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The Role of the ‘Elite’

Between the Lines

In just about every field, wanting to become elite is a noble goal. We also want to see elites in just about every field. We want to marvel at the feats of elite athletes. We want to entrust our lives to elite soldiers, elite pilots, and elite lawyers.

Yet in government, elites seem increasingly unwanted. President Donald Trump has come to power by waging a war against elites. Elite institutions like this one, which disproportionately produce the leaders in Washington, D.C., are now facing backlash for supposedly leading students to believe their own superiority and doing little else.

Resentment of elites in government is particularly counterintuitive because the stakes are higher in this field than in any other. For example, the world would not be too badly affected if all professional sports leagues were dissolved, or if the Olympics were restricted to true amateurs. But political leaders are literally our rulers. The policies that they champion affect everyday aspects of our lives, dictate broad societal features like economic mobility, and determine our country’s standing in the world. They bear responsibilities ranging from idealistic moral ones like serving the people to literal life-or-death situations.

One may not need an education at a so-called elite institution to gain the skills necessary for good governing. Even so, the average American would not be a good president. Furthermore, I imagine that the average American would not even want to be president, given the responsibilities and pressure. So why, when it is obvious that most of us could not do the job and that we should not entrust our government to just anyone, has “elite” become such a dirty word in politics?

A popular target for blame is the “liberal elite.” I understand that Democratic leaders have let down many Americans in recent years. They embraced multinational trade agreements and economic globalization but downplayed the negative side effects that devastated the working class. Then they bailed out big banks, which suggested to the public that they cared more about the finances of other elites than those of ordinary Americans. Now they disparage cultural values different than their own without acknowledging that not everyone has, or should have, the same values and American Dream as them.

But too often, the phrase “liberal elite” is used to encompass all the people who fall under the first adjective, instead of to focus on the fraction of people who also satisfy the second. There is nothing inherently elitist about being liberal. And surely the word “elite” loses meaning when it is applied to half the country.

Furthermore, there is a double standard when it comes to blaming elites. For all his talk, Trump is himself a member of the moneyed, corporate elite, and has filled his cabinet with similar figures—including two billionaires, twelve or more millionaires, and five Goldman Sachs alums. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this administration’s signature policies, the new tax plan and health care reform, are both predicted to hurt working- and middle-class Americans. Yet even though these elites surely do not care about the average American very much, they do not incur the same wrath from those who attack the “liberal elite.”

The real problem then does not lie within the “elite” as a concept, but with our inconsistent usage of the label. It is considered a plus for people whose success we admire, and an insult to those we don’t.

But based on its objective definition, we should want the “elite” to hold political power. We should even want them to be a little elitist. Unbridled elitism is insufferable, but success in politics requires a healthy dose of it. Since policies can be evaluated in so many ways, politicians cannot fully rely objective metrics to prove their worth. They must convince us through subjective means. To do so, they first must believe that they are superior and that they deserve more than anyone else to govern. But unlike in other fields where elites are determined through objective metrics, in politics we the people play more of a role in determining them. We should take this responsibility more seriously. Until we stop selectively using the word “elite” to disparage the people we don’t like and start holding everyone who vies for power to a higher standard, we will not produce the kinds of “elites” that deserve the label.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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