You would have to be an inattentive person never to have noticed the incongruity between the well-informed but fatuous opinions of your forward-thinking peers on the one hand, and the simple but wise judgments of your parents or grandparents on the other. Everybody knows educated people who nonetheless hold idiotic views on important questions, and everybody knows ill-educated and uncultured people who are nonetheless able to see through the haze of smart verbiage and specious arguments and grasp realities that smarter people miss.
The observation is so obvious that it’s easy to miss its relevance to modern political controversies. Many of the fiercest fights in 21st-century American culture and politics have mainly to do with educational status, pitting the well-educated upper-middle class against the uneducated lower-middle class. This is not to deny that uneducated people can say and do profoundly wicked and stupid things, or that education is an intrinsic good. The problem is that American society has reached a point at which the elite dominate the non-elite, ignore them when possible, heap scorn on them when they must speak of them at all, and govern the nation to their great detriment. Just this year, the imperious force with which our elite demanded that the nation’s shopkeepers and wage-earners put a stop to all their remunerative work and social habits for months on end—as if the owner of a custom car-wash or an instructor at a gym can work from home in the way a university professor or a corporate executive can—was a chilling display of arrogance and hatred.
But rather than describe this as a political or governmental problem, let me describe it as an epistemological one.
EVERY HEALTHY, prospering society is governed by an elite. In the United States in the late 20th and 21st centuries, the elite consist not of college-educated people, since that would include a third to a half of all Americans, but of people who hold undergraduate and, especially, graduate degrees from certain exclusive colleges and universities; who hold mid- to upper-level positions in government, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and multinational corporations; and who are guided in their beliefs by the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and similar venues of news and opinion.
The elite have built up human capital—education, training, work experience, social skills. That is what makes them elite. They have been taught, they have received instruction in music and art, they have read books and understand complex concepts about politics and philosophy and science. The elite know the difference between baroque and classical and Romantic, they know more or less what Plato’s Republic is about, they know the meaning of the words “synesthesia” and “palimpsest,” they know that the French Revolution transformed into Napoleonic wars of aggression, they know about general relativity, they can explain the concept of fungibility, they have some idea of what 12-tone music is, they have some rough understanding of what the materialist conception of history involves, and most of them know what stock options and commodities are. The elite also “know” many things that are not true: that the rise of Nazism in Germany was the consequence of the Treaty of Versailles; that there was no conceivable justification for the bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970; that religion deals in myth whereas science deals in fact. But these are interpretive rather than factual errors; elite minds are full of much that is true and sound.
Elites are also adept at negotiating the social and moral complexities associated with their surplus of knowledge. They know that such-and-such a historian is no longer one to cite in respectable company, that a certain orchestral conductor was a great musician but a sexual predator, that French politics is intermittently vulnerable to anti-Semitism, and that it is not advisable to use the word “slave” or any of its cognates unless it’s clear that you are denouncing the enslavement of humans in all its forms.
All these things require mental agility to handle. You need that agility to run large corporations, to hold important administrative positions at elite universities, to lead influential nonprofit organizations, or to make your way to the top of large bureaucracies. There is really no possibility of achieving elite status without some semblance of the intellectual proficiency described here. Nor should there be. You don’t necessarily need it to produce things and provide products and services that people actually want and that contribute to human betterment, but you do need it to hold distinguished positions in business and government. You need it to judge whether a war is just, whether a proposed regulation on unhealthy foods is within the realm of reasonable governmental behavior, or whether a certain kind of appliance is likely to be competitive in East Asian markets.
BUT THE skills necessary for the elite are also restricting. Ideas and abstractions and personalities and reputations and social mandates—these things can crowd in on the mind and get in the way. They give the mind that negotiates them a sense of superiority, but they also hem it in—precluding possibilities, forcing insincere responses, and making some thoughts, however true, almost literally unthinkable. Every complex ethical or political question faced by the educated person demands a response that first considers a dizzying array of competing considerations. The educated person, the elite person, doesn’t have the luxury of simply stating what he believes about a thing. He must ensure that his statement doesn’t fall afoul of the prevailing moral dictates of his time, doesn’t suggest an affinity for some disreputable opinion or philosophy, doesn’t unjustly indict some sainted public figure, doesn’t suggest ignorance of alternatives, doesn’t exhibit a lack of sympathy or sensitivity.
