On the nature of elitism

Democratic activist and Hillary Clinton supporter Lynn Forester de Rothschild looks at the charge of elitism as tossed around by both campaigns and tries to correct the impression that it concerns one’s background, at least as a political concept.  In her Wall Street Journal essay, Forester de Rothschild notes that the humble origins of Barack Obama does not mean he isn’t an elitist, and John McCain’s family of admirals does not make him one, either:

If Barack Obama loses the presidential election, it may well be the result of a public perception that he is detached and elitist — a politician whose expressions of empathy for hard-working Americans stem more from abstract solidarity than a real connection to the lives of millions of citizens.

Suggestions that Sen. Obama has failed to relate to working- and middle-class voters in swing states have dogged his campaign for months. His choice of Sen. Joseph Biden as his running mate only marginally corrects the problem.

While Obama supporters attempt to dismiss the charges about their candidate’s perceived hauteur, they confuse privilege and elitism. Elitism is a state of mind, a view of the world that cannot be measured simply by one’s net worth, position or number of houses. Throughout American history, there have been extremely wealthy figures who have devoted themselves to genuinely nonelitist principles. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt is probably the best-known example.) At the same time, many from modest backgrounds, like Harry Truman’s foil, Thomas Dewey, personified elitism.

Forester de Rothschild uses the Vero Possumus seal as evidence of Obama’s elitism and hauteur, but here she’s also confusing elitism with egotism — and, frankly, childishness.  She notes the Tiergarten campaign rally in Berlin and the Barackopolis at Invesco Field as further evidence of elitism, or at least the trappings of it, but again she mistakes unbridled ego and perhaps a bit of an inferiority complex for elitism again.  All of these send signals of elitism, but that isn’t what elitism in the political context means.

Elitism is a sense that the hoi polloi are simply incapable of governing themselves, let alone a nation, and that a small group of “experts” have to take control of everything they do.  That goes far beyond mere matters of state.  Elitists see people getting more obese and believe that government has to intervene to remove food choices from individuals, as one rather timely example, as in New York City.  They believe that removing personal choices will keep people from making bad decisions, because they — in all their wisdom — will make the right choices for them.

This describes perfectly the policy direction of the Democratic Party, and perhaps even a part of the Republican Party as well.  That’s why the charge of elitism sticks so well to Democratic candidates in national elections.  Their humble origins are immaterial to the concept of elitism.  Candidates who want to grow the federal government in order to increase its nanny-state power are by definition elitists, because they believe individuals cannot make choices for themselves.

For Obama, the trappings of his ego make this even more obvious than perhaps it should be.  He can’t understand why a man who makes his own presidential seals before being elected, gins up a rally of cheering Germans in an attempt to impress the yokels back home, and creates a Greek temple to his wisdom can be seen as elitist if he had to struggle in his early life.  I don’t think anyone doubts the struggles of his childhood, but part of the problem is that his struggles really aren’t all that exceptional.  He came from a broken home; probably half of all adults his age do now, or close to it.  He traveled the world, grew up in Hawaii, and got scholarships to Columbia and Harvard Law School.  That’s not that tough of a start in life.

Forest de Rothschild notes that McCain has at least one event in his life when he rejected his own privilege in favor of his nation.  He could have accepted the North Vietnamese offer of early release, based on his status as an admiral’s son.   At the risk of his life and certainly at the risk of more torture, he refused.  She believes that’s why McCain can make the elitist argument against Obama, and perhaps that’s true in terms of credibility.  However, the real reason it sticks is because Obama and his allies want to govern us as though we were idiots, and McCain and Palin appear more likely to treat us as adults.