The United States and Europe are seeing a surge in populist anger toward the so-called elites. The German public, for example, is furious at Chancellor Angela Merkel for her position on immigration from the Middle East. British voters have forsaken the postmodern European Union. And working class Americans have rallied around political outsider Donald Trump as their presidential favorite, something that neither the Clinton machine nor the establishment of the Republican Party anticipated.
But who exactly are these unpopular elites—and what exactly have they done that has enraged middle-class voters in Western democracies?
Since ancient times, elites have been defined various ways, sometimes by birth (the Greeks’ hoi aristoi), by capital (hoi plousioi), by perceived class (hoi oligoi), by acknowledged influence (hoi gnorimoi), by high culture (hoi beltistoi)—and sometimes by a combination of all of the above.
Today, people are especially mad at political elites, a loose term for those who govern at the state and federal level. They include not just our elected legislators, governors, and President, but also the unelected (and unaccountable) members of the vast government archipelago—cabinet officers, bureaucratic grandees, top military officers, and regulators. Beyond these politicos, the Western elite is comprised, too, of the transnational mega-wealthy, who have been enriched by globalization, especially international finance, investments, and technologies that lubricate worldwide dissemination of capital and communications.
An elite is also defined by education (preferably Ivy League and its coastal counterparts), residence (primarily between Boston and Washington on the East Coast, and from San Diego to Berkeley on the Pacific), profession (executive positions in government, media, law, foundations, the arts, and academia), celebrity (name recognition from television, Hollywood, network news, finance, etc.), and ideology, such as those prominent in the progressive movement. To receive a glimpse of our next generation of elites, read the betrothal notices in The New York Times, look at the interns at Goldman Sachs, and consider the junior faculty at Harvard.
These select few define our culture, educate young adults on college campuses, run governments, make most economic and foreign policy, entertain America, and dispense the news. And the public is angry at them for a variety of reasons.
First, the elites seem to the middle classes to be out of touch and incompetent. Their sterling degrees and titles, voters increasingly think, do not reflect the quality of their minds or the depth of their educations, but have become status markers separating “them” from everyone else. On top of that, these elites sometimes utter silly things, like that there are 57 states, that soldiers are “corps-men,” and that ISIS is a “jayvee organization.” The ruling class is not like those who once built the Hoover Dam, triumphed at the Battle of Midway, or built the interstate freeway system. Instead, the Wall Street implosion of 2008, the negotiations over the Iran deal, California’s stalled high-speed rail project, the Affordable Care Act meltdown, and the doubling of the national debt in eight years reflect either inexperience and ignorance or perhaps indifference and callousness.
The immigration pushback was directed at the managerial class that allowed millions into the West without rudimentary vetting—the work of bunglers and ideologues, not true technocrats. Americans increasingly pass on going to the movies, a genre that has devolved either into tired pyrotechnics, pale remakes of prior classics, or psychodramas about the evils of corporations, the military, or the CIA. It is now expected that a New York Times article will be followed soon by corrections acknowledging basic mistakes of fact and sourcing.
Second, public furor arises over elite sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy. Progressive elites are shielded from the ramifications of their own ideologies. Open borders advocates like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, for example, condemn walls and fences as backward and inhumane—and then ensure that their own residences are quite well fenced and protected from hoi polloi.
Al Gore is a progressive green prophet—but sold his bankrupt cable channel for millions of dollars to Al Jazeera, a company that is fueled by carbon-exporting, monarchical, and largely anti-Semitic Qatar. John Kerry is a big-tax, big-government aficionado—except when it is a question of avoiding taxes on his multimillion-dollar yacht by moving it from high-tax Massachusetts to a cheaper berth in low-tax Rhode Island.
The hypocrisy does not end there. Jet travel is supposedly the worse example of an outsized carbon footprint—except for environmentalists like Leonardo DiCaprio or Bono. Academics decry wage imbalances among Wal-Mart employees, but remain silent about the far greater pay inequity on campus, where graduate students and part-time lecturers often make less than half as much as full-time faculty for teaching identical classes. Environmental elites in San Francisco demand that river water be diverted from agriculture to the sea to nourish delta baitfish—but they would not sacrifice a drop of their own claims on precious Sierra Nevada water. Again and again, the elites promote policies that they themselves do not live by.
