Jul 1 2008

Sidebar: An ‘Elitist’ by Any Other Name

[Note: This is a sidebar to “Obama the Snob?: Hanging the ‘elitist’ label on another Democratic candidate“]

It’s “not always easy to say exactly who, or what, constitutes the elite,” pointed out New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller (5/25/08). But it’s not that hard to see what message is being sent by those who level the charge against certain politicians. As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi put it (4/18/08), “Other than being called a criminal, a philanderer or a terrorist sympathizer, is there an accusation in American politics worse than being branded an ‘elitist’? The word supposes something fundamentally effete and out of touch, a whiff of brie and latte.”

It wasn’t always this way. UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg explained on NPR’s Fresh Air (4/25/08) that “elite” once had essentially two meanings: on the one hand, “a la-di-da word for the upper crust,” the fancy-pantsers chronicled on the society pages, and on the other, a sociological description of the class that wields real economic and political power—say, the heads of corporations or government.

Over time, though, the term’s meanings have been merged in a politicized manner, so that people in powerful positions—starting with vice presidents Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle—can accuse other people of being elitists, often with the adjective “liberal” tacked before it. As an example of this self-serving redefinition, Nunberg cited right-wing author Laura Ingraham (Shut Up and Sing), who defines elite Americans “not so much by class or wealth or position as . . . by a general outlook”:

Their core belief is that they are superior to We the People. They think we’re stupid. They think where we live is stupid. They think our SUVs are stupid. They think our guns are stupid.

Author Tom Frank, whose book What’s the Matter with Kansas? was sometimes credited (or blamed) as a possible inspiration for Obama’s “bitter” remarks, pointed out (Wall Street Journal, 4/21/08) that Obama’s critics were accusing him of “a crime of attitude.”

Discarding the original meaning of “elite” provides an awkward reality where the moneyed elite are not “elitists.” As the Post’s Farhi pointed out:

Donald Trump has money, but few think “elitist” when thinking of Trump. Elitism is instead an attitude, a demeanor, a vocabulary, a self-possessed air. It suggests condescension and contempt, a lack of empathy, an arrogant aloofness.

Farhi noted that George W. Bush, the wealthy son of a president and the grandson of a senator, has managed to avoid the label, despite his obviously privileged pedigree. The Times’ Bumiller, meanwhile, concluded (5/25/08) that while Obama, McCain and Hillary Clinton would all seem to be elites of some sort, despite all three “sprinting away from the elitist label,” McCain’s “third-generation Annapolis lineage makes him perhaps the most elite of the three candidates and [he] is married to a woman whose money financed his political career.”

With “elitism” so radically redefined, it would seem that actual elites like Bush and McCain needn’t worry much about being called what they are.