Elitism and the electorate

October 29, 2008

An article on the Guardian’s website poses the question: “How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?” The ensuing analysis centres on three main factors. First, the notion of intellectual elites being anti-Christian, which carries considerable clout in the very pious and conservative corners of the US. This hypothesis has roots in social-Darwinist thought prevalent amongst American elites in the nineteenth century, by which they would justify their status and/or wealth and encourage destitution amongst supposedly lesser people, because the laws of nature dictate that by a process of natural selection, the weak should be weeded out for the strong to prosper. Second, the de-centralised nature of education, especially in the southern states, essentially allowed anti-intellectuals to take control of what was taught so as to help maintain traditional social orders. Third, the tendency to equate intellectuals with supposed subversives, in particular communists, which given Americans’ particularly zealous patriotism and the backdrop of the Cold War, meant intellectual elites were for years tainted by the anti-American label.

It’s interesting to see some real thought go into explaining why Americans indeed do appear to be so polarised when it comes to the merits of intellectuals and progressive thinking.

Three points I’d add are:

1) Might perceived access to the elite play a role? Ironically, for a country that prides itself in the mantras of the American Dream and all its citizens being born equal, the intellectual elite is arguably more of a closed shop than it is in Europe, with access to the best universities not based solely on merit, as it largely is in Europe. The sense that one is kept out from an exclusive caste can’t but foster antagonism. I don’t know how much of a factor this is, as I can hardly claim to be an expert on US education, but it’s a thought.

2) Far more simplistic than any of the insightful arguments put forth in the article, but could the mere size of the US not be a factor? Communities and individuals are by nature less integrated if there’s a hundred miles between each town or village. Surely, alienation from that which appears so different is only amplified if you’re never actually exposed to it?

3) The author of the article alludes to Europeans being surprised by this phenomenon, but I’d not be too complacent. As discussed, the dumbing down of American politics is seen as a reaction to elitism, and anti-elitism is certainly prevalent in Europe. Sure, we still like our politicians to be able to string a sentence together – even Silvio Berlusconi, the court jester of European politics, was a brilliant student and cunning businessman before foraying into politics. Nonetheless, the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy did not attend the École nationale d’administration, like most prominent French politicians, was seen as beneficial to his campaign for president in 2007. And when I was at Oxford, I remember the immense efforts being made to attract students from state schools, a process which I believe has even intensified since. Despite that, the Laura Spence affair – the case of a girl from a state school who was not admitted to Oxford, much to the consternation of her headmaster – was allowed to capture national headlines in the UK, spearheaded by Gordon Brown.

Moral of the story? I’d argue that elitism really should not be seen as a bad thing. However, it must be seen to be based on the principle of meritocracy and be accessible to anyone who fits the bill, warts and all.

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One Response to “Elitism and the electorate”


  1. […] I wrote about the dumbing down of US politics recently, but it’s been great to see that Obama’s cerebral style has been welcomed […]


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