Elites? Who or what are elites? The alienated right wing is certain elites are responsible for their alienation. The alienated left wing is sure elites control everything. A recent newspaper article harped on the role of coastal elites. A local conservative friend rejoices that the electoral college makes it possible for sparsely populated rural states of real people to elect presidents who protect them from the ravages of a special brand of coastal elites – liberals. For him, big city, coastal, liberal and elite are synonyms. Not to be outdone, a Marxist friend is equally certain that coastal elites are all right wing capitalists who have engineered control of the electoral college to elect predatory presidents. The two have a lot in common.
Mysteriously evasive to pin down, except they’re usually coastal, elites appear to be the primary malevolent force in society, admired only by the bourgeoisie, and nobody knows who or what they are other than detestable, mostly because anyone labeled with a word so hard to spell or pronounce has to be detestable. But they’re not the deplorables, whom we now know to be good, ordinary, real people who are not elite.
The dictionary defines elites as being small groups holding disproportionate amounts of wealth, privilege, political power, etc., or who are known to be the best in their fields of endeavor (Wikipedia). I first ran into the term in C. Wright Mills’ 1956 book, The Power Elite, in which political and economic power was said to be located in a few organizations led by “men” who networked to make decisions controlling almost everything else affecting the entire nation.
The idea of elites just begs for conspiracies, and two of the most popular are the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati. The Trilateral Commission is real, a non-secret society of mostly academics from many nations who meet from time to time to discuss world affairs. Founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller, it’s been accused of having secret control of government policies world wide. The Illuminati, on the other hand, was an 18th century secret society of European academics that exists today only in the imagination of those who believe its unknown members are puppeteers pulling the strings of government throughout the world. Neither live up to the threat of today’s coastal elite.
It appears to me that right wingers, having run out of politically correct scape goats of the usual kind, have settled on elites as an acceptable substitute, especially coastal elites, who by definition are extreme liberals. Borrowing from conspiracies past and present, they can be blamed for almost anything without having to be specific about who they are, except that Nancy Pelosi is one of them. Left wingers are left nonplussed, having had their favorite category of scapegoat taken from them. However, their elites tend to be corporate moguls and Republican so it works out OK. They each get to have their elites to blame.
Are elites really that bad? Should we exterminate them? No. Elites are a natural phenomena of human society, and they have important roles to play in making human society work –– for weal or for woe.
Every community or organization I’ve worked with has had several sets of elites. Some hold more wealth and economic power than others. Some hold more political power, some more social standing, some more intellectual standing, some control more means and content of communication, and some have power that’s less obvious. For instance, there are thought and opinion leaders no one would call elite. Having little obvious power in the usual sense, their words, judgement, and networks of friendship have enormous influence over decisions made by others.
Among these elites, some are known for humility and some for arrogance, some for generosity and some for meanness, some for the common touch and some for being snobs. Being among the elite is not a measure of one’s moral character. But membership in an elite group carries obligations. Elites have real power in their areas of influence, which means that there are moral consequences to how it’s used and the results of using it. Elites, maybe more than anyone else, need wise counsel reminding them of it. From where, from whom? From clergy and teachers. Of course there are others, but clergy and teachers stand at the forefront. Among thought and opinion leaders, clergy and teachers are the least recognized and most influential.
People discover themselves to be members of an elite group mostly by dumb luck, the passing of time, or while they were busy doing something else. They come to it having been equipped, or not, by clergy and teachers with the moral habits and critical thinking skills needed to guide them. Ambitious politicians, for instance, may aspire to high office, but I think they’re unprepared for how influential high office can be, not in their lives only, but even more in the lives of others. The worst among them don’t care. The mediocre are aware but stumble in their incompetence. The best struggle daily to do what is right for others while not damaging their own standing. The same might be said for leaders of business and in the church, each in their own way.
Clergy and teachers, ordinary rank and file clergy and teachers, carry the burden of doing what they can to prepare a new generation for the burden of leadership, counseling the elite whom they can reach, and confronting the abuse of elite status wherever it is found. Clergy and teachers are obligated to inform persons that they are elite, and that being elite has consequences for which they must be held accountable.
So, this column has drifted from elites as handy scapegoats to the reality of elites as worthy of recognition and guidance, ending with an observation about the importance of clergy and teachers as essential tools in the formation of elite morality.