The word “elite” gets used a lot these days, and it was once pretty simple to determine its meaning—elite meant the very best in whatever category or classification one was evaluating. It was, without question, high praise to be dubbed elite in one’s field.
It’s still understood that way in many circles, perhaps most notably among athletes and armed forces personnel. We call the top NCAA basketball teams the “Elite Eight,” for example, and Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and the like are often described as “Elite Military Forces.” But in other arenas—society, politics, and even academia—“elite” has become as much an insult as a compliment.
For many people, the word “elite” immediately brings to mind not excellence born of hard work and dedication, but rather an image of snobs, milksops, toffs, and fops, in top hats and monocles, nodding (with an occasional scoff), while hobnobbing with moms of debutantes, after shopping, in a loft. With cocktails. It’s an image that would make anyone scream “Ahh!”
“Elites” are generally considered even more stuffy, useless, and worthy of disdain than “the elite.” If you’re ever in a dangerous situation and need help, you want your rescue team to be elite, but not composed of elites.
Elitism—the belief that individuals of a certain ancestry, wealth, intellect, or experience are deserving of greater influence than others—is often seen as contrary to the American Dream, more the purview of pre-World War I European powers, with their inherited titles and land. But it’s just as easy to argue that being rewarded for one’s efforts and abilities is an integral part of the American Dream. With “elite” slowly becoming a dirty word, it’s important to distinguish the “good” elite from the bad, or undeserving.
In politics, bad feelings toward the term “elite” seem to stem from the perception that elected and appointed officials, especially on a federal level, are detached and out of touch with the average person. It’s a valid criticism. Still, do we really want a country run by people who are the opposite of elite? That being, according to dictionary definition: ordinary; second-rate; inferior. If knowledge and competence become disqualifiers for public office, we’re all in a lot of trouble.
Our own president seems unsure of his feelings about the word “elite.” He’s dropped the word with dizzying frequency when describing his apartment buildings and golf courses, intending nothing less than the highest compliment. The word’s right there in the name of Trump Elite Partners, for example, a travel agency employing “Elite Agents” exclusively for Trump properties.
In some of his speeches, “the elite” are the rarified boogeymen of Washington politics, in others Trump tells his supporters that they (along with him) are the elite. Then, with his characteristic tendency toward superlatives, he graciously dubs them “the super-elite.”
“Out-of-touch” or “detached” work just fine as political pejoratives, but dismissing elite individuals because they carry better-than-average credentials seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t think many Americans would defend inherited power or plutocracy, but there’s an important distinction when it comes to people whose status as “elite” has been earned and who hold legitimate expertise on a given subject. Americans should aspire to be elite in whatever field or endeavor they pursue. In the increasingly used political sense, I would emphasize that the opposite of elite is not “honest,” nor is it “stupid.” One can be intelligent and educated outside of a university setting, and offer valuable insights regardless of wealth or intellectual ability. But willful ignorance is its own category, too often cast in a favorable light as down-home, homespun wisdom. It’s a vice that should be avoided, not glorified.
Some people might read this column and call it (or me) “elitist.” The term “elitist”—one who believes the elite should lead society—also has a negative connotation. Perhaps rightly so, depending on your definition of “lead.” But I believe the worst dangers of elitism are held in check by our Constitution and our (admittedly imperfect) voting system. In the meantime, the distinction between striving to be elite, versus striving to be an elite, is a subtle but important one.
If the elite get beat, we’re all dead meat.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.