In the rarefied environs of the elite, to say a thing is no easy business: It requires mental and discursive capacities that only a privileged upbringing and education (education of a certain kind anyway) can supply. But it can also ensnare a smart, well-meaning person in a web of irrelevancies. The work of constantly modifying and modulating your responses to complicated circumstances—and it is work—can trap an educated mind and coerce it into accepting false premises and expressing false thoughts. That is why so many educated and cultured adults, people who should have known better simply by virtue of having lived 40 or 50 years, found themselves enunciating the preposterous lies of Communism and fascism. Years spent refining and regulating their responses to complex situations with reference to the demands and expectations of their day led them, eventually, into dank intellectual dungeons from which there was little hope of escape.
I don’t mean to suggest that ordinary non-elite people could never talk themselves into such obviously stupid views. Clearly many bumpkins and middle-class strivers have given their allegiance to hateful ideologies and helped to bring about repressive regimes. But in general they were led to do so by their educated betters. There is something basically true in Orwell’s famous remark that “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” To put it in general terms, and acknowledging exceptions: Ordinary working people don’t fasten onto the strange philosophies of the elites until the elites first give those philosophies the respectability and the illusion of inevitability that only they can give. Cynthia Ozick, writing with particular reference to anti-Semitism, recently put the point well in an essay for the Wall Street Journal.
Anti-Semitism is generally thought of as brutish, the mentality of mobs, the work of the ignorant, the poorly schooled, the gutter roughnecks, the torch carriers. But these are only the servants, not the savants, of anti-Semitism. Mobs execute, intellectuals promulgate. Thugs have furies, intellectuals have causes.
The Inquisition was the brainchild not of illiterates, but of the most lettered and lofty prelates. Goebbels had a degree in philology. Hitler fancied himself a painter and doubtless knew something of Dürer and da Vinci. Pogroms aroused the murderous rampage of peasants, but they were instigated by the cream of Russian officialdom. The hounding and ultimate expulsion of Jewish students from German universities was abetted by the violence of their Aryan classmates, but it was the rectors who decreed that only full-blooded Germans could occupy the front seats. Martin Heidegger, the celebrated philosopher of being and non-being, was quick to join the Nazi Party, and as himself a rector promptly oversaw the summary ejection of Jewish colleagues.
The term “fascism” is thrown around quite a bit in our time, but the real thing, it ought to be constantly repeated, was the doctrine of intellectuals and academics and high-ranking civil servants and party functionaries, not farmers and tradesmen and machinists. Fascism came from above, not below. Large parts of the petty bourgeoisie in Germany and countries occupied by the Reich were successfully made to participate in the terrible experiment of Nazism, but they did not invent the wretched thing. The centripetal faith of fascism was a product of the educated classes, of university faculty and their prize students, and it needed educated people to flourish. Communism, similarly, wasn’t birthed by commoners demanding equality but by fluent and socially adept men, the intelligentsia, claiming to speak for them.
The same is true, though at a far lower level of moral repugnance, of today’s ideologies: intersectionality, radical feminism, transgenderism, white nationalism, eco-communitarianism, and so on. No ordinary person doing his job and tending to his family and minding his own business would have the slightest interest in such balderdash. The post-colonialist literary critic can make a career out of representing in his criticism the interests of colonial peoples, but he doesn’t need to know any Trinidadians or Saint Lucians or black South Africans.
Further delimiting the acceptable conclusions at which the educated mind can safely arrive is the need for safety in consensus. You encounter this mental disposition frequently in reports of the Times and other respectable news sources. The phrasing is always about the same. “The consensus among economists holds… ” “The overwhelming majority of epidemiologists take the view that… ” “Most experts disagree…” The problem with this sort of framing isn’t that it’s false. Often it is factually true. The problem is that the author’s sympathies are almost always with the consensus opinion, and that the statements alleging consensus aren’t simply meant to convey information: They are meant to force on the reader a certain interpretation of the facts without acknowledging that it is an interpretation. A friend of mine, a professor of English with center-left political beliefs, used to have a sign posted on his office wall: The rhetoric of consensus is always coercive. That captures it.
This constant use of consensus is a means of ending the discussion. Once a consensus of experts is summoned to hedge a view in this manner, the author is free to dismiss other views, often with the unkind implication that those other views are only held by ill-informed people. I have before me a book of recent political history in which the following observations are made about the 2009 economic-stimulus bill promoted by the Obama administration and ultimately passed by Congress. Here is the manner in which the author, Molly Ball, summarizes the economic viewpoint—often called Keynesian for its most famous proponent, John Maynard Keynes—on which the 2009 bill was based:
Most mainstream economists accepted Keynesian theory, but it could be a hard sell with the public. If your family was broke, you’d tighten your belt, not go take out a new mortgage. But that counterintuitive idea was what the government was proposing. Republicans, many of whom still denied the scientific consensus on climate change, didn’t necessarily buy the economists’ consensus, either. Some had latched on to a faddish new book, Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man, which argued that FDR’s stimulus had made the Depression worse, not better, even though most historian disagreed.
