Elite Being vs. Authentic Being
Charles Murray sees an insidious plot to seize control of America. It’s the rise of a new ruling class, a societal coup d’etat: the rise of the “New Elite.” They’re particularly sinister in that they only marry fellow Elites. But he isn’t the only one talking about this phenomenon. Christopher Caldwell mentions a politically misleading Democratic “overlap with elites” in his essay on the state of American conservatism. James Bowman and Mark Bauerlein also notice this distinct group—the so-called New Elites—and their unfortunate influence over the Democratic Party and liberal/progressive politics.
Before continuing, let me confess: I meet Murray’s already much-maligned definition of an elite. I grew up in an affluent suburb. I’ve never attended a public school. I hate cruise ships. I know very little about much of pop culture. At age ten, I chose to consciously obliterate whatever traces of Kentucky were in my accent. I majored in Classics for crying out loud! (On the other hand, I’ve attended a Kiwanis meeting, I’m related to as well as friends with numerous evangelicals, and my grandparents made a point of imparting their Depression-era frugality in me while I was quite young, and think yoga and pilates are for hippies. Etc.) I’m critical of much of the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck. I’m the target of the charges. (Whether I wind up in any kind of elite in my adult life remains to be seen.)
Who are the Real Americans, with whom the Ivy grads won’t consider so much as a dinner date? […] Are non-elites this homogeneous class, with Nascar fans in Kentucky marrying with residents of Chicago’s South Side? And (thank you, Gawker) what about immigrants? Are they part of the monolith that is Non-Fancy-Pants America? Or does the inherent cosmopolitanness of having been to more than one country, spoken at least a few words of more than one language, make them elites, no matter how little education or money they have to their unpronounceable names. (As if “Maltz” were my family’s real Old-World name.) If America is a set of insular-ish groups, how is it any more surprising that a Harvard-educated banker isn’t marrying a factory worker, than it is that that factory worker isn’t marrying an undocumented nanny?
Meanwhile, Will Wilkinson brings some data indicating that, “The tea party is a movement of relatively well-to-do, relatively religious citizens aroused by the conservative identity politics of a handful of elite right-wing opinion-makers who seek to unseat their liberal counterparts.”
These anti-elite Paul Reveres aren’t even trying to hide this. Caldwell lets slip something telling when his evidence that Democrats are in an alliance with Elites is that only 22% of white males without a high school education approve of his policies. I’m willing to wager that a comparison with non-white males of similar education will show that education is not the sole relevant factor in this datum.
The “New Elite” argument is one about authenticity. Murray’s case is, in fact, that the New Elites are not “authentic” representatives of America—his sociological and demographic incoherence about non-elites as a monolith allow this claim. In fact, it’s necessary a necessary condition for this claim. This isn’t a new claim; as others have noted, it’s a reformulation of Sarah Palin’s “real America” assertions. It’s the way in which Murray makes the case that makes it interesting—he absorbs not the rhetoric of traditional class struggle, but of a struggle that views the Elite it opposes as a new phenomenon, almost a kind of invader.
Bowman points to “those [left and right] who look down their noses at Tea Party supporters,” as the newly-defined New Elite. It’s a slightly inverted, slightly more explicit case than Murray’s: the elites are, again, inauthentic (not to mention “Psychos”), but because those who don’t “look down their noses” at Tea Party supporters (including those who, say, like the movement but are turned off by Sarah Palin or any particular political leader associated with it) are therefore non-elite—and inherently of a cause with the Tea Party. See how he did that? The Tea Party just grew several-fold in one sentence.*
According to Bauerlein, the problem has its roots in the democratic expulsion of the intellectuals from positions of political power (the elite). Elites may wield power more often than not, but the two are no longer explicitly connected. The Tea Party represents an attempt to expel the intellectual-elites from positions of power, and intellectual-elites hate them for it. (We see, here, disdain for the Tea Party movement as, again, an essential aspect of being Elite.) This intellectual-elite is the last vestige of the old aristocracy and therefore inherently anti-democratic; for intellectuals (like Bauerlein; like would-be intellectuals like me) to ally themselves with the Elite is to betray their proper—their authentic—role within a democratic society.
Now, these aren’t all parts of an organized, coherent argument, but they don’t need to be in order to see what’s binding them together: their definitions of “elite” (an inherently dirty word, it appears) against more virtuous identities: a member of the New Elite is not an authentic American; an Elitist is someone who cannot engage in civilized discourse, and is therefore an inauthentic citizen of a democracy; an intellectual who is an Elite is not an authentic intellectual—unless he goes back to the Spanish Inquisition or Soviet Russia. There, maybe. Here, no.
But since being Elite is defined just as consistently against support for (or at least lack of explicit opposition to) the Tea Party movement—setting aside that this movement is itself vaguely nebulous—this anti-Elite meme becomes clearly political. That is, living the authentic life has as a precondition—for at least a class of people, perhaps all—a prescribed political attitude. This mixing of ideas of the authentic life with political rhetoric should be more than enough to cause a raised eyebrow here and there.
*The New Criterion is now taking up the banner of the anti-elitist plebes? Huh? I mean this as a compliment, but they’re nothing if not elitists promoting elite taste. I suppose it’s just that the disenfranchised supporters of the Old Elite Taste are now on the march against the New Elite. But what if the New Elite is, in reality, The New Criterion’s last best hope to stave off philistinism, despite their damnable political views? Can we really afford an intra-Elite civil war in these perilous times? (I know, I know, Roger Kimball’s about to tell me that their political views have corrupted their artistic taste…)