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Populist leaders: Power to the people or elite world view?

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

‘Elite’ has become the ultimate political insult, but just look who is throwing it around. Is real scrutiny of the powerful being lost in the noise?

There was a time when the word ‘elite’ was used descriptively – and often positively – to designate a cadre of highly specialised, distinguished individuals.

That time has well and truly passed though. For we are now in an era when there are few more withering, or powerful, political insults than the e-word.

It was Michael Gove, who in many ways qualifies as a prominent, deserving member of the elite himself, who most clearly vocalised this change in attitudes, with his now notorious attack on those experts who were ‘consistently wrong’.

The remarks resonated not because they exposed a new dividing line in society – elites have always existed – but because of where that line was drawn, and by whom – and with the menace the comments conveyed. And so it is in the US.

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Yale University historian Beverly Gage chronicles how the term elite became one of the nastiest epithets in American politics. She notes the distinction between the generally positive adjective ‘elite’ and the derogatory noun which now applies to individuals, or groups of individuals. She underscores that the prevailing narrative is not about selection and excellence but rather influence. Elites are now an abstraction to describe – and insult – anyone in a position of influence with whose views you disagree.


Related content: 12 populist heroes who are absolutely not the elite


The word can be used so loosely that it is defined, ultimately, only by the person using it, to encompass just about anyone whose opinions differ from their own, even those with little seniority or individual influence: such as activists or journalists.

And just as the term can be applied to almost anyone, so anyone can use it. So we have the strange situation where the British Prime Minister and the US president elect can position themselves as ‘anti-elite’ and deploy rhetoric accordingly.

In Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, ‘elites’ are characterised as those responsible for selling the countries down the river with their support for the EU and lopsided trade deals that drive down the wages of the working class. It is the elites who are blamed for flooding the UK economy with cheap foreign labour, and in the process, opening us up to uncontrolled immigration.

It is a line of attack that has been used before. While historically, elites have benefited from their proximity to power, during several periods they have also been victimised on account of their privilege and perceived influence. Hitler, Stalin and Mao executed intellectuals, journalists, professional members of bourgeoisie as part of their political programmes. In the USA, McCarthy also persecuted high profile political and cultural figures, accused of left-wing sympathies.

The danger with the broad brush attack on elites that we are witnessing today is that membership or perceived membership of a group may, as in the past, encourage further scapegoating and persecution. It may seem like a leap, to suggest the victimisation of groups or individuals traditionally considered powerful. But the rise of anti-Semitic abuse online, often masquerading as criticism of globablisation, banking and financial institutions, show that it really is not.

What constitutes an elite, however, and the association between distinction, access and influence needs further clarification. It is a question that has intrigued social scientists for generations. From descriptions of Athenian and Spartan rule to Machiavellian treatises on power, the ways in which a selected minority exacts control over others has been a consistent theme of political inquiry.

Within elite theory, the relationship between the privileged and the powerful is introduced in the account of the ruling class and the governing elite given by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Italian thinkers Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca.

For Pareto, the elite are those individuals who have distinguished themselves by virtue of their intelligence, character, and ability. They represent the higher stratum and are the very top of the top class. He identifies the governing elite who have a role in government; the non-governing elite; and the political elite who exercise political power.

Mosca developed Pareto’s notion into the ruling class which, he argued, while protecting its interests by force, threat and ostracism, it is not static. Mosca in particular believed that competition would generate mobility between groups, giving rise to new elites as a result of ‘elite circulation’.

The above accounts contrast with the ways in which the elite are commonly described today. Many who call attention to today’s ‘elites’ draw upon the more fashionable writings of thinkers, such as the twentieth century French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, whether consciously or unconsciously. These writings bring together various forms of influence to describe how situations of structural privilege are created and, most importantly, reproduced. The rich, cultured and connected learn the ways of the rich, cultured, and connected. That is the nature of advantage.

