The Elite Diner in Urbana, Illinois just before it closed down (via Flickr)
Some readers might have noticed that I occasionally add sidenotes to Missing Link querying why elitism seems to be such a dirty word for Australians (and probably Americans as well). I haven’t to date received a satisfactory answer, or any answer at all for that matter. Maybe it’s a silly question.
However I suspect that most people don’t in reality have too much difficulty with a bit of tastefully restrained elitism, as long as it doesn’t expand into hubristic conviction of the elite’s own omniscience.
For present purposes I’m fairly happy with the dictionary definition of elitism as the belief that “people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, … specialized training or experience … are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern .”
I’m usually though not always or necessarily happy to defer to experts in their area of expertise, and I certainly think it’s a better idea to elect politicians with skills, abilities and wisdom than ones who lack those qualities.
So why is “elitism” a dirty word? Eric Posner advanced an answer in a post I linked in this morning’s ML:
In America, you can’t claim to be a member of the eliteeven the “good,” public-spirited elitewithout instantly losing all credibility, even though it is as plain as day that there is a tiny elite class that calls the shots within the very broad constraints imposed by the system of popular elections. (A zillion years ago this problem was debated by John Dewey and Walter Lippman.) Everyone wants to belong to that class, but no one wants to admit it, for it is a class that one can join only by denying that one belongs to it. It is this strange little fiction that keeps our democracy from falling apart. Rule by the people really means a kind of civility on the part of the elites.
I think that’s certainly part of the answer anyway. Most people have neither the time nor inclination to participate in or inform themselves about political issues, as American sociologist Michael Schudson recognised. Australians in particular are perfectly happy to cede the tedious tasks of government to their elected representatives, while reserving the right to grumble and automatically assume that most of them are power-hungry crooks. The perfect politician is a little like a political version of the old George Burns quote about actors: “The most important thing in acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Only with politicians you substitute “humility” or “the common touch” for “honesty”, because no-one wants to believe that politicians are honest.
Politicians who can best fake humility (not being “up themselves”) and readiness to listen to the people are usually the most successful. John Howard and Bob Hawke had that ability whereas Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock and Paul Keating mostly lacked it. Kevin Rudd managed it with his nerdy little bloke demeanour and faux self-deprecating appearances with Kochie and Mel on Sunrise in the election runup. Whether he can (continue to) successfully fake the common touch/humility in office remains to be seen, although I fancy he’ll manage it pretty well. Howard certainly faked it effectively for a decade until he palpably stopped listening on WorkChoices.