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Our Magnificent Elites
Everything you wanted to know (but were afraid to ask)
In my 2014 book, “The Revolt of the Public,” I leaned pretty heavily on the word “elites.” At the time, people wondered what I was talking about. Now, the elites are all the rage—I mean literally, since they make everyone angry. Yet most people still wonder who the heck it is that they’re ranting against.
The concept of the elites seems to have a mystifying effect. Therefore, as a founding member of the elite mania club, I consider it my duty to answer the many questions my readers have been contemplating on the subject but were too polite to ask.
Who Are the Elites?
They are the best—and if you have any doubt, they will explain to you why. For example, ask Anthony Fauci and he will tell you, “I represent science.” Ask a high-flying U.N. undersecretary with a degree in journalism and she will say, “We own the science and the world should know about it.” Think of how amazing that is! To be an elite is to hold a 30-year mortgage on science, zero interest, payment infinitely deferred.
They are also the smartest. In fact, the elites resemble those science fiction beings with enormous brains and thoughts too complex for normal communication. They keep trying to explain the meaning of everything, but all that ordinary people hear is a series of dull clicks and buzzes. That leaves the elites frustrated and sad. They are often misunderstood by the public because—as a French parliamentarian put it—their ideas are “too intelligent, too subtle, too technical.”
Here’s another way to detect an elite: They are “I” while the rest of us are “them.” The difference in character is not subtle. For “I,” think Mahatma Gandhi or St. Francis of Assisi—for “them,” the Beast of the Apocalypse. Let the ever-helpful Anthony Fauci illustrate the point: “I’m going to be saving lives,” he said, “and they’re going to be telling lies.”
You can know the elites by their ownership of reality. Jesus might have said, “I am the truth and the life,” but Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, prefers to be a little more exclusive: “We continue to be your single source of truth ... Unless you hear it from us it is not the truth.” To protect the truth, the elites have hired gangs of roving bouncers to usher out of the building any would-be Pontius Pilates who ask, “What is truth?” (That question, like all of science, is settled.) For unknown reasons, these elite enforcers call themselves “fact-checkers.”
So elite-spotting can be a fun and profitable activity. Elites talk like one another and dress like one another. They are all over TV and the internet—and, since they are barely aware of our existence, we can observe them in the wild, as they really are! Anyone who still has trouble spotting them should remember that the elites are always ahead and above us. Like certain species of baboons, they can be identified by their posteriors.
Why Are There Elites?
Place three strangers in a room and they will immediately arrange themselves into a tiny pyramid. Hierarchy is in our DNA. There are good evolutionary and historical reasons for this. Back in the hunting gathering days of our species, the hierarchy was shallow, and the top was occupied by the strongest warriors and hunters. They kept the group safe and well fed. Then came urban living, big populations and specialized labor, and the guy at the top started saying things like, “MY NAME IS OZYMANDIAS, KING OF KINGS. LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR!” That’s pretty much where we are today.
Societies are run by institutions, not individuals—but someone has to run the institutions. When they are healthy, institutions remember what they are supposed to do and select people who are good at doing it: Clever strategists run the military, creative souls dominate the art world and so forth. In bad times, institutions lapse into a deep Zen meditative state and become ends in themselves. You might then see the occasional artistic general or Napoleonic poet, but mostly what you’ll get is the bureaucratic mind.
The important point to remember is that elites don’t dominate societies. They climb institutions. Body and soul, the elites are fixated on the next rung leading to the top of the pyramid. They never look down, rarely sideways, but always up. They are terrified of making a mistake that will dis-elite them and plunge them into the arms of those loathsome zombies—“them.” To make certain of conforming with correct behavior, elites tend to travel in herds and gesture in unison, like synchronized swimmers.
Where Are the Elites?
Where other elites are, that’s where the elites are. Where you are, there are none. That’s why elites hate the internet so much. It makes them understandably nauseous to feel like you’re in the same room with them.