Third, voters are tired of the condescension of the elites who castigate the backwardness of the non-elite. Such disdain focuses especially on the middle classes, who lack both the vulnerability of the truly impoverished and, supposedly, the culture and tastes of the higher classes. Out of work miners do not enjoy “white privilege”; those on Ivy League campuses who mouth such platitudes usually do—and then exercise it by living and schooling their children apart from the romanticized “other.” In emulation of medieval penance, the more one expresses pique at the perceived sins of someone deemed inferior, the more he is seen as virtuous—and exempt from social censure.
A perfect example of such disdain was Barack Obama’s 2008 rant about the working classes of Pennsylvania who failed him in the primary: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
When the future of Iraq hung in the balance, then Senator and subsequent Secretary of State John Kerry made similarly snobbish remarks. He warned students, “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” A year after Kerry’s putdown, largely working-class soldiers and officers won the peace in Iraq through their courage and expertise during the Surge of 2007-08.
It’s not just in America. European elites are just as arrogant. Rather than defending the policy of admitting more than a million refugees into Germany from war-zones in the Middle East (mostly young and un-vetted males), European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker huffed that, “Borders are the worst invention ever made.” Juncker added, “We have to fight against nationalism.”
Note the combination of Juncker’s historical ignorance and pomposity: he apparently believes that borders are “invented” rather than reflective of ancient and organic differences of language, culture, and ethnicity among neighboring peoples. Elites are also too sophisticated to fall for “nationalism”: An Oxford don or a City of London hedge-fund manager should have more in common with a Brussels bureaucrat or a Harvard professor than with the dullards of the English working classes or the grasping entrepreneurs of the middle class, who work a few miles away in rural southeast Britain.
Such condescension also leads to inconsistency, which is yet another reason why the public is fed up. Politically incorrect utterances from caricatured white middle-class “buffoons” such as Paula Deen, Sarah Palin, and Phil Robertson earn social stigma and ostracism. Not so when Presidential candidate Joe Biden once trivialized rival Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Did Biden mean prior black presidential candidates such as Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton were tongue-tied, dull, unkempt, and homely? Under the laws of elite liberal penance, Senate majority leader Harry Reid could not really have meant it when he patronized Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
To the public, the elites are progressives who have created a politically-correct culture that hinges on castigating non-elites for their supposed lack of race, class, and gender sensitivity. The louder they decry middle-class illiberality, the more easily Barack Obama can caricature his own grandmother as a “typical white person,” or filmmaker Michael Moore can lament that the 9/11 attacks unfortunately killed thousands of fellow Americans in a blue state rather than a red one.
Fourth and last, the people feel that elites do not follow the laws. Sanctuary cities nullify federal immigration law—and yet if other less liberal cities were to follow such a Confederate precedent and declare federal handgun registration or protected species legislation null and void in their jurisdictions they would be castigated as insurrectionists.
The Clintons are the epitome of the rules not applying to ruling class. Hillary once rigged a cattle futures investment of $1,000 into a $100,000 profit at 34-trillion-to-1 odds and without consequences—and then added insult to injury by initially not paying taxes on her profits. As Secretary of State, she violated dozens of national security protocols, something that would earn other government employees either jail time or a pink slip. Bill, for his part, has become the highest paid “chancellor” in higher education history, earning nearly $17 million over five years by trading on the influence of his Secretary of State spouse—quite aside from plane rides he took aboard the “Lolita express” that would have earned others the charge of misogyny at the very least.
The Clintons may be the worst rule breakers but they are not the only ones. Plagiarists like Fareed Zakaria and Doris Kearns Goodwin or fabulists like Brian Williams take sabbaticals while others face expulsion or dismissal for the same transgressions. No one at the IRS, who transformed a once disinterested tax collection agency into an ideological arm of the White House, was ever charged with a crime. Nor was former Attorney General Eric Holder, who used his government jet to take his family to the Belmont Stakes.
Western elites have become today’s versions of the ossified Vatican of the fifteenth century, the cocooned court of Versailles in the age of Louis XVI during the last throes of the ancien régime, and the bloated Soviet apparatchiks on the dais during May Day parades in Moscow. Amid a global backdrop of financial insecurity, spreading terrorism, instability in the Middle East, and vast population migrations, is it any wonder that we are witnessing Reformation, Revolution, and Revolt from the ground up?