End Elitism Now!

This isn’t just about politics—really. This has something to do with science.

You see, one of the memes of this campaign is “elitism” (whatever that means). The appeal of Sarah Palin, we are told, is her “everyday-ness”—she’s just a regular gal, not like those elitist politicians in Washington (which presumably includes her running-mate).

Sarah Palin is not a “regular gal”. She come from an earthy rural background, but she is clearly intelligent, politically astute, and competent, having ascended to the governorship of one of our states while at the same time raising a large family. This woman isn’t ordinary—she is extraordinary.

Barak Obama also rose from small circumstances, a peripatetic mixed-race child who used his intelligence to become a scholar, and evenually senator.

John McCain was just a pilot—not a political “insider”.

You get the idea.

But back up for a second. John McCain was a pilot…a fighter pilot…member of an elite force of strong, brave, intelligent (at the time) men. The best of the best. And that’s a good thing. When I think about the folks we have flying missions all over the world, I’m hoping they are the elite, the best of the best. Not just anyone can fly an F-18. And not just anyone can be president.

If you’re planning on being one of the two or three most powerful people in the world, it’s not good enough that you’re “a regular gal”, even an extraordinary regular gal. You better be the best of the best, intelligent, competent, tireless.

Professions require an elitism of sorts. You may want a doctor who understands you, but you don’t want one who is ordinary. You don’t want a jet pilot who is merely competent. And you don’t want a president who is just like everyone else. I want a president who was an elite pilot, an elite constitutional scholar, a long-standing senator. I don’t want an everyman or everywoman.

Our president should be elite—not removed, not distant, but the best of the best. Three of the four candidates for president/vice president are elite enough. One is merely extraordinary.


  1. #1 Dr. Kate
    September 22, 2008

    It seems that the McCain-Palin camp wants to use “elite” as a synonym for “out of touch.” (The ironies and utter ridiculousness of this position have been thoroughly canvassed elsewhere…but that makes them no less valid.) I agree completely that I don’t want an everyday schmo as president (or vice president, or senator, or even governor or mayor). I want someone intelligent, rational, and forward-thinking. But I also certainly want someone who is “in touch” with the needs and problems of the average everyday schmo, because, let’s face it, that’s who elected officials work for. I want someone who is smarter than me–but someone who also can understand where I’m coming from.

    Elite is fine. Out of touch is not.

  2. #2 Ren
    September 22, 2008

    Someone made the exact same point on local Baltimore talk radio. It really shouldn’t be who you want to have a beer with (Pres. Bush), watch football with (Sen. Obama), or sleep with (Gov. Palin), or even chat on the train on your way to work with (Sen. Biden)… Or someone you see as a fatherly figure (Sen. McCain or, in his time, Pres. Reagan). It should be someone who stands out, knows how to lead men and women, and can sit with both kings and paupers and promote peace, prosperity, and, when needed, win a war.

    This is more important than a popularity contest, and I believe that 99% of the electorate knows this.

  3. #3 Andy Harris
    September 22, 2008

    The fundamental task of anyone in the business of persuasion is to establish sense of oneness with their audience. I agree with you that making the claim of elitism against your opponent is rationally pointless because everyone wants remarkable individuals as leaders. However, at the heart of the claim is the idea that the speaker is a member of the same group as the “average” audience. That is why “elitism” keeps getting a black eye when it should be worn with pride.

    This post reminds me of a satire about the same subject:

  4. #4 Denice Walter
    September 22, 2008

    And because of the pyroclastic flow currently engulfing our financial markets,someone able to select economic advisers at least as extraordinary.AFAIK,Obama has Volcker and Reich currently.

  5. #5 literarydeadkittens
    September 22, 2008

    IT’s been a while since I caught up with your posts on denialism after you left your home on WordPress (that was a sad, sad day).

    ANYWAY, I thought this was going to be elitism in science which, like the rest of academia, still exists, at least here in the UK. The government knocked up fees and knocked down grants, killing poor students careers before they began. I lost a degree and a university job through the class system and my government’s delusion that the average family survives on 40K pa.

    You’re right, you don’t want Josephine Bloggs running the country, you want the elites, I just think its a shame the professional elites tend to match the financial ones too.

    My question, after all that gabble, is wether the same class divide exists in American education?

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    September 22, 2008

    My question, after all that gabble, is wether the same class divide exists in American education?

    Ours is bimodal, or more properly (in a 3D sense) rather like a mountain range.

    On the one hand, there are quite a few resources for students at the extreme poverty end of the scale. At the other, there are families who either have money saved or are well-enough off to send their children to schools that charge $40K/year to attend and still take holidays to Alaska every summer (and I have family at both ends.)