How Many Elites Are There?
Good question! In “The Revolt of the Elites,” Christopher Lasch puts the number at 15% of the population—usually referred to as “the top 15 percent,” since, as I said, they always float above us like a gas that’s lighter than air. In “The Road to Somewhere,” David Goodhart says it’s 30%.
The elites themselves are divided on the question.
On the one hand, because they are Gandhi-like and super generous, the elites believe everybody should be just like them. Each person on the planet should go to college, major in Gender Fluidity and join a massive government bureaucracy so they can mandate better manners on the peasantry. Then the world would be like a giant mirror, in which the elites discern their own likeness everywhere. What a utopia that would be!
But then they start thinking about the shape of the pyramid. It’s skinny at the top. It’s fat at the bottom. Most wannabes with college degrees and great expectations are going to wind up stuffing boxes at an Amazon warehouse. Is that just? The elites think of themselves as deeply egalitarian, but in the end they always yield to the overwhelming evidence of their own superiority. Whose fault is it if your mom and dad don’t have any useful connections? What on earth were you thinking, going to Ball State instead of Harvard or Stanford?
And consider the problems that would arise if we actually had that utopian world of perfect equality. What would be the point of being an elite, if you didn’t have a peasantry to mark the difference? In his enormous tome, “Summa Theologica,” St. Thomas Aquinas remarked that one of the delights of heaven is looking down on the torments of hell. Old St. Thomas understood his elites.
What Are the Politics of the Elites?
I think I’ve made it pretty clear how untrustworthy the rest of us are. We need good shepherds. We must be minded. The elites are much too busy to come up with a coherent political ideology, but they know instinctively that we need to be saved from ourselves.
There are two requirements to the elite political faith. One is control. If they are to be our shepherds, they need to have sheepdogs and stout sticks. But they must also be shown in the full splendor of their Gandhian virtue, so we can admire their moral superiority even as they thump us on the backside. That’s only fair. After all, they are good shepherds.
Posit a world of Platonic guardians (the elites) and helpless victims (the rest of us): nothing in between. That’s the true utopia of the elites. But how can this world come to pass?
The elites lead the fight against climate change. They are our secular messiahs—actual saviors of the earth! Naturally, we must hand over total political and economic power to them, so they can stop us from destroying ourselves. The elites are also zealous about racial and sexual “equity”: Every outcome of every transaction must conform to some formula of perfect justice for marginalized groups. Since only the elites understand the formula, we must surrender to them the moral high ground and vast regulatory authority.
Recall, too, that the elites own both science and truth. If they are to protect us from being duped by “disinformation,” we must let them decide who can say what in that repulsive medium, the internet.
Finally, the elites, with nothing but love in their hearts, believe that hate must be criminalized—micro-aggressors should be thrown in jail. “Deplorables,” on the other hand, will be taxed until they accept victim status. Utopia will then have arrived, and the people at the top will be totally in control and universally applauded.
Is There an Elite Theory of Economics?
Yes. It’s called “the government.”
So Are All Elites Democrats?
Not at all. My town of Washington, D.C. is dotted with obscure institutions called “think tanks” full of conservative and libertarian elites. You can tell them apart because if you say the words “Donald Trump” in their presence, they’ll emit, reflexively, an ear-piercing shriek. That’s not a foolproof test, I admit—Trump has that effect on a lot of nonelites. To confirm, look for self-refuting phrases like “radical center,” “objective journalism” and “reality-based principles”—those are solid clues.
Politically, Republicans come to elite status by ancestry. They are born, not made. So if your name is Bush, Cheney or Romney, and your daddy cut a figure in this town (and, it goes without saying, you shriek at Trump), then you are a Republican elite.
