An elite is a relatively small group of people with the highest status in a society, or in some domain of activity, who have more privileges or power than other people due to their status. Elitism is believing in or promoting this sort of arrangement, whether that be in the academic world, politics, art, sports, or anywhere else.
The word elite was originally French for ‘select’ or ‘chosen’ and comes from the same Latin root, eligere, as elect.
In socio-political philosophy elitism is the belief that societies must or should be ruled by an elite, and theorists of elitism study how the elite gain and maintain their status, and what they get for it.
So, there seem to be three key aspects of elitism:
- What qualities make a person elite?
- What domains of activity can people be elite in?
- What benefits come with being a member of the elite?
The main argument in favor of elitism is that the smartest and strongest people are the best qualified to lead and wield power—that it is in all of our best interests to have the best people at the top.
The main arguments against elitism are that it opposes equality (egalitarianism), diversity (pluralism), and democracy (populism). And the observation that the elite, in practice, do not actually include all or only the best people, but rather often, simply the people from certain families. So, we will return to these arguments against elitism in section three.
Example 1: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The novel (and film adaptations) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley describes a fictional intended-to-be-perfect society, based on rationalism, technology, and especially, eugenics—the science of engineering better human beings. In this society, there are many grades of human-being, from the high I.Q. good looking Alphas at the top down through five grades to the barely conscious Epsilons who are bred to do the most unpleasant and dangerous work. Naturally, the Alphas have all the best jobs and positions of power, and many privileges. As you might guess, the heroes of the story rebel against this society. But they are not entirely anti-elitist; although they oppose the class-structure of their society, the heroes of the story also seem to believe in the value of intellectualism and reject their society partially because the government promotes an anti-intellectual culture similar in a lot of ways to that of modern America.
Example 2: Idiocracy by Mike Judge
No film criticizes American anti-elitism quite like Idiocracy. This highly satirical film claims to portray the long term results of American anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism; 100s of years in the future, the main character, an “average joe” awakes from suspended animation to find himself in the world created by American anti-intellectualism, in which he is the smartest person in the world, the president is a WWF wrestler, and there’s a needless food shortage because they’ve been watering their crops with sports drink instead of water. It is the world that Isaac Asimov feared and once called “the doom of the marching morons.” It is certainly an argument in favor of intellectual elitism!
III. The History of Elitism
We know enough about our ancient past to be able to say that most ancient civilizations, once they were big enough to have cities, had elitism. Human civilizations have always had power relatively concentrated in the hands of a few, and the elite have often received that status from parentage and wealth, although with many exceptions; at times, the strongest, smartest, or boldest individuals have been able to raise themselves to elite status. In some societies priests, intellectuals, and/or artists have had the potential to gain elite status, although usually only in cooperation with the political and economic elite. In any case, although there have been scattered anti-elitist voices throughout human history, elitism has been a relatively unquestioned and universal feature of human societies until the past few hundred years.
Elitism was only named during the 19th century, and its proponents were not famous—at least not until the Reagan-Bush era in America—because the general trend of social and political thought and change since the 19th century has been towards pluralism and populism. Perhaps the first anti-elitist movement in Europe was the Protestant Reformation. The Enlightenment and Age of Reason were also characterized by growing opposition to traditional structures of inherited power, until finally the French and American revolutions near the end of the 18th century made it clear that it was possible to wrestle power from hereditary monarchies and establish democracies. Since then, the shift of power away from hereditary royalty and aristocracy has continued world-wide in various ways, including, for example, the communist revolutions.
Could elitism be the best thing for everyone?
Perhaps the most controversial debate concerning elitism, is whether it is the best thing for everyone in a society. Throughout human history, most people have believed that the elite ruled by right; that they deserved to be the elite, and had better personal qualities than the rest of us, whether that was supposed to be because of the families they came from, because they were chosen by God, or because they competed for their status with superior strength or intelligence. This idea was not often questioned before the past 400 years and remains a common belief today. In Asia, even more than America, people tend to believe that the leaders of powerful corporations are superior human beings who have rightfully earned their privileges. But even if you reject heredity and God as sources of elite status, you may believe that the people who are raised in the best environments and receive the best educations are going to end up most qualified to wield power.
