The GOP has gone off the deep end w/ conspiracy theories. Things aren’t just things. Everything involves secret cabals of “elites.” (Dog whistle.)
► Kurt Eichenwald tweet, January 26, 2018
They just believe what they believe and they think their job is to drag the rest of the redneck morons toward the light. They don’t understand that the so-called redneck morons, the people they don’t like, are the people that grew up with values, patriotism, all those things.
► Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News (and presumably, non-elite)
The problem – to paraphrase a bit from comedian George Carlin – is that when we talk about elites, we’re not talking about all of them.
Starting with general definition of terms: Wikipedia (and many other definitions are similar to theirs) offers, “In political and sociological theory, the elite (French élite, from Latin eligere) are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.”
We might as well include here the “establishment,” a term maybe most widely used in the 60s (more often on the left then), but still popping up regularly (more on the right). William Safire’s description from the 1970s locates the “eastern establishment” as “a cluster of legal, financial and communications talent centered in New York, generally liberal Republican in politics.” He pointed out that the term “establishment’ was used generally first in Britain, where journalist Henry Fairlie was said to have coined it, and where the National Observer in 1967 criticized, “If someone wishes to complain about something but hasn’t a very clear idea of what, all he needs to do is blame the problem on the ‘establishment’ and people will sagely wag their heads … It is one of the great blessings of America that it has no ‘establishment.’”
The Observer spoke too soon.
Holding all of those elements in mind is tricky, because they wobble a lot, and the exact roster of the elite can be hard to list. But what becomes especially important, in political speak, is who we choose to name: Which elites we decide on, taking care to include our preferred bad guys rather than favorites.
Who or what are the real elites? Who ought we to focus on when using the term – and when it is simply being thrown around in an attempt to slur some group that happens to be on the other side?
In 1957 sociologist C. Wright Mills released a book intended to answer that question, called The Power Elite; his sense was that the most powerful group of people in the country was an interlocking, and closely-associated, group of political, corporate and military leaders, many of them members of families that more or less stay in the elite for decades and generations. Outside the core business and governmental leaders, he did include a smattering of “celebrities” linked to them.
The book has gotten a mixed response over time, but reactions to it have tended to become more approving as time has passed.
He did at least make an effort to suggest in some intelligible way where the power is – and that at least should give a clue as to who might be considered “elite.” If it relates to actual power or influence in society, then “elite” ought to relate to raw power of some kind, the ability to make something happen – the kind of raw power you get only through either certain types of government office, by mass persuasion of large groups of well-organized people, or by control of large amounts of money. In American society, there are really no other highly concentrated sources of mass power, and the search for true elites – as opposed to a person who flashes in and out of public attention and maybe generates a conversation for a while – logically starts there.
Most conservative descriptions of “elites” will have none of that.
In his book Talking Right, Geoffrey Nunberg lays out what this looks like on one side of the fence (the side where “elite” is used most):
“The way the right has narrowed the use of the word elite, so that it’s more likely to be used to describe ‘liberal’ sectors like the entertainment industry, the media and the academy, than leaders of business or the military. It isn’t surprising that on Fox News, references to the business elite are outnumbered by almost 50-1 by references to the media elite. But even on ‘liberal’ CNN and in the daily press, media elite outnumbers business elite by 2- or 3-1.” He goes on to note that in Great Britain, where discussion of “elites” also is lively, it’s far more likely to refer to economic than education or communication elites.
The Conservapedia description of “liberal elite” refers to “those high-ranking members of society – politicians, college educators and celebrities – who regularly promote the liberal agenda to unsuspecting teenagers and young people. The Liberal Elite believe they are superior to others. Not in a physical sense but mentally, they have their high ground and nobody dare challenge. If you challenge the Liberal Elite thinking and beliefs, you risk being ridiculed.”
But how “elite” are they, really? What does it mean to call a college professor or this year’s celebrity “elite” but leave out the nation’s billionaires and top setters of public policy that govern the nation? It means the transformation of the word elite from a specific if fuzzy meaning to a simple target of anger.
It also marks, in a way, the difference between illusion and reality.
Years ago, I was editorial page editor of a daily newspaper in a small town. I had some visibility in the community (a regular column among other things) and some flexibility in what I could write. On a local level, by a conservative standard, I might even have been considered a part of the “elite,” and maybe some local (probably conservative) political people or others saw me that way. I certainly didn’t, and not only because I knew my modest pay and the limitations I worked under. It was also because I could look across the room and see the office of the publisher, whose approval was needed for running an editorial, and next to his the office of the man who actually owned the paper. Neither of them could have been described as “liberal” by any definition I know of, then or now. But if someone in that newspaper building properly should have been considered a part of the city’s “elite,” that person definitely was not working at my desk.