"Elite" in what sense?

Last week Grant posted a clip of Minnesota Archbishop John Nienstedt speaking up in favor of "an amendment to our state constitution to preserve our historic understanding of marriage" to keep the question from being resolved by "a ruling elite." When you hear a bishop using "elite" as a pejorative, you know it's time to question some premises. And on cue, Slate's Jacob Weisberg has an article examining what "elitist" means in politics today. There are a number of shifting definitions, depending on who's talking and whom they're hoping to insult. But in general it's an empty epithet, a term of ad hominem resentment. Can one be a liberal and not be "elitist"? Can one be elite if one is not liberal? If the answer is no -- as it seems to be in much right-wing discourse -- then criticizing someone or some policy as "elitist" is nothing but a tautology. (Of course, when there are no liberals in the picture, "elite" seems to mean something else -- as when Republican candidates jockeying for grassroots cred accuse each other of being "elite." Perhaps then it's shorthand for crypto-liberalism?)Weisberg identifies one distinct definition of "elitist," endorsed by John McCain among others: "an elitist is someone who thinks the opinion of a minority should sometimes prevail over the opinion of a majority." This is a very useful construct in politics:

It has the further advantage of providing an escape hatch from the substance of issues by reframing them in cultural terms. Arguments for raising taxes, expanding health insurance, and fighting climate change are all met with by the rejoinder that some people should quit telling the rest of us how to live our lives.

As Weisberg points out, it's not this definition that's the problem, per se; it's the hypocrisy with which accusations of "elitism" are levied and applied.

The problem with the GOP's elite-bashing is not their definition but their contradictions. In practice, conservatives are no less inclined than liberals to adopt superior stances or to tell people how to live their lives. ...Such hypocrisy is based on the construct of a pre-political state of nature, where we lived in abstract freedom until government arrived to limit and control us.

Sounds right to me, and I recommend reading the whole thing. (But isn't that just the sort of thing an elitist would say?)

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads