Has any concept more completely defined and disfigured public life over the last generation than so-called elitism? Ever since Richard Nixon’s speechwriters pitted a silent majority (later sometimes “the real America”) against the nattering nabobs of negativism (later “tenured radicals,” the “cultural elite,” and so on), American political, aesthetic, and intellectual experience can only be glimpsed through a thickening fog of culture war. And the fog, very often, has swirled around a single disreputable term.
The first thing to note is the migration of the word elite and its cognates away from politics proper and into culture. Today “the cultural elite” is almost a redundancy — the culture part is implied — while nobody talks anymore about what C. Wright Mills in 1956 called “the power elite.” Mills glanced at journalists and academics, but the main elements of the elite, in his sense, were not chatterers and scribblers but (as George W. Bush might have put it) deciders: generals, national politicians, corporate boards. “Insofar as national events are decided,” Mills wrote, “the power elite are those who decide them.” The pejorative connotations of “elite” have remained fairly stable across the decades. The word suggests a group of important individuals who have come by their roles through social position as much as merit; who place their own self-maintenance as an elite and the interests of the social class they represent above the interests and judgments of the population at large; and who look down on ordinary people as inferiors. Today, though, it’s the bearers of culture rather than the wielders of power who are taxed with elitism. If the term is applied to powerful people, this is strictly for cultural reasons, as the different reputations of the identically powerful Obama and Bush attest. No one would think to call a foul-mouthed four-star general an elitist, even though he commands an army, any more than the term would cover a private equity titan who hires Rod Stewart to serenade his 60th birthday party. Culture, not power, determines who attracts the epithet.
There are two opposed explanations for this situation. One would be that access to political, economic, and military power is today more meritocratic and open than access to filmmaking, humanistic academia, freelance writing, wine criticism, and so on. Do people no longer complain about the power elite because those with power are no longer elitist? Culture, in that case, would constitute a last vestige of unearned prestige in an otherwise democratically constituted society. The other explanation would be that it simply goes without saying these days that the materially consequential areas of life are lorded over by self-recruiting elites. You wouldn’t speak of a business elite, a governing elite, or a firepower elite because, now, that would be redundant. Complaints about cultural elitism would then be merely a sign that in the world of culture (unlike that of power) there is still an ongoing contest between elitism and equality that in all other realms has already been decided. By the deciders.