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An Elite2 President Will Have Trouble Being An Elite1 President

I feel like I should have something substantive to say about "bittergate," seeing as I grew up in rural Pennsylvania*. I still need to find time to go read the full context before I can comment on either Obama's allegations about Pennsylvanians or the various criticisms of them. I've noticed one line of Obama-defense that I think is tendentious.

The criticism of Obama is that his comments show that he's "elitist." I've seen numerous commentators say "after eight years of that bumbling moron Bush, don't we *want* an elite president?"

This comeback works by conflating two senses of the word "elite." The first -- call it "elite1" -- means "better than average at doing what they're trying to do." In that sense, yes, we want an elite1 president, a president who is better than the average American (or the average politician) at presidenting. And Obama probably would be an elite1 president.

But nobody's criticizing Obama for being elite1. They're criticizing him for being elite2 -- "a member of a privileged social group." There's good reason to not want an elite2 president, because their group membership, and the viewpoint and experiences that come from it, will make them less understanding of the problems facing the non-elite2 majority of the country. Not to mention that we already have a surplus of elite2 people in our government. Whether or not his "bitter" comments are evidence for or against it (a topic for another post), Obama is rather elite2. Then again, so are Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

The problem here is not just misunderstanding or twisting the criticism of Obama. The conflation of the two senses of elite reinforces the ideology that supports social inequality. It encourages us to think that the elite2 classes are elite1, that they deserve their privilege and they're better than the rest of us at presidenting, running businesses, etc.

This conflation is not new -- it's an element of the standard liberal case against Bush. His facade of no-elite2-ness -- his accent and malapropisms, his ranch and cowboy hat -- is treated, implicitly or explicitly, as evidence or a hook for his non-elite1-ness. And that's wrong.

*I am ready to say, though, that whining about the "-gate" suffix is almost as annoying as whining about the word "blog" being aesthetically unappealing.


Blogger fancycwabs said...

I think the "elite" moniker has been so quickly embraced by the white establishment media/Clinton/McCain because they've been longing to use the word "uppity" but have been told that it's verboten.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Where did you see this defense?

The defenses I've seen are along the lines of "He was right" and "It's a good thing that members of the elite try to lift up the poor." I've never seen any "Elitism is good" defense.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Alon: I've seen it lots of places. For example, check the comments to this thread.

7:05 AM  
Blogger ogre said...

I think that in Bush's case, his facade of folksiness (and yes, I believe that's accurate--that it's a facade) is a cover for his being elite2 (remember his remarks about his base--the haves and have mores?). It's sort of a reverse Potemkin village, the inverse of intellectual pretensions.... Meanwhile, the evidence is that he's anything but elite1 (the opinion of historians regarding his term in office having sunk from average to insipid to execrable to probably worst ever over the past 7 years).

He's the very not-elite/elite we don't want.

Personally, I find mere membership in elite2 to be inconsequential--a complete distraction--from whether one should be elected to office. FDR was certainly a minor member of elite2. Teddy was a member. So were Washington and Jefferson. Lincoln wasn't. Social class as a measure of ability and capacity to do or not do a job is inane--that's either an aristocratic arrogance or its inverse. Both are fatuous considerations in and of themselves for political purposes. Capacity, character, and political leanings/plans--that's what matters.

1:37 PM  

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