” — a system, he argued, that tends to fuel self­-congratulation
and incompetence at the top while offering little but contempt and dim prospects for
those at the bottom.

So as 2017 begins, we find ourselves in a strange and uncertain political
moment. Antipathy toward a wealthy, preening managerial class seems to be gaining
popularity across the political spectrum — and, oddly, to have helped elect a wealthy,
preening incoming president. Meanwhile, both liberal and conservative “elites” are
scrambling to figure out what happens if the president-­elect continues to reject basic
political norms and even routine intelligence briefings. Under a Trump presidency,
such “elites” may have no choice but to attempt a radical redefinition of their role in
American life. Otherwise, the man in the White House will do it for them.

Beverly Gage is a history professor at Yale. She last wrote for the magazine about
Donald Trump’s Nixonian calls for ‘‘law and order.’’

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