What Does ‘Elite’ Even Mean?

A true third way in American politics would be one that represents the interests of non-elites.

What does “elite” mean? What is the significance of the word when it is used adjectivally (in phrases like “elite habits,” for example)? To whom are we referring when we use the word as a plural noun, especially in journalism, seemingly to describe some kind of all-powerful over-class?

I cannot pretend to complete familiarity with the vast shelf of books that comprise what one might describe as the literature of “elite” (which begins with the classic study by C. Wright Mills in 1956). But as far as I am aware none of the theorists of the elite or their interests has drawn special attention to the fact that long ago the word “elite” did not refer to some specially exalted faction or indeed to any permanent class, but rather to persons selected for office—chiefly ecclesiastical—or distinction by reason of merit. Elite has the same etymological origin as “elect”: a bishop-elit was simply one who had been nominated for the episcopacy (in the days of lay investiture by his king; later by the pope directly) but was not yet consecrated.

It was only later, in the middle of the 18th century, that the English “élite,” which even half a century ago was still spelled with the acute accent betraying its French origins, came to acquire its modern sense of “the group or class of people seen as having the most power or influence in a society.”

The history of its usage suggests among other things that “elite” is a fluid concept, one that depends at least to some extent upon popular perceptions, which can be mistaken. It also flatly contradicts the story modernity tells about itself: a Promethean account of the development, sometimes gradual, sometimes in rapid heroic bursts, of various emancipatory technologies—liberalism, democracy, globalized commerce—that have brought untold spiritual and material benefits to us all. The modern understanding of “elite,” which has certain affinities with the Calvinist definition of “election,” as a more or less static condition, final, unanswerable, ineffaceable, is nothing less than a total reversal of the medieval sense, which humbly accorded a status that was at once radically more contingent and paradoxically sacral. This is no doubt why its verb form has disappeared.

But really that is a story for another day. A more pressing question is what all of this tells us about “elites” today, whoever they might be? Here it is worth being more precise about whom we mean. In right-of-center discourse, “elite” generally has one of two related meanings. An “elite” is a member of the professional and managerial classes or a capitalist whose interests are served by the former (that is to say, a tech baron, never one of our few remaining steel tycoons); that which is “elite” somehow belongs to or corresponds with the interests, habits, proclivities, tastes, or preferences of the aforementioned group.

This is not on its face a bad use of the word. When writers (including, alas, this columnist) employ it in the sense I have just outlined, it at least has the advantage of intelligibility to the overwhelming majority of readers. But there is a danger in clarity. When we refer to H.R. professionals or university professors or journalists at national publications as “elite,” we are sketching an incomplete picture of how power is distributed in American life.

If one wishes to use “elite” in a truly descriptive sense, one would have to use it to mean not one class but three: distinct, slightly overlapping groups whose interests sometimes converge in surprising ways. The familiar PMC elite controls the means by which information is exchanged, creating not only the new paradigms for social and economic life with which we are all familiar but the cultural narratives that have become more important than ever with the rise of digital technology; this kind of power should be distinguished not only from the authority exercised by so-called “high proles”—plumbers, electricians, and so on—but from the power of capitalists themselves.

The reason all of these groups are in some sense “elite” is that unlike the vanishing middle and lower classes their interests are all represented by existing political coalitions. The difference between capitalists, PMCs, and high proles is qualitative. Each of these classes is “elite” because it has tangible class interests that are broadly represented by a viable faction in American politics. To take them in reverse order, the high prole, who values low levels of taxation and formal economic liberalization (opposition to the minimum wage, “deregulation”), is represented by the Republican party, while the Democrats have for most of my lifetime been the party of the professional classes. The capitalist meanwhile plays both parties against each other and, indeed, both classes. This ensures that his interests are always secure.

As in a still life, where the objects that do not appear are sometimes as significant as those which are depicted, the real value of this sketch of “elites” lies with what it omits: namely the (rapidly disappearing) middle class and the lower-middle and working classes beneath them, to say nothing of the indigent. A true third way in American politics would be one that represents the interests of non-elites: not by offering the dubious quasi-existential rhetorical affirmation of presidents as otherwise varied in their rhetoric as Barack Obama and Donald Trump, or aspirationally, by means of some trickle-down scheme, but in a concrete manner.

It should go without saying that at present both of our established political parties are dedicated to shoring up the interests of at least two of the above-mentioned groups of elites while paying lip service to non-elite groups who are generally divided on non-class-related lines (e.g., racially). This sad state of affairs is unlikely to be remedied at any point in the foreseeable future. The point of drawing attention to it is not to suggest any immediate means of overcoming it, but rather to remove the wooly epistemic provision from the definition of elite provided above: Elites exercise their power or influence regardless of whether they are seen as having it, and there is very little the rest of us can do about it.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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