The anti-establishment rhetoric in the UK, which targets Etonians, Oxbridge, and some notable clubs, illustrates a profound belief in the social reproduction of a class system which enables certain groups to remain power.

The evidence of growing disparity between the UK’s regions and reports from organisations such as the Sutton Trust sustains many of the above claims. British society is increasingly divided and unequal, and institutions like Eton will undoubtedly continue to open more doors than others.

Many elite institutions may claim that what they offer is not automatic and neither is admission to their clubs. For example, entrance to the civil service is controlled by demanding exams. The highest performing schools and universities are fiercely selective and generally take able students who will be pushed by exacting and well trained teachers. All of this is irrefutably true.

The point of contention for the anti-elitist argument is that those who benefit the most start from a position of opportunity. That’s why the reputational claims made by – and about – Trump and Nigel Farage are so ridiculous. Trump inherited his father’s millions; Farage used his Dulwich College pedigree to work in the City of London. They both enjoyed a remarkable head start.

A consistent trend among the anti-elitist, anti-establishment, leaders is their belief that they can speak for the ‘ordinary’, ‘decent’ people who in almost every respect are unlike themselves. Such rhetoric characterises their populist appeal.

By projecting the concerns of the working class and disenfranchised, silver spooned politicians are doubly exploiting the electorate through their use of scapegoats and false proximity to voters.

One additional problem with the anti-elitist chants we have heard is that they assimilate the ‘elite’ and ‘the Establishment’ into a world view which is deceptively populist. We are told that there is an anti-establishment fever sweeping the US, UK and continental Europe but the roots of it are contextually very different.

For example, Gage argues that the anti-elitism expressed in the Trump campaign has its origins in the founding of the USA where absolutism was rejected by the framers of the Declaration of Independence who wished to break from an abusive British king. She argues that one can detect a similar reflex from the establishment of Jacksonian democracy to the rejection of Southern slavery by the free North, to the attack on robber barons in the nineteenth century.

Continental Europe has also been marked by extremes not seen in countries like the UK. This fact is recorded in the writings of Pareto and Mosca who identify longstanding social hierarchies and internecine divisions where historically democracy was but one – eventually successful – outcome during an age of political uncertainty. By contrast, the UK enjoyed stable democratic governments and only two coalitions since the Second World War.

The nature of elite interaction is also different from one county to another, as is the make-up of ‘the establishment’ in each country.

In the United States, the Alt-Right condemns Ivy League educated professionals who dominate the banking, media, and technology sectors. It characterises the elite as being liberal and secular and removed from the mainstream. Yet conservatives and Christians are overwhelmingly represented at the highest levels of political office, in Congress and state government, as well as in the military. This is the other side of the American Establishment they do not wish to admit.

In the UK, much criticism of the establishment is levelled at elected politicians, the media, and Londoners. Entrenched interests that operate according to their own systems of membership, whether political parties, trade unions and civic associations, are spared such condemnation on the grounds that they did not hold the keys to economic, financial and political power. Yet, as we see with the latest industrial action over Southern Rail, these non-elite, non-traditional establishment voices, are far from powerless.

After two decades of political rhetoric around meritocracy and opportunity, there has been a volley of criticism of an unaccountable, highly networked collection of elite interests that form the ‘establishment’. But, as we see with Farage and Trump, even elites now spout anti-elitist arguments while simultaneously cultivating the establishment. If we allow them to define and dominate the debate, what hope is there for proper scrutiny and exploration of the issues?

In recent years, evidence of multinationals, celebrities, and politicians engaging in tax avoidance schemes, in addition to allegations that sectors have turned a blind eye to paedophiles and sex abusers, sustains the view that certain groups and individuals, mostly rich, are treated differently and appear to be above the law.

That is the point. In both the UK and USA, there is an overwhelming view that all should be held to account, whatever one’s claim to expertise, wealth, or power. It is not about specialisation or expertise but rather about fairness.

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