In Defense of (some) Elitism

Why democracy depends on fact, logic, and education

Populists of both the right and left wings of US politics have been apparently unified in one thing: their condemnation of “elites”. While they agree on little else, both Trumpists and Sanders supporters have located the critical flaw in American politics as the undue influence of “elites” in our political, cultural, and economic lives. And while they are not wrong, there is an essential ambiguity in the term “elites” that has badly confused the conversation and which masks an important distinction in the way the two sides use the term. For this reason, it’s important that we disambiguate the term and begin to clarify what each side is actually implying by their respective condemnation of “elites”. While neither side is blameless, unpacking the claims of each side will show that only one has a credible ethical claim. The other, in fact, is merely anti-intellectualism masquerading as a principled political stance.

The Economic Anti-Elitism of the Left

The left and progressively-minded liberals have a long tradition of critiquing the economically and politically powerful. Although the phrase lacked (at the time) the universal appeal it eventually acquired, the Declaration of Independence claimed that “all men are created equal.” In the context of the political and social hierarchies of the 18th century, such a declaration was, indeed, radical. At the time, “men” meant white, land-owning males, but most Americans have since come to believe that there was a wisdom in that statement that was ahead of its time. Over the last 240 years, the US has attempted to make that statement mean what we now understand it to mean, that no one should be disadvantaged under the law by virtue of their race, class, sex, or any of the other characteristics that are not ethically relevant.

Intellectual history first began to take differences in class and political power seriously in the 19th century. Liberals and progressives placed social class at the center of the emergent, yawning economic inequalities. First in Europe as the industrial revolution began to exacerbate long-standing class stratification, then in the U.S., as the differences in scale of the agrarian economy became differences in kind under American laissez-faire capitalism, the problem of economic elites was laid bare. Marx, whose criticism of capitalism was far more accurate than his pseudo-Hegelian prescriptions, understood that the different classes have different interests; what is good for the textile factory owner is probably not good for the workers. In fact, Marx and other critics of unbridled capitalism correctly saw that the power imbalance between large companies and the individual workers was a magnification of the feudal hierarchies that had existed since the Dark Ages.

It against economic elites that we find the progressives and the left of today being most effective: arguing against the 50-year project among conservatives to dismantle the social safety net that was intended to mitigate the worst of the excesses of capitalism. Even more, writers like Anand Giridharadas (Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World), Chris Hayes (Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy), and Robert A.G. Monks (Corporate Governance) have argued the underlying ideology of American life has come to deify the rich and blame the poor and eroding middle class for their own decreasing quality of life. There has always been a puritanical assumption in America (which Europeans generally don’t share) that the rich deserve their wealth and the poor, well, they must lack the character, intelligence, or hard-working ethos of the wealthy. When the CEO made six or eight or even ten times as much as the average worker, this was an idea that existed had some credibility. As inequality has grown, however, and the average CEO now makes 278 times that of the average worker, it has become obvious that something beyond hard work is at play. Behavioral economists (Dan Ariely, et al) have furthermore proven the degree to which luck, race, and social class are far more determinative of wealth than intelligence, hard work, or character.

So when people on the left are critical of “elites”, they are generally talking about the economic top 1–2% and the twin myths that those who own the vast majority of wealth “deserve” their wealth. Consequently, the rampant social ills in the U.S. (falling lifespans, the opioid/addiction epidemic, rising suicide rates among the working class, poor health among the poorest of Americans) are the result of character flaws in the middle and working classes. The elites who run the companies that extract wealth from our workers, having decreased union membership under disingenuous “right to work” laws. They slavishly perpetuate the myth of “shareholder value,” to justify paying people as little as they can and lobbying the government to roll back worker and community protections. These are the “elites” that progressives are arguing should be held to account; they should pay their fair share for their increasing share of the economic pie and to keep our country a healthy and equitable place to live.

