If there is one thing that many of those within the more polarized sections of the political left and right seem to agree on, it is that elitists are bad. Elitists don’t care about anyone, they just want to enrich themselves, they are stuck up, and they are a net negative for society. But is all this true? And are such characterizations of the elite correct? Is such a simplistic picture of the “elite” even empirically tenable?
Joel Stein, in his book In Defense of Elitism, makes a strong argument that there are in fact multiple kinds of elites; that intellectual elites are a necessity for a competently administered government, and that “boat elites” are the real problem.
The subtitle to In Defense of Elitism, “Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book,” hints at the tongue-in-cheek style in which the author will lean into stereotypes about elitists. Examples of these stereotypes were given by citing a campaign ad against 2003 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean referring to him as a “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading… body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.” They may as well have added classical music-enjoying, nonfiction book-reading, scientist-trusting intellectual elitist. In other words, they think being an intelligent cosmopolitan is a negative thing.
The book begins by chronicling Stein’s journey to Miami Texas in Roberts county, the most pro-Trump county in America—95% of the people in the county voted for Trump in 2016. He went to Miami to study the people his elite peer group all believed to be Jew-hating (Stein is ethnically Jewish), evil, and racist. What Joel Stein found was a group of likeable and exceedingly friendly people. Even though they continuously importuned him about the danger his soul was in (he is an atheist), occasionally let racist phrases slip that mortified him, and exhibited as many cognitive errors in their reasoning as you would expect from a Trump voter, the warmth with which he was treated couldn’t help but make him much more sympathetic to them.
He found that among the bad reasons they voted for Trump, at least some actually had some truth to them. The middle class has in fact stagnated to some degree, and many of the “elites” in power seem to care little. Stein concluded that even though their solution (Trump) was abysmally flawed, they did have at least a few understandable grievances.
Central to the author’s thesis is the difference between the “Boat Elite” and the “Intellectual Elite.” With this distinction, he asserts that the Boat Elite, not the Intellectual Elite, are the main problem. Indeed, a functioning modern country depends on the Intellectual Elite.
Stein cites Italian economist of the early 1900s Vilfredo Pareto because Pareto had made distinctions between elites. Pareto distinguished a type of elite that tended to be “speculators,” those who are innovative, cooperative, and clever (even shrewd). The other type of elite were “rentiers” (people who live on income from property). This type of elite is tough-minded, tribal, hardworking, and traditional. These elites also, as Stein said quoting Trump, tend to have boats and brag about how big and nice they are.
Trump himself seemed to refer to the “speculator type,” the intellectual elite, as regular elites, and his own type of elites, the tough-minded traditionalists, as the “super elite.” Since Trump is supposedly leading a revolution against the elites, it was strange that he would seemingly reverse on the topic and identify himself and his acolytes as also being elite. This demonstrated to Joel Stein that Trump, too, knew the distinction between these types of elites, and that this battle was not the people against the elites, but the shitty Trump Boat Elites exploiting the emotion and ignorance of the masses to overthrow the educated Intellectual Elites.
Intellectual elites include professionals such as doctors, physicists, biologists, economists, epidemiologists, etc. It also generally includes those such as artists, musicians, painters, actors, and such. Lastly, there are the technocrats and innovators such as those of Silicon Valley. Intellectual Elites have their flaws, like any people. They’re often overconfident, and they sometimes look down on the less educated. But intellectuals are the discoverers and innovators that make modern life possible.
Boat Elites are pathologically suspicious of intellectual elites; they think Intellectual Elites are shifty, conniving, stuck-up, emotionally frigid, and far less intelligent than the intellectuals believe (there may be a kernel of truth in some of these stereotypes, but little more than a kernel). Boat Elites believe that the cool logic and study of data which the intellectuals embody is no more reliable than the emotional gut-instinct which the Boat Elites pride themselves in.
In Joel Stein’s book he identifies a good amount of overlap between Boat Elites populism. Boat Elites are generally right-wingers, but populists can be left just as often as right. Intellectual Elites are generally moderates of the political left and right (knowledge of nuance seems to make extremism less intellectually tenable).
Populists are people who capitalize on the indignation of a large population of non-elites against elites. Bernie Sanders is a populist, and this may explain why many of his most zealous followers hate intellectuals like Andrew Yang despite Yang also being on the political left. This isn’t to say Sanders is a terrible person; Sanders would be worlds more preferable than Trump. But Trump and Sanders are both populists, and it’s hard (if not impossible) to be a populist without demagoguery and selling the people snake-oil easy solutions to complex problems.
