Reframing the Anti-democratic, Anti-American, and Anti-intellectual Rhetoric of Elite

First published at in August 2008.

After eight years of the utter incompetence and ignorance of President George W. Bush’s presidency, one has to wonder how the rhetoric of “elitism” and “anti-intellectual” still holds in power in U.S. politics. Remarkably, though, many who oppose Senator Barack Obama frame him as an “elite” unable to understand, or even really care, about “average” Americans. In this essay I’d like to examine the political rhetoric of “elitism,” its connection to anti-intellectualism, and the consequences of such rhetoric for our country. I will also suggest some strategies for those citizens, regardless of political leaning, who would like to see the end of the anti-democratic and anti-American rhetoric of “the elite.”

Senator Obama is Columbia and Harvard educated, this is true. Obama’s background, however, is far different from many who attend these elite universities. Obama was reared by a single mom who occasionally relied on food stamps to make ends meet. His grandparents sacrificed better living arrangements to help pay for his tuition to one of the better schools in Honolulu. He attended Columbia and Harvard using scholarships and student loans, not on the backs of wealthy donors from his family or his family’s legacy. His grandparents and mother worked hard and sacrificed to give Obama opportunities to succeed. And Obama delivered. He worked his way through school to become the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review and is now running for president of the United States.

When critics contend that Obama is an “elite,” they tend to do so with a focus on his education, his astonishing speaking abilities, and his ability to understand and even cite complex ideas of his own and those he learned while in school. In other words, charges of Obama’s elitism are often a simple conflation of the term “elite” with the term “intellectual.” Looking over claims of Obama’s “elitism,” it becomes clear that “elite” is simply a pejorative to cloak an attack on his intellectual abilities. So, progressives should focus on exposing this rhetorical trick and force people to call these attacks on Senator Obama and others what they really are anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism is an emotional response to arguments and candidates with which one disagrees. It stems from a fear of coming across ideas that might cause cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort one feels when faced with new information that challenges what one already believes to be true. Because education typically broadens people’s minds and changes their perspectives on issues, anti-intellectualism castigates intellectual pursuits and ignores new information as a means of never having to experience cognitive dissonance and therefore never having to change one’s mind.

In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank notes that the socially constructed chasm between “liberal elites” and “average Americans” has strong roots in the rhetoric of the Right in U.S. politics. He argues that anti-intellectual rhetoric was, in part, born of the Right’s distaste for the college professors that informed and help create Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare attacks on many elites and intellectuals of his day (pp. 11, 192-193). I believe that today’s rhetoric of anti-intellectualism stems from the fear of having to consider new ideas in light of new information and world geopolitical contexts and the fear that academia is one place where conservatives will not be able to stake an extremely substantial ideological and demographic claim.

The rhetoric of anti-intellectualism is used by many as a name-calling device a means by which to turn people against anyone who does not agree with their particular political beliefs and a means of arousing the emotions of citizens in order to short circuit rational thinking. The key to defeating the rhetoric of anti-intellectualism is twofold. First, we must point out the hypocrisy of the majority of people who use such rhetoric by discussing the notion of “elite” on what they believe is their terms as an epithet hurled to suggest that someone is out of touch with the “average American” (whoever that is). Second, we need to communicate to others the fact that the rhetoric of “elitism” is really a rhetoric of anti-intellectualism that is anti-democratic and anti-American.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of the majority of people who use the rhetoric of “elitism” is akin to the proverbial pastime of shooting fish in a barrel. First, point out that those in the media who make these claims (political pundits and surrogates) are part and parcel of the “media elite” that have become primary components of the rhetoric of elitism. Bloggers have nothing on the political pundits who have nearly unfettered access to major media outlets where they can work to frame debates and issues as they see fit, and average citizens have nothing on the political surrogates who have nearly universal access to the political powers that be. Second, since the rhetoric of elitism is most often hurled at the Left by those on the Right, point out that most major political figures on the Right are, in the true sense of the term, some of the most “elite” people in our country.