It’s true that some on the left go too far in their condemnation of the “elites”. Noam Chomsky and many true Marxists go beyond criticizing the ethos of the elites to constructing a conspiracy wherein that ethos is replicated by every television show, every news medium, and every commentator who doesn’t call for a workers’ revolution. These folks are pretty easy to spot: because of their Manichean view of the world (since you’re either with them or against them) anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is an “enemy of the people” who will not get their vote, regardless of the consequences. The other moral secret of many on the far left is that they would prefer another four years of Trump in order hasten the revolution, and they believe that those who merely want to prevent a headlong descent into autocracy by voting for Biden are just victims of “false consciousness”. The left is generally correct in its focus on relieving the economic elite of its undemocratic power in both economic and political spheres, but all movements have their nutters.

The Cultural Anti-Elitism of the Populist Right

The populist right (and their thought leaders at Fox News) seem to let the economic elites, who are responsible for hollowing out of the middle class and most of the social ills that we’ve seen infect the “Red States”, off the hook entirely. Instead, their ire is focused on cultural elites. This is a more complicated position than it first appears. For a long time, I felt that cultural anti-elitism was merely a thinly disguised proxy for anti-intellectualism and racism. When the American media were wringing their hands over the economic disenfranchisement that they imagined caused the rust belt to vote for Trump, I wrote at the time that “they are right to be mad, but they are mad at the wrong people; these are just guys who want to be able to use the n-word and not be lectured about it.” It turns out I was only partly right about that. There are actually two different strains of anti-elitism on the populist right and the left is partly to blame for giving the right ammunition to feed one of those strains. The problem is that the right uses the overzealousness of some on the left as a blanket justification for its entire anti-intellectual agenda.

The first kind of cultural anti-elitism is aimed at higher education. It’s important to point out that there is a difference between the anti-intellectualism of the Republican establishment and its populist manifestation among the rank and file. The leaders of the Republican party know that the critical thinking and logical skills that are often acquired in college make it harder for them to make baseless claims about the economy and government (like advocating for supply-side economics and the blanket condemnation of any government program as “socialism”). There has been a concerted effort among the Republican establishment to instill a distrust of universities and of educated people in order to keep a segment of the population vulnerable to the jingoism, the hyperbolic patriotism, and the lazy magical thinking that often passes for policy on the right. The right knows an educated citizenry will be less likely to fall for propaganda and falsehoods. Instead, the educated “elites” have been demonized as unamerican, anti-Christian, and as communists-in-academic-gowns.

While it’s true that there is a strong correlation between a college education and moving to the left politically, it’s also true that the left hasn’t helped itself by making itself an easy target for criticism. Even when I was in graduate school in the early 90s, the critiques of “political correctness” and “thought policing” were not without substance. The 2010s have seen an acceleration of the impulse toward silencing political heterodoxy and “de-platforming” people with right-wing views. The thought-policing mob on left-wing twitter, “cancel culture”, and the idea of the entire university as a “safe space” for oppressed people, have made higher education an easy target of the Fox News talking heads. Tucker Carlson (ironically) has made particular hay out of the excesses of a few individuals on the left to discredit the entire project of higher education. And the left has walked right into the trap.

On the other hand, this debate is substantially disingenuous. The degree to which the average blue-collar worker’s life is in any way affected by the PC policing on college campuses is negligible. Beyond being told by her or his kids not use racial or other bigoted language when they are home on summer break (which I’m sure rankles, but hey — do you really want to base your political views on the fact you’d really like to be able to use the “N-word” at the dinner table?), the vast majority of those who claim to be voting against the “fascist left” have never actually come in contact with it. But the Fox News/Brietbart/OAN media outlets have created a credible-seeming threat to “freedom of thought” out of a few lefty professors and their admittedly overboard students.