The author, though never openly saying it, clearly favors one side of the political conflict and condemns the other. She hedges her view in three ways. First, she notes that skeptics of the “stimulus” idea—the idea that large-scale deficit spending during a recession tends to increase demand, get the economy moving, and pay for itself by increased revenues—can’t have been right because “most mainstream economists” accept the Keynesian theory. She reminds her readers, second, that many of the people who rejected Keynesian theory also “denied” the “scientific consensus” on climate change and so, she implies, can’t be trusted. The words “deny” and “denier” are, of course, meant to associate those who reject some favored consensus with Holocaust deniers. You see where these people’s anti-consensus views eventually get them! And third, the author felt she needed to deal with the fact that many of these Keynes deniers were supported in their perverse outlook by The Forgotten Man, by Amity Schlaes. That book is an extraordinary work of scholarship and shrewd historical and economic analysis, but the author efficiently dismisses it by calling it “faddish” and suggesting that its congressional readers hadn’t actually read and understood it; they had only “latched on to” it. Thus does an impressively educated and shrewd author excuse herself from thinking and reading for herself and instead allow her credentialed and accomplished peers to do the work for her.
The educated mind knows what the consensuses are and lunges for them in cases of uncertainty. Often this is good and proper. Many consensus views on historical, economic, and political questions are true, or at least closer to the truth than their competitors. But often they are false and give the educated mind an excuse to further ensconce itself in error.
THAT BRINGS us to the non-elite. The curse of the non-elite is that they do not know the things the elite know. It’s not that they are dull or weak-minded; they are dull or weak-minded in about the same proportion as the elite. But the minds of the non-elite are not populated by the names and concepts of well-known intellectuals, are not replete with isms and arguments, have not developed robust opinions about monetary policy and the teaching of science in schools and the merits of abstract painting. The non-elite typically cannot lead and manage large institutions because their minds are not conversant with debates about, for example, how their societies are arranged, what man really is and isn’t, why markets work and command economies don’t, and who has a right to know what about the private affairs of citizens.
That is the non-elites’ limitation, but it is their strength as well. When they are faced with a complex, strange, or morally ambiguous circumstance and asked their view of it, they have no need to run the data through a complicated set of criteria and produce an answer that places them in the right company and avoids offending people whom it is not in their interest to offend. They have few points of historical reference with which to weigh the question, and so they are able to render a clear and immediate judgment, rooted in a basic conception of right and wrong. The rooms of their minds are more sparsely furnished than are those of their elite counterparts, but they do not trip over end tables and footstools when someone knocks at the front door.
Many among the elite fancy that this intellectual sparseness renders the non-elite easy to manipulate, beholden to atavistic bigotries, unable to free themselves from exploded myths. The elite fear that the non-elite, given too much power, will ransack respectable society with their idiocies—racist threats, conspiracy theories, ancient hatreds, benighted perversions of all kinds.
These fears are not groundless. Ignorant people can injure themselves and others. They can impose unjust laws on vulnerable populations and perpetuate inhumane and gruesome traditions. But they have a necessary and healthy role in a democratic society.
Indeed the elite need the non-elite as much as the non-elite need the elite. The educated classes are apt to forget or fail to see obvious truths. Their minds become so burdened by concepts and arguments and allegiances that they lose sight of simpler and plainer realities. The educated classes are apt at all times to talk themselves into accepting foolish propositions simply because they see no alternative, and for that reason they need the less educated populace to place a check on their impulses. This isn’t simply to point out that there are educated ignoramuses; everybody knows that. The point rather is that the elite mind, though indispensable to a flourishing culture, can become so preoccupied with small and tertiary things that it misses obvious and important things; that it becomes so encumbered with signals and allegiances and fear of criticism that it effectively cuts itself off from manifest truths.
In a functioning democratic culture, the elite are constantly thwarted from imposing their ideas of perfection by the non-elite. For the elite to get what they want, they have to work hard. Sometimes they succeed, and that success is a blessing. It was the view of educated elites that Jim Crow had to end before it was the view of non-elites, who tended to complacency about a stark injustice. At other times the success is a curse. Eugenics was the invention of intellectuals in the 1880s and 1890s well before average Americans got it in their head that immigration from southern Europe and Asia ought to be slowed or stopped because those places produced “inferior” racial stock. Nobody would have thought to form “racial betterment societies” and the like unless led to do so by learned men under the influence of a perverted science.