Let’s take the current president and Senator McCain as examples. Senator McCain is the son and grandson of Admirals. McCain’s campaign staff is chock full of K-street lobbyists and established politicians. McCain’s much-touted campaign finance reform bill had an exception in it for people who used planes owned by families so that he could use his wife’s family jet. As Hurricane Katrina struck, McCain was celebrating his birthday with President Bush at his Crawford, Texas ranch, far, far away from “average” citizens bailing water for their lives and crying for help from their rooftops. Bush attended a string of elite schools, not the University of Texas. His academic prowess surely in question, there can be no doubt that his position as a legacy candidate and Bush child insured his acceptance into these elite institutions. One would be hard pressed to name a job that Bush secured on his own merit given his failings in pretty much every business he tried. So, let’s recap. Obama was reared by a single mom and his grandparents, who scrimped and saved to give him an educational advantage and Obama repaid their kindness by gaining acceptance into Columbia and Harvard, working hard and succeeding academically, while all the while paying for his education through scholarships and grants. In contrast, McCain and Bush were members of wealthy families who enjoyed college at the expense of their affluent and connected families and who continue to surround themselves with people very similar to themselves. Remind me again, who is the elite politician?

We must also communicate to people the fact that the political rhetoric of “elitism,” because of its grounding in anti-intellectualism, is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-American. This nation was built on the premise that people have both the ability and the right to rule themselves. To use a rhetoric that suggests that intellect and education are a bad thing to expect of our leaders is to lay our democracy at the feet of those with fascist leanings, who are sure that “average Americans” aren’t really smart enough to govern themselves and are willing to impose whatever rhetoric or rules it takes to convince us to hand over our political will and power to them. I find it hard to believe that “average Americans” don’t want their leaders much less their president to be smarter than they are. I know that I sure do.

The political rhetoric of “elitism” is also anti-American. This country was also founded on the idea of opportunity for all and education is the means by which most people are able to move upward socio-economically. The traditionally conservative edict of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” certainly recognizes education’s role in the ability of citizens to make life better for themselves and their families. Few citizens increase and maintain their socio-economic standing without a good education. Indeed, it should strike us all as odd and hypocritical that the Right attacks Obama for his success, given that his success came from his and his family’s strict adherence to the “conservative way of doing things” working hard and creating your own opportunities in life.

We need to remember that in terms of political rhetoric, the rhetorical strategy of calling a candidate “elite” stems from an anti-intellectual belief system and rhetoric. We should make this connection clear anytime we hear someone use the term “elite” as an epithet to attack a person for his or her intellect. We can counter this rhetoric by pointing out the hypocrisy of those who tend to bark loudest about a candidate’s “elitism” and by pointing out the anti-democratic and anti-American nature of this name calling tactic. Ask those who bring up this argument to explain to you exactly what is wrong with having an intellectual president. Ask them how they define an “elite.” Then, kindly remind them of the backgrounds of President Bush, Senator McCain, and Senator Obama. That should be an interesting discussion.

To conclude, I’d like to make two caveats to my argument. First, I am not contending that the mere use of the word “elite” is something to avoid. When the first President Bush didn’t know what a grocery store scanner was, when Phil Gramm claims that citizens are “whiners” in the midst of a recession, and when John McCain can’t tell you the last time he filled up his own tank or his wife notes that, “In Arizona, the only way to get around the state is by small private plane.”, I don’t think that questions about the ability to understand the lives of average Americans are unfair concerns and that the adjective “elite” might be justified. But there is a difference between examples like these and the strategy of using the “elite” epithet whenever one talks in manner that communicates his or her education/knowledge as opposed to only talking down to citizens and using sound bites as if they can’t understand complex ideas. It’s also the case that one can be elite and still be a great leader, so the two are not mutually exclusive entities.

In addition, while the Right is more inclined to use the “elite” argument against the Left, we cannot forget that in fighting to regain her lead over Senator Obama, Senator Clinton used the rhetoric of elitism against Obama and when asked to give an example of an economist who supported her plan to suspend the gas tax, she tossed away the expert advice that disagreed with her position as mere “elite opinion.” So, when the educated agree with you, everything is fine. But if they don’t, and even if their difference of opinion is based on evidence and research, they may be castigated as “elite.”

If we do nothing else, we must make sure that those on the Left do not use the rhetoric of elitism against other candidates (understanding that there is a difference in the rhetorical/ pejorative use and the legitimate use of the term “elite”). When we engage in such rhetoric we undermine our own credibility as the party of the working and middle class and we give the Right the permission to continue using what has been an incredibly successful rhetorical tactic against the Left.