From that partially-credible critique, the populist right springboards to a broader critique of a different kind of cultural elites, the “coastal cultural elites”. Having established that this is part of a university-led assault on “American values” of freedom of thought and speech, they extend this a belief in a broad conspiracy to undermine religious freedom, “traditional values,” and “freedom” in general by people who live in cosmopolitan centers on the coasts. It manifests itself, they believe, in over-representing minority racial, sexual, and gender-identities in media and forcibly restructuring the country, the society, and the family. More importantly, however, it has sought to justify a kind of anti-intellectualism which is, at root, destroying America’s political and civil discourse more than any other trend. It’s a short road from believing that Universities are primarily left-wing institutions of indoctrination to rejecting all critical thinking, all logic, all science in favor of the right-wing troll-culture that rejects the established ways of proving the truth.

Without Truth, Political Discourse Is Reduced to Power

When the founders of the American republic enshrined freedom among its primary values, it did so in the very particular intellectual context of the enlightenment. They felt, in broad strokes, that democracy was the best form of government for a number of reasons. Primary among them was the enlightenment belief that once people saw the superiority of rational discussion and the scientific method, they would be less vulnerable to demagoguery and mass hysteria. While we can argue about the degree to which people are still given to such breakdowns, it is true that democracy is impossible without an agreement on rationality and the importance of facts. In the past forty years, the right has undergone a transition from Burkean conservatism, which shared a set of goals with the left (better life for everyone) but disagreed on policies, to a nihilistic, almost Nietzschean ideology in which power is its own goal and its own justification. It is this change that has disturbed the balance of power in the US and has the country heading down the path of third-world authoritarianism.

For a time in US history, there was general agreement between right and left that, while they got things wrong occasionally (sometimes catastrophically), the journalistic ethics of mainstream journalism were sufficient to correct for intentional bias. While the left criticized the mainstream media for being insufficiently critical of the status quo and the right felt that the media were culturally too liberal, in general both the public and our political institutions agreed that the media were in the business of holding politicians accountable to the truth.

Starting with the Gingrich revolution, the right has destroyed the ability to have fact and reason-based conversations about politics. Beginning as far back as the 1990s (and seeing its first expression in the 2000 election), there has been a concerted effort to create an alternate media ecosystem where conservatives of any stripe could find support for their ideas. As the right-wing media sphere has expanded, and with people on the right lacking the critical thinking skills, we have moved away from being able to have good-faith arguments. Fox News “Entertainment” stars have perfected sophistic arguments that seem compelling to people who don’t recognize the informal logical fallacies they are built on. Add to that that the distrust of the educated “elites” who will point out the fallacies in their thinking, and we have come to a place the founding fathers couldn’t have anticipated: one where democracy is actually impossible because we have one set of citizens who have given up reason and cherry-pick their own facts and another set of citizens who (however imperfectly) aspire to be led by the facts, science, and use reason in their determination of their beliefs.

Once you’ve given up on facts and reason as the normative guides, all that really matters is power. If you have power, you can use it and if you don’t, you can’t. Power becomes its own justification. We’ve seen that in large ways, such as the hypocritical ways in which the Senate Majority Leader has stopped even arguing that he’s right, only that he’s got the power and he will use his power as he sees fit. We also see it in small ways, like the growth of troll culture online and the retort “Well, he’s still your President! Deal with it!” as if that was in any way a substantive argument.

The Only Way To Save Democracy Is the Rejection of Anti-Intellectualism and the Politics of Power

So where do we go from here? It’s not clear there is any way out. Germany found itself in a similar place during the ascent of the Nazi party, where intellectuals were villainized in favor of the “Folk”. There have been entire books written about the history of anti-intellectualism in America and how it has been with us since before the Revolution. So I don’t really have a path out of it, beyond forcefully advocating for the educational and cultural elite. There really is a difference between a good argument and a bad one. There really is a difference between actual facts and “alternative facts.” We can’t allow Trump and his minions to destroy civil discourse, once of the bedrock principles that democracy is predicated on. Unless we call out each and every lie, point out every fallacy and push back against this demonization of the educated, we will lose our republic. If you can’t have a discussion about politics, the only thing left is power. And down that way, the destruction of democracy lies.