To get a better sense of populism, Stein interviewed several Trump-voting Intellectual Elite-hating populists like Tucker Carlson and Scott Adams.
Carlson is a mouth-frothing Fox News pundit, and he believes Intellectual Elites are bad because they are too cosmopolitan and insufficiently nationalist, and thus, too untethered to the United States to really care about it.
Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, and he believes that Intellectual Elites’ expertise is useless and that the gut instinct of people like Trump is superior. He supports this belief with what Stein coined the “Meteorologist Fallacy ™” (Stein being intentionally pretentious with the unregistered trademark symbol). The Meteorologist Fallacy is basically another way to refer to confirmation bias, or counting the hits and none of the misses. Adams chooses to focus on all the times intellectuals were wrong, but ignore the many more times they were right.
The author ends the book by talking about competing philosophies different Intellectual Elites have chosen to address anti-intellectual populists with.
The first two are fight or change. Change involves the Intellectual Elite studying the grievances of the non-elite populists and trying to find common ground. Fight involves simply shouting at them and calling them racists. Stein laments that most of his liberal friends seem to have chosen the fight option. Examples being the restaurant that kicked out Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Ted Cruz being protested at a restaurant until he left, and people showing up to Tucker Carlson’s house chanting “Tucker Carlson, we will fight! We know where you sleep at night.”
Like me, Joel Stein does not believe in punching Nazis (in the modern sense of punching people who are little more than watered down cowardly versions of actual Nazis). In general, we both seem to be repulsed by violence and venomous hatred whether it comes from the political left or right. We both prefer Michelle Obama’s supplication to go high when they go low.
In addition to fight or change there is disengage, as advocated by lifelong Conservative and former Republican Tom Nichols. Disengage entails turning your nose up at ignorant people and not giving them the time of day. It means letting populists cause a massive recession and hoping they come crawling back to the Intellectual Elite when they realize they need them after all.
Nichols believes the biggest failure of the elites was listening to the masses in the first place. This position is elaborated on by some stinging (and true in my opinion) Tom Nichols quotes:
When I gave talks around the county people would say, ‘We have to do something because Washington doesn’t listen to us.’ I would get really mad and say, ‘Washington listens to you too much. It gives you what you keep asking for. And the problem is what you’re asking for is internally contradictory and changes every few years. Do you want a national healthcare system or expanded Medicare?’ Your answer; ‘We want both and lower taxes.’ No one in Washington says, ‘You can’t have that.’ They say, ‘Yes sir! We’ll go and do it.’
On Trump voters he said the following:
It’s not that I disagree about policy with Trump supporters. It’s that I know they don’t give a shit about policy… Most of them are only interested in Trump as a vehicle of social disruption. Trump’s smarter enablers see him as an equalizer, a way to put them on an equal footing with ‘elites’—oh, that word—who they think look down on them. Thing is, the elites *do* look down on them. For good reason. Most of Trump’s sycophants are second raters, at best. For them, Trump is their shot… This is their one chance to grab the car keys and throw a kegger before Mom and Dad get back home.
Additionally, the same points I’ve made a hundred times myself were also pointed out. That people complain about the sensationalization of the news, and the selling out of the History and Discovery channels. But in reality, the masses refuse to watch anything that is educational or not sensationalized. Thus, the news and “mainstream media” would go out of business if they stuck to their founding principles, and it is the fault of the people complaining that it is like this.
As much as what Nichols says is 100% true with his criticism, I disagree that completely disengaging is the best response. There is no guarantee that the populists will come groveling back after they’ve ruined everything. It’s more likely they’ll find scapegoat after scapegoat to blame and continue to ruin the system and make everyone more and more miserable.
To be sure, though, many people seem to be beyond help and any discussion would only serve to sully the intellectual deigning to speak to them. I would definitely turn my nose up at such people.
But in general, a combination of fight and change seems better. Fight when necessary, but humble yourself as much as possible and accept valid grievances where they are genuine. Most Trump voters are not evil people, they are misguided people. Brutally criticize the Nazis, critique the less insane populists while trying to lead them to the light, and don’t blind yourself with tribalism. This seems like a more effective course of action to me.