Just occasionally, the elite settle on an opinion and the populace will have none of it. In 1939 and 1940, to take a dramatic example, almost the only British citizens who couldn’t grasp what should have been the plain truth that further negotiations with Hitler were pointless and that war was the only sane and honorable alternative were the most elite members of British society: executives of the BBC, editorialists at the Times, the royal family, Church of England clergymen, nearly all the House of Lords, and a majority of the House of Commons—in sum the nation’s most cultivated minds. These elites, as we would now call them, were absolutely convinced on many points—that the German military would smash Britain to pieces the moment war came (almost true), that Winston Churchill was impetuous and unreliable and incapable of leadership in a crisis (false), that the British public had been wrong in 1914 that war with Germany would be quickly won (true), and many others. Yet they were utterly, foolishly wrong about the only question that mattered. Their sagacity and learning got in the way. Ordinary Britons could see what their educated betters mostly could not.
In the 1970s and ’80s, nearly the whole of the American news media and foreign policy establishment believed that the Cold War was no longer properly thought of as a “war” at all because the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture in world affairs. The U.S. was better off, the country’s elites believed, treating the USSR as a legitimate competitor whose hostility to the West was almost exclusively the result of American bellicosity, not as an enemy aiming for world domination whose official pronouncements were never to be trusted. Most ordinary Americans still held the older view—partly by force of habit but partly also because they could see the obvious and had no mental clutter keeping them from saying so. Against the wishes of the country’s cognoscenti, they elected Ronald Reagan by a significant margin and reelected him four years later by a massive one, substantially on the grounds that Reagan held the Soviet Union to be a twisted experiment in oppression—an evil empire, as he was not afraid to call it in 1983—rather than a legitimate nation-state. There were many excellent reasons to reject his view, and they were explained at length in op-eds and articles by eminent scholars employed by elite institutions. But they were wrong.
In recent years, however, both in Europe and North America, the elite have detached from the non-elite. In the political sphere, the elite have learned how to get their way without consulting the populace. They can do so by court decisions that usurp the people’s lawmaking prerogatives, by the promulgation of rules and regulations that bind citizens without anything resembling consent, by the creation of new agencies and commissions headed by bureaucrats with no accountability to elected officeholders, by “laws” passed in transnational bodies consisting entirely of unelected pooh-bahs, and by employing wildly tendentious news coverage to bully and terrorize non-elite members of the public into accepting narrowly tailored accounts of events. In ways it could not have imagined a half-century ago, the elite are now free.
You can gauge the extent to which elites have given up on the idea of democratic rule by noting the way in which many of them use the words “democracy” and “democratic.” When a non-elite American uses the word “democracy,” he almost always means something like majority rule or government by popularly chosen representatives. In the ordinary usage, the word implies campaigns, opinion polls, and especially elections. But many, perhaps most, elites no longer think of democracy in that way. When they use the term, they mean something like the spread of political rights to formerly marginalized groups. Elections are a necessary part of democracy, in the elites’ often tacit understanding, but democracy, for them, is primarily about inclusion, diversity, and the legitimation of heretofore discounted identities and persecuted minorities, especially those marginalized people who can be counted on to support elite opinion with their votes. (When elites’ political preferences are thwarted by countermajoritarian institutions, however—the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College—they can be counted on to equate democracy with majority rule. Otherwise the principle holds.)
This has the convenient effect of allowing elites, the ones who dominate the American left, to call into question the outcome of any election they disapprove of. They are not simply interested in free and fair elections according to constitutional norms. No, they are interested in the outcome of those free and fair elections, and if the outcome is other than what they would wish it to be—if elections do not produce results in line with “liberal democracy”—they feel that democracy itself is “threatened” or “under assault.”
“Some elections in a democracy are not only about who will hold office for the next term,” writes the progressive political theorist Paul Starr in Entrenchment, “but about the principles that will govern in the long term. It is an error of the most serious kind to think you are fighting a normal election when you are actually fighting over the constitutional system itself.” The trouble is that elites like Starr always think elections are about “the principles that will govern in the long term.” They do not much care for elections as elections, when it comes down to it, because elections can easily go the wrong way and hand power to non-elites. Some of them, indeed, are brave enough to say so: Jason Brennan in Against Democracy and David Van Reybrouck in Against Elections.