Those who argue in favor of elitism on a rational basis, usually make two main claims:
- That the existence of some kind of elite is necessary for a successful society, and
- That it is better for all of us if people with superior breeding, intelligence, and education have that elite status; because they will make the best decisions anyone could make.
Those who argue against elitism also make two claims:
- That power corrupts; that elite groups will always use their power for selfish ends, rather than doing the best for the rest of us, and
- That it would be possible to run a healthy society without elite privilege if people of all different types were cared for, educated, and empowered properly.
Both sides have a lot going for them and in reality we shall probably continue to see our society move in both directions at once!
V. Famous Quotes about Elitism
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
― Winston S. Churchill
As usual, Winston Churchill summarizes this issue with great insight and humor. He is implying that the best argument against democracy is that the average voter is not qualified to make good decisions—whether that be due to their intelligence, their morality, education, or other qualities. And this indeed has been an argument on the side of political elitism since the Greeks. However, the qualifications of the average voter can be improved through public education!
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’
― Isaac Asimov
Expressing a notion similar to Churchill’s, Asimov complains about a problem with American democracy, claiming that Americans are too anti-intellectual, with many people incorrectly believing that all opinions deserve equal consideration (an anti-elitist attitude). Asimov implies that opinions based on ignorance are not as valuable as those based on knowledge, and should not be weighed equally in a democracy. Some would say that Asimov promotes intellectual elitism, however, he would probably say that he simply opposes ignorance and irrationality.
VI. Types of Elitism
There could be an infinite number of types of elitism; there are elite musicians, comedians, surgeons, physicists, athletes, and coders, as well as the economic and political elite we’ve talked about throughout this article. However, here are a couple of the most popular kinds of elitism:
a. Academic elitism
This is either the idea that people with high academic qualifications are better than others, or that they should be given special privileges. It is a criticism often made of professional academic society, especially because the relatively small proportion of professors who are tenured enjoy great advantages, especially job-security, compared to the majority of professors, who work more hours for less, with no job-security.
The term academic elitism can also refer to the fact that students who graduate from high-status schools like Harvard and Yale have better job opportunities than students from lower status schools.
b. Intellectual elitism
This is an accusation often made by social/political conservatives against “the left.” Many conservatives point to an inherent association between intellectuals and liberal ideals, which they object to. For example, the intellectual left-wing insists that evolution, and not creationism, should be taught in schools. Some conservatives consider that policy unfair domination by intellectual elitists. On the one hand, it is true that intellectuals and liberals are often the same people, and often have advanced degrees, however they don’t seem to have any extra privileges or power outside of the academic world, so calling them elitists is questionable.
VII. Elitism versus Pluralism, Populism, and Egalitarianism
The main socio-political philosophies opposed to elitism are pluralism, populism, and egalitarianism, which share much in common—each with a different emphasis.
- Pluralism is the belief that societies should be governed by a plurality of viewpoints—the more the better. This stands in favor of democracy and against elitism—since the members of any elite group share similar interests. Pluralism doesn’t oppose giving high status to some kinds of people, so long as there are many different kinds of people who can attain high status. But this would seem to forbid the existence of one “most elite” group in a society.
- Populism is basically a synonym for democracy—rule by the majority. Unlike pluralism, populism doesn’t say anything about how many different viewpoints should exist, but it is assumed that rule by the majority requires multiple choices for voters to choose from. The idea that common people should rule themselves in any sense is directly anti-elitist.
- Egalitarianism is the philosophy that all people should have equal rights and be treated equally in general. So, any kind of privilege or elitism is anti-egalitarian.
We all know that America is supposed to be pluralist, populist, and egalitarian. It is recognized as an anti-elitist society by philosophers and the world in general. However, many people criticize our current system for not being pluralist, populist, or egalitarian enough. Having only two political parties that can actually get elected is certainly not as pluralist as say, a European parliamentary system; and the U.S. electoral college system prevents the vote from being perfectly populist. Finally, our nation is not truly egalitarian in the sense that people from different backgrounds cannot always receive the same quality education and other advantages.