It is true that most elites think progressive and vote Democratic. Conservatives and Republicans live pretty decently on leftovers, but they get no respect. Yet the progressivism of the elites has its peculiarities. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is 32, glamorous, super-progressive and a Democratic congressperson, and her ideas, like the Green New Deal, have been adopted by the mainstream of her party. But Nancy Pelosi, who remains the Democratic Speaker until January and is at least 800 years old, has resolutely blocked AOC’s way up the pyramid. So is she a rebel? Is she an elite? I’m guessing she’s like a trailer for coming attractions—the Democratic Party’s version of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Come To Think of It, How Do You Reconcile Elitism With Democracy?
Easy! First you disenfranchise the “MAGA Republicans” that President Biden told us are destroying democracy. That’s about 74 million voters. Next you do the same to the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” who are part of the “basket of deplorables” Hillary Clinton warned us about. That’s a few million more. Then you go after QAnon “insurgents,” “climate deniers,” Christian bigots, flat earthers, snake handlers, Fox News watchers—you name it!
If you keep going long enough, you’ll get to a voting public that thinks Kamala Harris sounds like Pericles.
Why Is Everyone So Angry at the Elites?
The internet. It’s the mother of lies! According to elite idol Barack Obama, it’s “turbocharging humanity’s worst impulses”! It allows that “supervillain” Elon Musk to unleash “trolls, nazis, & MAGAnuts”! The elites, who are protective of their virtuous image, get very upset about being slandered on the internet. They know that monstrous forces gather at night in moonlit forests for a sort of witches’ sabbath, in which shadows dance around non-Apple laptops to concoct that abomination—the conspiracy theory. Without such digital deceit, the elites would be loved at least as much as they love us.
We have been warned: Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter could trigger “World War 3 and the destruction of our planet.” The internet is that terrifying.
Fortunately, the elites have a solution. The way out is the way back. If you were to peer into the soul of every last elite at the top of the pyramid, you would find a single question there: “What was so bad about the 20th century?” In those golden days, Obama reminds us, all Americans sat contentedly in their family rooms as they consumed classic comedies like “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Jeffersons.” If they felt the urge to rant on the internet, they couldn’t, because there wasn’t any.
The elites are working hard to turn the internet into the intellectual equivalent of “I Dream of Jeannie.” We can only hope they succeed!
What Rock Band Do the Elites Most Resemble?
Big Brother and the Holding Company (first hit, “Ball and Chain”).
If the Elites Were a Color, Which One Would It Be?
Am I an Elite?
Readers ask that a lot: People want to know where they stand in the pyramid. I’m also asked, “Aren’t you an elite?” in tones that remind me of Freudians who would say, “You’re repressing!” and Marxists whose best argument was, “That’s bourgeois logic ... ” If elite is a state of mind, then sure—anyone can be one. In places like New York City and San Francisco, where life is precarious, many ordinary people have learned to think like elites so they can agree with their elites. Otherwise, they fear the subways will stop running, the streets will be overrun with garbage and the skyscrapers will crumble into dust.
If elite is an analytical category, however, then it all depends on whether you are connected to an institution. If you work for a corporation, or the government, or a foundation or a university, in any but the most menial job, then you’re an elite—and you probably feel that way, too. The lowest-paid instructor at any university—yes, even Ball State—feels superior to the owner of the coffee shop where he sips his macchiato, who may well have a higher income than he does. It is a frame of mind, only bestowed by pride of place in the institution.
Although I am really not worthy of being an elite, by my own definition I have been one at times. I worked for many years for a mysterious government institution we called “the Agency.” Those of us on the inside walked around humming to ourselves, with typical elite gravitas, “I know something you don’t know ... ” Eventually, I left government and joined the teeming masses, among whom, no doubt, I belong. I spent several happy years in that humble condition.
Then, to my surprise, Mercatus Center, which is definitely an institution, invited me to join them. It was the title that clinched it: “visiting fellow.” I said yes, and that’s what I do now—I visit. Sometimes I’m in. Sometimes I’m out. In this way, without in the least planning it, I have evolved into the rarest of institutional organisms—an intermittent elite.