Unlike the days of debates about lipstick comments and flag pins, the past week has been dominated by major issues. The House bailout bill, which we were told early and often was sure to pass, suffered a bipartisan defeat. A spate of stories and polls claimed to show that if Sen. Obama loses, it will be because of racism, particularly on the part of many Democrats. An interview of Gov. Palin by Katie Couric led several pundits to suggest Palin should withdraw from the ticket. Disparate as they are, these events are not unrelated, but rather are all emanations of the great underlying current of this election.
Sen. Obama, when he was a relatively unknown underdog, captured the idea that he was the embodiment of change. But with time, as the public heard his comments about bitter clingers, and learned of his affiliations with leftists who damn America, that change came to seem politically too radical and culturally too conformist.
Enter Gov. Sarah Palin. Sen. Obama attacked her because he knew she threatened his claim to own “change” writ large. But his critique of her was nothing compared to the long knives that came out from those who felt truly insulted and threatened: the self-imagined elites.
In the old definition, elites had intellectual merit, the wisdom gained from thought, learning, and reflection. They were different, and knew they were different. But like Aristotle, who valued common opinion even if it needed refining, they saw their fellow citizens as having reasonable intelligence and the capacity for judgment. William F. Buckley knew as much or more than most of his elite contemporaries, but for sound judgment he famously said he’d prefer the first names in the Boston phone book over Harvard’s faculty.
Today elitism has other connotations. First is the idea that the intellectual, the expert, can understand things the ordinary Joe can’t. As Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College entoned, common opinion is precisely what the new elites believe they need to overcome, along the way to imposing their superior vision.
The second understanding of elitism is cultural – a state of social belonging, or exclusion, based largely on similar educational, professional, or other demographic characteristics. Elites sneer at the same thing, if only to prove to each other that they are not one of them.