Elitism is ancient, as old as mankind itself. Always there are those who claim greater wisdom and understanding, and naturally, they say, it is best for power to rest with them. This is a thing not entirely without merit, for no nation would long suffer the reign of fools. Yet the bargain for power requires two concessions on the part of such elites: competency and honesty. If either principle should fail, then it is morally permissible, even demanded by morality that they be cast out.
In both parties elitists may be found, though there is a greater tendency for elitism in today’s Democratic Party. It wasn’t always so, for in the days of Andrew Jackson, his faction of the Democrat party was very populist. Even as late as the 1960s, Southern Democrats were mostly populist. But as elitist as the Democrats may be, the phenomenon is known to the Republicans also. Tom Nichols represents a faction of the Republican party that regards populism as a great evil, and a celebration of stupidity. For such men, the problem is not elitism, the problem is merely that the wrong elites have power. The right elites, of course, are them.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who feel they have been lied to, or that those who are running things lack competency. It is true that many of them are not particularly intelligent or credentialed, though the assessment of them as stupid may be grossly unfair. Elitists would say that such men lack the qualifications to judge elites. They are lesser men, unworthy of consultation, and should stay out of affairs which they know little about. It is troublesome to the elites that such people are allowed the vote.
Yet the populists realize something is terribly wrong with America and her leadership. If you hire a plumber to fix a problem in your home, it is likely that you know little of plumbing, and require the services of an expert. Yet the plumber cannot say to you ‘you cannot judge my work, for you are not an expert.’ If the plumber fails in his task, and your house is flooded with leaks, you know that, whatever it was he was supposed to do, he categorically failed at it.
America’s leadership has failed, and that is as clear to great movers and shakers as it is to lowly workmen. The pool of jobs has dried up, and young men entering the workforce as retail laborers look at the heights the Baby Boomers achieved, and are understandably confused. Society told them to attend college, to obtain a degree, and enjoy the resulting success. But the success largely passed them by. Our old factories are closed down, and manufacturing moved overseas. Wars are fought poorly in distant hellholes, such that even the most simple-minded idiot might now say ‘why don’t you just kill the enemy?’
Meanwhile elitist wisdom extols that which makes no sense:
“If you kill your enemies, they win”
When challenged, the elites will say that the underdeveloped minds of the working class are unable to comprehend their nuance. The hoi polloi are not to be trusted, and their complaints are swept aside. Yet what of me? My IQ is firmly north of +3SD. Am I stupid, also? Please do not misunderstand me, I do not brag (and besides, with the individuals I know, +3 or +4 SD is small potatoes anyway). It doesn’t matter how intelligent a test makes you out to be, for intellectualism is no defense against foolishness. Indeed, intellectualism in the hands of academics may exacerbate foolhardy behavior. The man who knows he is not wise doesn’t claim to be great, and so the cost of his mistakes are small. The man who believes himself wise, and is not, can do great damage indeed.
But perhaps competency is not the problem, despite appearances to the contrary. Maybe the foolishness of the elites is deliberate, and part of an elaborate ruse designed to obtain greater honors for themselves. Where did the wealth of the Clintons come from? How has Barack Obama made his millions? At least we have a general idea where Donald Trump’s money came from. But where do the funds for the political elites originate? Consider the plumber example. Is it possible that the plumber’s work is deliberately poor, so that he might cheat his customer?
Again, the customer doesn’t know precisely what the bad plumber is doing wrong. He only knows that something is amiss. In such circumstances, the customer may toss the plumber out the door and call somebody else. Of course, there are no guarantees that the new plumber is any better than the old, but at least there is a chance of competency and honesty with a new one.
That is what is happening now with populism and Donald Trump. The peasants have tired of the excuses from the known plumbers, and are selecting one for whom competency and honesty is a shot in the dark. Maybe they’ll get lucky, maybe not, but better that than the guy who floods your house, and then tries to convince you that the flooding is a good thing and perhaps you just ought to get used to the idea of sleeping in a swamp. If you plug the leaks, the water wins, the plumber says. At least this plumber is saying that the house being flooded is, perhaps, not an ideal circumstance.
Now, when this happened, when the working class became exhausted of the lies and excuses, the GOP had a golden opportunity. They could have done as Trump is doing now and claimed to recognize the problems facing ordinary Americans today. They could have listened, and agreed that the leaks were bad, and the squishy carpet was undesirable. Populism, like elitism, is neither inherently bad nor inherently good, but requires more information. It can be harnessed for either purpose.
Truly, the Republican party missed the boat. For all of their claimed wisdom and credentialed authority, they missed the obvious: Americans were tired of lies and excuses. They wanted results. They wanted to see the leaks plugged and the water drained. They wanted their home back. Instead, the GOP went the way of the Democrats, to decry populism and insult their customers. This is what happens in a monopoly, you see. Poor service and inflated prices abound.
Far from being an effective competitor to the Democrats, a large fraction of the GOP has, in essence, thrown in with them. Like the record label cartel, they have collectively decided to screw the customer and ignore his pleas. Overpriced political dreck is the inevitable result. Complaints from unsatisfied customers are ignored, and the prices are ever-inflated. Eventually, the IRS is utilized to force the customer to buy certain products, under penalty of fine (the non-payment of which can eventually result in imprisonment).
And GOP analysts are surprised that, when some rogue plumber comes along and promises to fix the leaks and drain the water (regardless of whether he actually can, mind you), the people who have been lied to, called stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic, hateful and every other name in the book are receptive to his charms? Trump shows the road map that better men should have followed.
Unlike his supporters, I highly doubt Trump will live up to his claims. But I at least understand why people are listening to him, and that’s more than supposedly wise men among the political elites have been able to divine.
Perhaps instead of belittling the customer’s concerns, they ought to do the job for which they have been paid an exorbitant amount of money. Failing that, they could at least go away and let someone more competent and/or more honest do the job. Populists aren’t the problem today. Elites are the problem now. But I doubt the solution to the elitism can be found in another elitist. And maybe this is merely another ruse to hold on to power in a world that clearly doesn’t care for them any longer.
To technocrats everywhere, I advise brushing up on your Socrates. You are fools and liars masquerading as honest wise men.