All this is simply to point out the degree to which elites now resent any trammeling by non-elites whatsoever. They exist, intellectually, in a well-furnished room of their own, with no need to converse with their less educated correlatives. Or they would prefer to exist in such a room, and they expect to be so situated one day. The opinions of non-elites, lacking as they do all nuance and sophistication, are worthless to them—not opinions at all, in the rightful sense. Hence the ubiquitous phenomenon of white elites seeking absolution by identifying ostentatiously with black Americans and other “people of color.” Those are the only non-elites for whom they have any sympathy, but, alas, they don’t know any; the only thing to do is placard their solicitude by adopting the right sympathies, writing indignant statements on their social-media pages about “systemic racism,” attending marches, placing signs on the lawns of their expensive homes bearing the words “black lives matter.” These gestures, though impotent, signal to the world that although they are among the elite, and although they have no intention of ever giving up their status, they are the good kind of elite. They are not mean. Do not think ill of them.
Such appear to be the nonsense ratiocinations of the highly educated who feel no connection with, or responsibility to, people of modest educational accomplishment. The elite mind, when surrounded only by other elite minds, easily becomes entangled in highfalutin concepts and specious, jargon-laced pseudo-arguments. Statements of obvious truth become complicated or impossible to make. I think of an observation by the German-British historian Geoffrey Elton: “When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian; and there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill—whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.” Elton’s claim that the problem might be one of competence—an inability to state a manifestly true thing simply means you’re no good at what you do—suggests a point at once commonplace and easily forgotten: that there are strong minds and weak minds, and levels of education and social status are of little use in distinguishing between the two. Some well-informed and credentialed people, though capable in certain regards, just aren’t very bright.
At present this phenomenon is most visible and acute on the matter of race. American elites simply cannot discuss the subject of race relations with anything approaching clarity. It’s not that they won’t; they can’t. The subject is rife with unmentionables and words and phrases that must not be used except in the most circumspect way, and it has been so for 30 years or more. Elites’ knowledge of history and social norms and politics and cultural trends—it all crowds in, and statements of simple truths become impossible.
It is wrong to favor some races over others in university admissions. Welfare can create dependency. George Washington is worthy of admiration. Looting is wrong. Most cops are decent and brave people and we need them. These and other plainly true statements cannot be agreed to by a great number of highly educated Americans at the present time, for reasons that must appear mysterious to their more ordinary and less-well-educated acquaintances. You could add many other such statements about matters apart from race. It is not healthy to think much about whether you are a “he” or a “she.” In America, hard work generally pays off. Sometimes women lie about being raped. It is not good to use abortion as birth control. Strong borders are necessary for the nation-state to function. Each of these assertions, though they would hardly need to be said at all in another time, sounds “problematic” and ill-informed and bereft of nuance to the well-read and politically attuned. The non-elite hear them as what they are, banalities; the elite hear them as a literary critic might hear a poem by Pound or Eliot, detecting in them subtle allusions and intimations of sinister yearnings.
The elite live and move in a world of allegiances and identities of Byzantine complexity, and in that world many such perspicuous claims appear loaded or vexed. Its members know few who live outside that world. And the few they know they can safely ignore.
ONLY IT’S not quite safe to ignore them. In America’s rowdy, centrifugal political system, the non-elite find a way of gate-crashing every few years. The system was designed, and with successive expansions of the franchise and other democratic reforms redesigned, to give the modestly educated man—and eventually woman—a measure of influence over decisions made in the capital. Occasionally the non-elite insist on reminding the world that they are Americans and not Europeans. “American democracy regularly witnesses populist upsurges,” Irving Kristol once wrote. “European and British observers, along with most American scholars, tend to describe them as ‘spasms,’ or even ‘paroxysms.’ But they are nothing of the sort. They are built into the very structure of American politics in a way that is alien to British or European politics, where ‘politics’ is what the government says or does.”
Kristol was writing in 1995 and had in mind the rise of conservative talk radio, which then had unexpectedly challenged the authority of the nation’s newspapers and network news channels, all of them more or less liberal. Before that, there was the Hard Hat Riot of 1970 and its aftermath, and the defection of blue-collar Reagan Democrats to the Republican ticket in 1980 and 1984. More recently we’ve witnessed the Tea Party in 2010 and of course, six years later, the election of Donald Trump.
These revolts by the non-elite are complex events about which judicious observers disagree. The point here is not to explain their meaning or to defend their proponents. It is rather to point out that such revolts often force the elite to reckon with plainer and simpler interpretations of the world.
Unwelcome intrusions by those of low status and limited education, even when expressed with ugliness and without anything like philosophical consistency, can have the wonderful effect of forcing the educated power broker or the accomplished academic to turn his attention away from otiose speculations and grapple with very basic things.
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