Thursday, November 27, 2008


The Republican party has made a practice of branding foes 'elitists' at least since the 2004 election when George W. Bush faced off against John Kerry. It's just one of Karl Rove's contributions to our political discourse. Now they're at it again. Surely everyone on the planet knows that Barack Obama is an elitist now, thanks the McCain campaign.

The problem with this label is that it tends to stick to a candidate, sullying his or her accomplishments, while nobody really examines the veracity of the charge. "Obama is an elitist" has become a truism to John McCain, Sarah Palin and the Republican party, but what does that even mean?

In order to assess whether someone is an elitist or not, it might be useful to examine what elite and elitism even refer to. Elites exist in every professional field in our society. From basketball, to medicine, to industry, to, yes, politics. Most of the time we don't actually object to the idea of an elite class of people.

When, for instance, was the last time you heard the NBA called elitist because they don't recruit any short, middle-aged women with average basketball ability? Sarah Palin, for instance. She has experience, having played basketball in a small town high school. And she didn't abort a Down's Syndrome baby. Surely the former fact would qualify her, while the latter fact would entitle her by moral superiority to play professional basketball. Okay, maybe not so much.

No, we're all perfectly happy to leave NBA careers to people who have amazing talent and great accomplishments in basketball. You know, the elite athletes who can compete at the highest levels of the sport. The NBA is likely to go on discriminating against short, middle-aged women for the foreseeable future. Does that make them elitist? Of course not.
It's meritocratic. People are promoted up the ranks because of their ability- demonstrated ability. Their talent and their accomplishments, which make them elite athletes, do not make them elitists. They don't stomp their feet and demand to be granted contracts because they deserve them based on being special. They earn their positions by merit, which is exactly the opposite of elitism.

One of the problems we have with the label 'elitist' in the United States is that a lot of the time we fail to understand social class, preferring to believe we live in a classless society. We'd like to think our society works meritocratically. The question arises then, why there are very few people of working class backgrounds at a school like Yale where admission is very competitive, while a person who is well connected or whose parents have made significant donations to the school, can get in without a particularly stellar background. That is elitist. It emphasizes who someone is over what that person has done. It emphasizes status over merit.

Elitists believe they're elite because of who they are, and are thus entitled to certain perks. When you enter into a real competition for something there is a tacit understanding that both competitors have an equal claim to the prize, but that the outcome will be decided by merit. Elitists don't compete because they aren't, in the words of Sarah Palin, "seeking your good opinion," or anyone else's. You aren't as important as they are, so why would they bother? They claim what they believe is rightfully theirs because they were born more deserving than you and they don't have to prove it.

Paul Fussell, who wrote the book "Class: A Guide Through the American Status System," points out that the really, really rich, the elitists whose money and family connections place them on par with royalty, don't ever "seek your good opinion." They don't dress to impress, for instance, or stoop to competion with the likes of the lower classes. There simply is no status symbol, or accomplishment that would express their importance. The absurdity of Rove politics, though, has led to the word "elitist" having come to mean intellectual, or educated. Not entitled. When intellect and education become faults, then what are we treating as strengths? Their opposites? The real elitists depend on it. 
A person who gets into the US Naval academy, not because of his achievements, but because both his father and grandfather are four star Admirals is a good example of an elitist. That person, of course, is John McCain, who lately has been calling Barack Obama an elitist.

McCain never had to bother with working all that hard, as most of our children would have to in order to get in. His surname stood in for accomplishment. McCain went on to graduate fifth from the bottom of his class, but was nevertheless made a pilot. He partied his way through pilot school, crashing a fighter jet into the Gulf of Mexico while still a trainee, but graduated anyway. Actually, McCain "lost" five Navy planes during his career. Lost, in this case, a euphemism for "crashed." But oddly, nobody thought to take away his wings. Well, the Vietnamese eventually did, since they presumably didn't care what a big-shot his father was.

Contrast that with Barack Obama. The so-called elitist. At the end of his first year at Harvard, he was selected as an editor of the law review based on grades and a writing competition. During his second year he became president of the law review, a full-time volunteer position functioning as editor-in-chief and supervising the law review's staff of 80 editors. He graduated JD magna cum laude. That's the sort of accomplishment that makes a person elite in our society. It doesn't make one an elitist.

Oh, there was Obama's statement about people clinging to guns and religion because they're disillusioned with government. As someone whose family spends holidays after the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner and some Sundays after church, target shooting in the woods, I'd say his statement was both sympathetic and accurate.

You don't really have to look at backgrounds to figure out who the elitists are, though. Not really. They're the people who, instead of talking about political issues in a presidential race, would rather stick to scurrilous personal attacks, like branding an opponent as an elitist over blackberry tea. The question is: since when is being highly intelligent, or having a superior education, or tremendous talent a detriment in someone invested with tremendous power?