    A huge variable is the degree program in question; education is cheap and has various subsidies, medicine is hideously expensive but has ways of indenturing yourself to get a break on the loans, engineering and physics are expensive and nobody sees any reason to subsidize them. Etc.

    In between you have people like me, who are looking at three children with a total age span of twenty months and even cutting every reasonable corner they cost me about $45K/year total after-tax income. I’m well-enough paid that I don’t get a tax break for educational expenses (that goes away at $65K gross) so the last five years have cost me very nearly my entire take-home pay for University (the ex-wife got the savings accounts.)

    Fortunately, I have good credit, but I’ll be paying for the kids’ University degrees until I retire; in effect, they are my retirement savings.

  7. #7 NovemberRomeo
    September 22, 2008

    All jet pilots on the ground are totally incompetent. We are only useful in the air, at high speeds. We are only special as long as we mock the law of gravity. When back under the influence of gravity, we turn into blathering idiots…

    As this comment and McCain demonstrates…

    A Jet Pilot.

  8. #8 Kagehi
    September 22, 2008

    Yes, as NovemberRomeo’s comment hints at, it also matter what you are “elite” ***in***. If its rallying people to protest things that some 5% of the population don’t like, all your likely to do as the leader of a country is piss off everyone that isn’t in that 5%. If its finances.. Well, better damn well hope its real world finances, and not something like the Ben Stein School of Reagan finances, which helped slide us into the current fracking mess. And so on. None of the candidates particularly impress me as “truly” being one for all people, or completely competent at “everything”, but McCain has shown hints of thinking that bullets solve problems (a bit of the elite fighter pilot mentality), so I am not too sure how he would handle real world foreign policy (other than to maybe find more ways to piss people off with the same idiot US = good, everyone else = stupid, mentality, which you get not just in foreign affairs, but every damn time you point out lower crime stats, better medical care, or *anything* else that is a result of some nation not being as much of a hardline, right wing, inflexible ass as the US is about it). Palin.. As far as I am concerned, she’s either a big question mark, or she holds onto “some” of the views of her past religious connections, which would make her *at least* as bad as McCain with respect to thinking the US is always 100% right about everything, and maybe *worse*, since nothing I have seen proves that her views on a lot of issues that effect science, medical care, etc., are not 90 degrees out of sync with 90% of the country.

    All of them are trying to play up to the idea, “We understand you, or are just one of you.” In reality, the small town lady from Alaska may be about as far from being “just like us” as you can get without finding someone raised on a compound run by fanatics. Just the prospect that this might be the case is scary, and the odds that she rejected most of the nutso stuff she was raised with, and some point in the next 4 years she will mellow so much that she rejects all or most of what ever she still holds on to, just isn’t the sort of risk I want to make. Yet, a lot of fools have been fooled, even to the point of my own parents opting to fall for the “Obama is funded by Muslim oil and only recently rejected his nut preacher, therefor we should pick the nice lady that hasn’t ‘attended’ insane churches for 10 years.” Yeah, but she seems to have no problem making borderline scary political speeches “in” the same church 3 months before being picked as a VP candidate… :p

    Oh, and, just to be clear, have “any” of them, so far, including the press, quoted “real” incomes for 20k-30k, instead of the usual, “Middle America makes 50k”, BS? I am pretty sure McCain has used the 50k figure more than once… The only “elite” here is, “People that know how to make gobs of money, so don’t have to worry about reality, like the rest of us.” Which *is* a sort of elitism, but one, much like fighter pilot mentality, which doesn’t lend itself to finding “solutions” that are based on limited money, and having some clue what problems people face.

  9. #9 DWMD
    September 22, 2008

    I think the confusion here is over the difference between being “elite” and “elitism.”

    Elitism, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means:
    ” 1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
    2. (a) The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
    (b) Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.”

    Elite, in contrast, means:
    ” 1. A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).
    2. The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.”

    In other words, the difference is that one who is elitist feels that his/her elite status ENTITLES them to favored treatment. It also appears to entitle him to speak in a condescending tone to those who do not match his/her “superior intellectual, social, or economic status.”

    Of course we want a president who is elite. We just don’t want one who is elitist. The real question is: are any of the candidates elitist? Well, apparently, many people believe the answer is yes, but they can’t all agree about which candidates really are elitist. Intellectually elitist? Socially elitist? All four of them probably have a little bit of both, but some of them come across a little more obnoxiously than the others.

