Elites and Elitism

How the word “elite” came to have a left-wing, liberal connotation — on both sides of the Canada-US border

“Trump win should send elites back to the drawing board”
Thomas Sowell, Toronto Sun, November 14, 2016

“Reckoning with a Trump presidency and the elite Democrats who helped deliver it” 
— Betsy Reed, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, November 12, 2016

“The hubris of Democratic elites, Clinton  campaign gave us President Trump” 
— Kevin Gosztola, Shadowproof.com, November 9, 2016

The above are but three of the countless headlines we saw days after the American election, asserting that the failure of “elites” was responsible for the election of Donald Trump. But hold on, folks. Surely billionaire Donald Trump, born into a wealthy family, is also a member of the elite? And of course, notwithstanding that Trump’s wealth may be greater and far less transparent than that of the Clintons, this didn’t prevent him from constantly assailing Hillary Clinton as part of the “elite” on social media.

But don’t get smug and imagine the same selective elite-bashing isn’t going on in Canada. In November, Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Kellie Leitch sent an email that congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory, praising his anti-establishment message and declaring that “the elites are out of touch.”

Leitch and her advisors have made “elite” the mantra of their campaign. They have criticized fellow candidates Lisa Raitt for supporting “the left-wing media elite” and Andrew Scheer as an “out-of-touch elite” for launching his leadership campaign at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. Incidentally, Dr. Leitch, who grew up in an affluent family in Winnipeg, made these comments while promoting a $500-a-person fundraiser organized by lawyers.

So given most people’s previous understanding of the word, how did “elite” take on this connotation to refer to people on the left of the political spectrum? Dictionaries are not of much help here. The OED defines “elite” as “the choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of persons)” and has its first citation for this definition in the 19th century. Actually, it does show an earlier meaning in the 15th century, but with a very narrow sense as “a person chosen, spec., a bishop elect.” The Encarta World English Dictionary gets closer to the implied sense in the headlines quoted above. It defines “elite” as “a small group of people, within a larger group who have more power, social standing, wealth, or talent than the rest of the group.”

But even this doesn’t explain why the term is used nowadays almost exclusively to refer to the liberal left. If the classic connotation is of people being able to achieve status by virtue of birth and at the expense of others, surely the word applies more to the Trumps and Leitches of the cosmos.

The explanation lies in political theory, where the term “liberal elite” has been used since the 1960s to describe politically left-leaning people, whose education had opened doors to affluence and power. In fact, if you check the Google Books Ngram Viewer site, which charts the frequency of words and expressions from the years 1500 to 2008, you will find that “liberal elite” and “Democratic elites” enjoyed huge spikes in usage starting in 1990. A premise of this trend in the use of “elite” is that the people who claim to support the rights of working men and women are themselves members of the ruling class and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect.

It’s possible that many US voters supported Trump because they were put off by what they saw as the arrogance of some people in the Democratic Party and the left-leaning media; for example, political commentator Bill Maher suggested that people who intended to vote for Trump suffered from congenital defects. Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s comment during the campaign that half of Trump supporters were “deplorables” caused her great political harm. Claiming that you are somehow superior to others in any aspect of your life is a no-no in our post-modern, post-truth world. Right-wing talking heads therefore use the designation “elite” as a polemical tool to declaim positions associated with the left that are as varied as environmentalism, secularism, feminism, sexuality, immigration, and multiculturalism.

Ironically, because many average Americans were angry at the “elites” ostensibly represented by the Democratic Party and the media, they elected one of the richest men in the United States to be their president. They disdained the Democrats, notwithstanding the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama had, among other benefits, brought them the Affordable Care Act, which provided for health insurance coverage (enjoyed previously by the elites) to an estimated 20 million Americans who had been without insurance.

Only time will tell if the word “elite” as referring to so-called ivory tower groups with certain political leanings is more appropriate than “elite” as used to designate the resident of the Fifth Avenue pseudo-Versailles Trump Tower.

Howard Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit is published by Ronsdale Press.