The Co-Opting of the Word Elite by the Real Elites
Trump Win Should Send Elites Back to the Drawing Board Thomas Sowell, Nov 14, 2016, Toronto Sun
Reckoning With a Trump Presidency and the Elite Democrats Who Helped Deliver It Betsy Reed, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Nov 12, 2016, The Intercept
The Hubris of Democratic Elites, Clinton Campaign Gave Us President Trump Kenin Gosztola, Nov 9, 2016, Shadowproof
These are but three of the countless headlines we saw days after the American election asserting that the left-wing “elites” were responsible for the election of Donald Trump. But hold on folks. Surely billionaire Donald Trump who was born into a rich family is also an elite? And of course, notwithstanding that Trump’s wealth is far greater and far less transparent than that of the Clintons, this didn’t prevent him from constantly assailing Hillary Clinton as an elite on social media. But, don’t get smug and imagine that the same selective elite-bashing isn’t going on in Canada. In November, Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch sent an email that congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory, praised his anti-establishment message and declared “the elites are out of touch.” Leitch and her advisors have made “elite” the mantra of their campaign. They have criticized Lisa Raitt for supporting “the left-wing media elite” and called Andrew Scheer an “out-of-touch elite” for launching his leadership campaign at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. Incidentally, MD Leitch, who grew up in an affluent family in Winnipeg made these comments while promoting a $500-a-person fundraiser organized by lawyers.
So given most people’s previous understanding of the word, how did “elite” take on this connotation to refer to people on the left of the political spectrum? Dictionaries are not of much help here. The OED defines “elite” as the “choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of person” and has its first citation for this definition in the 19th century. Actually, it does show an earlier meaning in the 15th century but with a very narrow sense as “a person chosen, spec., a bishop elect.” The Encarta World English Dictionary gets closer to the implied sense in the headlines quoted above. It defines “elite” as “a small group of people, within a larger group who have more power, social standing, wealth, or talent than the rest of the group.” But even this doesn’t explain why the term is used nowadays almost exclusively to refer to the liberal left. If the classic connotation is of people by virtue of birth being able to achieve status at the expense of others, surely the word applies more to the Trumps and Leitches of the cosmos.
The explanation lies in political theory where the term “liberal elite” has been used since the 1960s to describe politically left-leaning people, whose education had traditionally opened the doors to affluence and power and to thus to dominating managerial positions. In fact, if you check the site Google Ngram Viewer which charts the frequency of words and expressions from the years 1500 to 2008, you will find that the expressions “liberal elite” and “Democratic elites” enjoyed huge spikes in usage starting in 1990. An underlying premise of this theory is the belief that the people who claim to support the rights of working men and women are themselves members of the ruling class and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect. It’s possible that many people supported Trump because they were put off by what they saw as the smugness of some people in the Democratic Party and by the left-leaning media. Exemplifying this was political commentator Bill Maher’s suggestion that people who intended to vote for Trump suffered from congenital defects. Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s comment during the campaign that half of Trump supporters were “deplorables” caused her great political harm. Claiming that you are somehow superior to others in any aspect of your life is a no-no in our post-modern, post-truth world. Therefore, right-wing talking heads use the designation” “elite” as a polemical tool to declaim positions associated with the left as varied as environmentalism, secularism, feminism, sexuality, immigration, and multiculturalism.
Ironically, because “regular” Americans were angry at the elites represented by the Democratic Party and the media, they nevertheless elected one of the richest and most elitist people in the United States. These “regular people” disdained the Democrat Party notwithstanding the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama had among other advantages brought them the Affordable Care Act, a form of health care previously only afforded to the elites, now available to over 20 million hard-up Americans.
Only time will tell if “elite” to refer to so-called ivory tower groups with certain political leanings is more appropriate than “elite” used to designate the resident of the Fifth Avenue, pseudo-Versailles Trump Tower.
Richler’s latest book is Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit