I was interested in this New York Times article that mentions some of my concerns about the latest rash of anti-intellectualism in the public sphere.
Writer Susan Jacoby asks why “elitist” and “elite opinion” have become such negative terms in today’s political scene. At its most absurd, Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that the unanimous opinion of economists was not to be trusted because it was “elite”. I agree with Jacoby that there is a difference between populism that respects the abilities of all people and a rejection of expertise of achievement. Indeed, the populism that I would encourage wants an educated population, where everyone can have an informed opinion about matters that affect us all. Instead, it appears, “elitism” is any suggestion that people as citizens or as leaders should be expected to do or know more.
One interesting note, it seems that the opposite attitude is at work when it comes to issues of national security. While it is “elitist” to trust economists on the subject of the economy, in the case of the war, we are expected to trust the judgment of the president and General Petraeus without question. They are the experts; they have all the information. Perhaps this attitude is deployed so effectively (at least until recently) by the Bush administration because the president is portrayed as so everyday in other situations.
The cries against elitism are not necessarily a rejection of special knowledge, then, but against a certain segment of society – educated progressives who may have behaved too condescendingly throughout history, creating a negative reaction among others. Perhaps to fix this problem, elites need better PR to consistently present themselves as relatable and trustworthy, instead of snobby and condescending. I wonder if Al Gore’s public image today compared to in the run-up to the 2000 election might be instructive in this respect.