Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Populists vs. the elites

America is going through one of its periodic paroxysms of populism.

It’s a fundamental feature of the political and cultural landscape in a country founded on the principle “that all men are created equal.” We don’t like folks who set themselves above us, as a general thing.

The Tea Party has gone hard after the “elites” — by which they mean the inside-the-Beltway Washington insiders, academics, the media. They’ve been easier on the usual targets of left-wing or “progressive” populism: the financial elites, those that Theodore Roosevelt (a progressive but not a populist) pungently called “malefactors of great wealth.”

I have some sympathy with the disdain for the “elites.” I have fond memories of going toe-to-toe with Marxist academics in Santa Cruz and Berkeley, whose prattling about “the workers” only demonstrated that they didn’t actually know any — and wouldn’t have liked ’em if they did. They certainly wouldn’t have liked “the workers” at the glass company I worked for during the summers. Way too “bourgeois.”

I’ve also spent a little time waging guerrilla warfare against a literary establishment that looks down its nose at genre fiction that, in my estimation, offers more treasures than any navel-gazing exploration of the angst of the northeastern suburban intellectual soul.

There is a long tradition in Anglo-American culture of believing in the wisdom and virtue of “plain folks.” And it’s a valid tradition.

But it has a dark and dangerous side. It can too easily fall into a fetishization of ignorance. Rejection of expert opinion simply because it is expert opinion (and conflicts with our ideological biases) is foolish. The reflexive rejection of the “elite” is part of a psychology that allows us to settle for mediocrity in education and leads our culture to celebrate fame for its own sake above genuine accomplishment.

We demand that our presidential candidates be “the kinda guy I could have a beer with.” We’re less rigorous about attainments that demonstrate wisdom, intellectual acuity and real leadership capabilities. I don’t want political leaders who get elected because Joe Six Pack can relate to them. I want political leaders who are smarter, tougher and more capable than average folks.

Words are tricky things. “Elite” often means something good; “elitism” usually connotes snobbery. We need to separate the two in our thinking so that attacks on illegitimate high-hat snobbery don’t slide into exaltation of simple-mindedness.

When I hear “elite” I think of our most highly-trained and motivated warriors (I’m talkin’ to you, Greg). I think of the geniuses who push our technological capabilities forward in ways the rest of us can barely imagine. I think of artists who have dedicated themselves completely to the perfection of their skills and produce works of timeless value. I think of athletes who perform at a level the rest of us duffers can only dream about.

A genuine populism does not reject authentic elites — it celebrates the possibility that anyone with sufficient talent and drive can attain elite status in their chosen field.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Our country is in deep trouble. We have through our politics and media demonized expertise and accomplishment. You, Jim are even partially participating in this with your warfare against literary establishment. when we engage in Label and Demonize (which is what you just did) then we diminish ourselves.

    In the world where Wikipedia is our authoritative source and University Professors are not, it is not surprising that we rank 53rd in the world in math and science education.

    When you hear a politician/demagogue like Sarah Palin say that we just want "common sense solutions", you should know that the definiton of Common Sense is, "the desire that something be true despite objective evidence that it is not".

    What is the Common sense solution for the Israeli Palestinian problem, what is the common sense solution for Iranian Nuclear Weapons program.

    China just developed the worlds fastest computer... THE FIRST TIME THIS HAS EVER BEEN DONE OUTSIDE THE USA EVER!!! Why, because they not only have invested in infrastructure and reasearch, but because they have valued Expertise and Education.

    The real danger we face today is not from Terrorists, but ourselves. As the conservative right continues its generation long war against science, art and culture, we find our selves no longer the leaders in the world on almost anything except irrational beliefs and consumer spending.

    "Common sense" has sent us into a long decline that will end with a stratified society where there is a very wealthy investor class with 90% of the assets and an underemployed lower middle class which experiences a continuing declining standard of living due to the downward pressure of global wage competition.

  2. Jim,

    Yesterday, after much thought, I made my way into SE Portland and voted at the elections office. For the first time in years I expended more effort to vote than simply "licking and sticking" an envelope. It was a grand experience and a good reminder.

    A grand experience because all around me were "salt of the earth" Americans. Poor, working poor, semi-employed, unemployed, fully employed. There were the disabled, the re-enabled, the elderly and the young. The multi-cultural presence was wonderful and clear evidence that America does have a common bond among its citizens ... the freedom to choose its political leadership.

    A good reminder because I was taking my right and responsibility to vote for granted. In 1984, I was on the ground in El Salvador during the first truly democratic elections in that war-torn country. The far Right and the far Left were threatening and killing those who made their way to the polling places.

    Still, they voted.

    In 2003/2004, I was on the ground in Iraq. This time we were seeking to set the stage for democratic elections, the first such elections in Iraq since Saddam's nearly 45 years of rule. When elections came the far Right and the far Left threatened and murdered those who made their way to the polling places.

    And still they voted.

    With this in mind how could I justify not voting? I could not. So I drove my very comfortable truck a few miles into the city. The greatest threats to me were a light rain and finding a parking place. There were no guns, nor bombs, nor clubs, nor intimidation.

    I voted in peace and in privacy and in freedom.

    This is the beauty of America. The individual vote is the common leveler between all social and economic classes. Our votes change the course of our communities, our counties, our states, and the Nation.

    There is none among us more elite than the American Citizen who votes with Integrity, Good Intent, and Hope.

    In my experience, given a choice between bullets or ballots, I'll take the ballot each and every time in this country or any other.

    Greg Walker (Retired)
    United States Army Special Forces

  3. Well put, Jim.

    The other two commentators are also eloquent for their sides. In choosing between heeding a rant or a well-reasoned approach based on real experience (my definition of common sense), I'll take reason any day. Thank you Greg.