connotations of education, geography, ideology, taste, and lifestyle—such that a millionaire investment banker who works for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard, and reads the New York Times is an elitist but a billionaire CEO who grew up in Houston, went to a state university, and contributes to Republicans, is not.
Weisberg is amused by how John McCain handled NBC anchor Brian Williams’ 2008 campaign question, "Who is a member of the elite?" McCain replied, "I know where a lot of them live—in our nation's capital and New York City—the ones [Palin] never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown—who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves."
Weisberg adds, “Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn't remember how many houses he owned, accuse his mixed-race opponent, raised by a single-mother and only a few years past paying off his student loans, of being the real elite candidate in the campaign.”
Weisberg thinks it’s funny for a rich man to think he’s not in the elite. But to me, McCain is talking about today’s “power elite”, a group at the top who believe they have the right to rule over the rest of us. When McCain picked Sarah Palin as his vice president candidate, he said pretty clearly he didn’t buy the “elite should rule” idea. Maybe that helps explain why the elite then went crazy.
Looking further at McCain, Palin, and other Republican leaders, Weisberg refines his version of what Republicans call the elite:
➢ social snobbery. . . not based on family, ethnicity, or wealth, but rather on the status that in contemporary American society is largely conferred by academic institutions.
➢ someone who thinks the opinion of a minority should sometimes prevail over the opinion of a majority.
Of course, a Republican would say America’s elite doesn’t think ruling class opinion should prevail over the majority only “sometimes”—“sometimes” is for sure Weisberg’s very own modifier. Erase “sometimes,” and Weisberg is pretty much onto the Republican definition—“elite”: a well-credentialed group at the top reaching across government, academia, the media, non-profits, arts, entertainment, business and finance that believes it should rule because it is certifiably better than the rest of us.
Weisberg concedes the Republican definition of elite packs a political punch, admitting that when liberals act superior, that cuts against the American ideal of social equality. And Weisberg, by flatly describing America as “a meritocratic society,” makes the biggest concession of all to the Republican definition of elite—what else is our academically-credentialed elite but a “meritocracy”? Weisberg understands what’s wrong with an elite based on academics—it brings “an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can't blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system.”
In fact as his argument rolls along, Weisberg grows increasingly comfortable with being part of the elite Republicans oppose. He quotes ultra-Tory Edmund Burke’s defense of elite rule, his famous principle that elected legislators owe their constituents their best judgments; they cannot just be conduits for majority opinion. In the same vein, Weisberg defends expert rule and attacks popular referenda (“I'd rather have a nuclear-energy policy set by Nobel Laureate Steven Chu of Berkeley than by a plebiscite.” [emphasis added]). By the end, Weisberg writes he actually has no “problem” with the Republican definition of elite!!!
So what is Weisberg’s “problem”? He believes Republicans are just as willing as liberals to “adopt superior stances” or “tell people how to live their lives.” They insist “that gay people not be married, or that some go without health insurance, or that gas be lightly taxed.”
Is that it, really? It seems to me a majority of Americans favor the policies to which Weisberg and his elite object, and in a democracy, where the majority rules, that’s a pretty important difference.
In sum, Weisberg tells us:
Democrats are the party of the elite (and we’re lucky to have them).
Republicans are the party of the majority, unwashed as it may be.
An important admission indeed.