Elitists: they’re everywhere, according to people whose words and ideas are broadcast to millions. Obama was an elitist for saying every American should go to college. Donald Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord told CNN that fact-checking is elitist. Elitism seems concentrated in the journalistic class, particularly when politicians identify it. Just this morning, Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) posed this question to his Twitter followers:
Do u think 2day’s journalists r too elite for ‘ordinary Americans’?
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) July 11, 2016
You can tell Grassley is a man of the people because he uses chatspeak abbreviations. Journalists are too elite for him, an ordinary American who has served in the Senate for 30 years. But his tweet raises some questions.
- How are journalists “too elitist” for ordinary people? The more you think about Grassley’s claim, the more it reads like a sneaky insult. Does he mean the press is too concerned with issues that don’t pertain to these ordinary people, i.e. current events? Or is he saying that the style of contemporary journalism, which emphasizes concrete information, multiple sources,1 and the five W’s, is too complex for ordinary people to understand? Until he defines what “elitist” is, he’s essentially saying that journalists are too sophisticated, wonkish, or news-obsessed for ordinary Americans. It follows from that claim that either Grassley doesn’t get the news, or he thinks other people are dumber than him.
- What would a non-elitist journalism look like? Since Senator Grassley has identified this flaw in the media—or at least in the people who operate it—he must have some idea of what populist journalists would do. Perhaps journalism would be exactly the same as we have now, but with different, less stuck-up people doing it. Or perhaps it would be less concerned with “elitist” issues. Which brings us to another question:
- What does “elitist” even mean, if a six-term senator isn’t it? Grassley has been in the world’s greatest deliberative body for three decades. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has overruled Obama’s authority to appoint members of the Supreme Court. If that’s not elitist behavior, what is? What could “elitism” possibly mean, if it does not apply to a member of Congress who holds his own judgment above that of the president of the United States?
Maybe the definition of “elitist” at work here is “anyone who doesn’t buy talk of elitism.” Elitism is a real thing. American society contains an increasingly powerful overclass whose privileges—education without debt peonage, influence without public service, and income without work—separate them from most Americans. The people who have made the word “elitist” so ubiquitous over the last few years are part of that overclass. They work every day to preserve their position. One way they do it is by encouraging the public—the “ordinary Americans” whom Grassley is concerned about—to mistrust the reporters who would tell them what the overclass is doing.
An elitist is someone who encourages ordinary Americans to embrace ignorance. He’s someone who believes that kind of cynical manipulation will work. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m the elitist for thinking that most people see through that kind of pandering. The 30 years Grassley has spent making law in Washington suggest that his understanding of how elitism-the-word works is more accurate than mine. But I like to imagine that his constituents in Iowa and his followers on Twitter read this tweet and thought of Grassley as the gutless bidder for one-way admiration he is.
Either you think elitism is a bullshit concept, or you’re an elitist. Once you imagine the general public is ill-served by a media that’s too clever for them—or believe you can advance yourself by saying it is—you’re participating in the elitism you decry. I’d be happy if I never heard the word “elitist” again. It is a lash wielded by those who think other people are stupid but want their support anyway.