Anti-elitism has become a conventional explanation for what is motivating the electorate in 2016 .
Let’s think about that.
An online dictionary defines “elite” as “something prestigious or the best of the best. An example of elite is an Olympic athlete. Another definition is “The group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.”
The use of Olympic athletes as an example is particularly ironic; right now, millions of Americans are glued to televised Olympic competitions, and I’d bet a considerable amount of money that none of them is rooting for our teams to demonstrate less “elitism.”
In fact, I think there are two pervasive–and very different– American attitudes that get lumped–improperly– into the “anti-elitist” category.
Americans are increasingly critical of the misuse of money and power to the detriment of democratic processes that might otherwise ameliorate or solve our social problems. This attitude powered Bernie Sanders’ campaign; it explains the large following that Elizabeth Warren has amassed. It is not anti-elite, however; it is anti-corporatist, anti-oligarchy. It offers a critique of the current power structure that is likely to grow and eventually trigger policy changes that will improve the life prospects for poor and middle-class Americans.
The second attitude that is routinely lumped into the anti-elitist narrative is anti-intellectualism–an attitude that has long been America’s Achilles heel. Suspicion of “pointy-headed” intellectuals has ebbed and flowed through our country’s history; that attitude is responsible for a widespread rejection of science, the arts, and the humanities, among other negative consequences.
There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science have been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”…
Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”
When a society elevates anger over understanding, shows contempt for knowledge, dismisses the importance of competence, and prefers entertainment to substantive discussion, we wind up with political candidates like Donald Trump–and a government that no longer functions in the public interest.