    Of course, any reasonable person should vote based on how the candidates stand on the issues, not whether or not they could have a beer with him/her (since that’s not likely to ever happen). However, a person (or party) who appears so elitist that they’re out of touch with the “suffering American citizen” we keep hearing about… well, that person will probably be at a little bit of a disadvantage in the election.

  10. #10 The Chemist
    September 22, 2008

    “Elitist” is basically used in the same way they use “politically correct”:

    “Shut the hell up, I don’t like what you’re saying.”

    It doesn’t matter what these words or phrases actually used to mean. Once they get into the hands of the spin-masters these things get incredibly wonky and plastic. Don’t believe me? Look at what they did to the word “torture”.

  11. #11 PalMD
    September 22, 2008

    torture = “it kind of tickles when you do that”

  12. #12 tguy
    September 23, 2008

    The elite get no respect. They need to unionize and go on strike. Stop rendering services until the nation crumbles in a morass of ignorance and incompetence, a la “Atlas Shrugged”. By then we’ll all be speaking Russian, but hell it might be an improvement.

  13. #13 Oldfart
    September 23, 2008

    McCain was a bomber pilot, not a fighter pilot. And he graduated at the bottom of his Naval Academy class. Which only proves that piloting a bomber is not rocket science. But he is hardly among the elite by any standard.

    One could argue that Obama is TOO elite. What does a constitutional lawyer know about economics, foreign policy, science policy, environmental policy, health policy? Not necessarily anything. Most elites are, by definition, specialists and not generalists.

    Forget the elitist crap. Who are their advisors? Who is likely to be running the nuts and bolts of their administration? Do they have any hidden Cheneys and Roves?

  14. #14 frankc
    September 23, 2008

    With Palin,religion and religious views so in the news these days, I�m wondering what you all think about this. I came across this interesting site, opposingviews.com the other day while doing some research on religion and its place in politics.

    It�s a site where there are numerous interesting debates on all sorts of subjects that are on everyone�s mind. The debate that specifically captured my attention is the one asking whether Intelligent Design has merit. I do like the idea that their debaters are not simply average people giving their opinions, but all are experts in their chosen fields.

    The point of view that really got to me though, is the one from the Ayn Rand Institute in which they call ID a supposedly non-religious theory, and a crusade to peddle religion by giving it the veneer of science. They use words like it is metaphysical marijuana intended to draw students away from scientific explanations and get them hooked on the supernatural. I�d like to place my comment there, but I�d really like to get some input from you before doing so. Here�s the specific debate I�d like to comment on. http://www.opposingviews.com/arguments/it-s-bait-and-switch Thanks so much.

  15. #15 D. C. Sessions
    September 23, 2008

    Forget the elitist crap. Who are their advisors? Who is likely to be running the nuts and bolts of their administration? Do they have any hidden Cheneys and Roves?

    Do they ask their advisors to think, or do they tell them what to think?

    Do their advisors tell them what the advisors think, or do the advisors tell their principals what to think?

    When their advisors talk, do they listen? Do they understand?

    Do they shoot messengers?

    Just a few key questions.

  16. #16 DC
    September 26, 2008

    Just spent 6 days with a group of people from about 12 countries from a round the world at at global meeting of specilaists in my field of expertise. Just two out of 25 were from the US.
    Virtually everyone I spoke 1-on-1 with was very dispointed by the behavior and attitudes coming out the US and were hopeful thing will change with the election.
    The relative decline of the US in many areas is now very noticable.

    My high school son watch the coverage of Ms. Palin being lead around NYC to meet with foreign leaders and commented that it look like “take your child to work day.”

  17. #17 Brian X
    September 26, 2008

    Here’s the curious thing about liberal vs. conservative elites. Liberal elites are something of a meritocracy — you gain entry by being good at something, by going to school, working to eliminate your ignorance and making a difference in society, and sometimes you get rich. (Or, alternately, you get rich by other means and give back.) Anyone can join the “liberal elites” given the opportunity and the willingness to make a difference.

    Conservative elites, on the other hand, have only two means to entry — you’re either born into it, or you buy your way in, either by your own effort or by exploiting someone else’s. I don’t really claim to understand accusations of “liberal elitism”, but as best as I can tell it seems to be an attitude that joining the liberal meritocracy makes you The Other — that by education and fighting to change society for the benefit of everyone, you’re turning traitor on That Which Made Insert Culture Here Great and that somehow, by extension, you hate Insert Culture Here. (After all, you must hate it, because you want to change it, right?) My gut instinct is to call it laziness, though I’m not 100% convinced that this is the right word, as it actually seems to involve principle.

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