Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Flaws of Anti-Elite Rhetoric

A particular part of political rhetoric has been sticking in my craw lately, and that is knee-jerk anti-elitism and anti-establishment commentary and criticism. It's not as though I do not see the criticisms of the status quo of several advanced democracies. There are plenty who could easily look at Canada's two ruling parties (Liberals and Conservatives) and feel great dissatisfaction, especially given their similarities. In America the decades of conflict between Democrats and Republicans may be nauseating to their citizens, but that hardly means that Donald Trump is the answer. Donald Trump is never the answer.

Here's what I find baffling about this anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric: those who use it almost always mean replace one set of the establishment with another.

Elites tend to exist for a reason. Sometimes, believe it or not, it is based upon merit. It more often is tied to wealth/class, prestige, family, and entrenched socio-cultural attitudes. People tend to mingle within their own class. When I went to events in Toronto it would not be uncommon to see journalists (off the clock), politicians, and academics comfortably rubbing shoulders with each other. Oftentimes there are familial, friendship and marriage connections between similar individuals. These, unfortunately, create connections that allow these people to become more firmly rooted and ease the path for their patronage network/families.

My egalitarian streak rankles at this sort of pattern. However, the NDP in recent years has been afflicted with these sorts of cozy connections. The party president was Rebecca Blaikie, daughter of long-time NDP MP Bill Blaikie. His son is now a member of parliament. Jack Layton's son is a sitting city councillor in Toronto, and his daughter, if memory serves, is a key figure in the Broadbent Institute, an NDP-friendly organization. I'm not saying these individuals do not deserve the positions they hold, but I think it would be naive to assume that part of their success is not tied to the links they have.

I have a certain level of empathy for anger at the elites who govern our society, but more often than not those who are angry are co-opted by other elites to displace them. Perhaps the most paradoxical representation of this is Donald Trump, a wealthy conman/business mogul who has rubbed shoulders with the elite class for decades. Though we can look further back quite comfortably. George W. Bush was held up as a 'regular guy' despite the fact that he was Yale-educated and the son of a president and from a political dynasty. I'm willing to engage in a conversation about class warfare, but if it's just the Orwellian story of various factions of elites warring against each other and using popular support to further their aims I have a hard time taking the critique seriously.

We will never divorce ourselves from these so-called elites. Once the revolutionaries take the palace it isn't long before they become the new elites themselves. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. This doesn't mean that change is impossible, it just means making peace with the fact that being aligned with people who have high levels of education or experience is inherently positive, not negative. Throwing the bums out is a great in theory, but then we have to actually manage our affairs in the wake of the toss.

Ultimately I suppose I'm annoyed by this lazy criticism and its ineffectiveness to articulate any kind of positive message. If you don't like the actions of the politicians/government, write them, join a party, sign a petition, participate in a protest, stand for election. Pretending you are justified in destroying the system rather than responsible for trying to fix it is just getting old.


Anonymous said...

I largely agree with your analysis – including the co-opting of the anti-elites by that billionaire, Donald Trump.

Elites exist and have always done so. However, there is a problem if political elites do not represent their electorates and start empathising and advocating for their fellow (business, industry, journalism) elites. This is a situation of self-serving elite out of touch with their voters – bad, and usually leads to a traumatic correction.

This was a common factor in, for example, Brexit. The irony that working class Labour voters voted to Leave whilst middle class Labour supports voted to Remain is symptomatic of the problem. The latter opened the UK to mass migration of unskilled migrants that in turn depressed the former’s salaries. This disastrous policy originated with the Labour party’s elites’ identification of middle class, metropolitan left wing social liberalism more than working class concerns.

As for the offspring of politicians going into politics, I think Justin Trudeau proves mediocrity is no hindrance if you have a famous last name. Most Prime Ministers have accomplished something in their lives before taking office.

Unless your surname was Pitt, then assume political dynasties are an abomination – a self-licking political lollipop of the politically mediocre.

Nepotism has no place in the modern world.

SJL said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I suppose the problem is hypocrisy. This is particularly galling when perpetrated by left-wing political parties. Their rhetoric of standing up for the working class doesn't fit with so-called champagne socialists. Right-wing politicians have their own hypocrisy on this. Most of it has to do with 'family values' and 'small business-owner'. I recall one Conservative claiming to be a small businessperson despite the fact that he was a very wealthy consultant.

On your Brexit example I would say that Labour is made up of a coalition and it fractured on the Brexit question.

Anonymous said...

Both the Labour and the Conservative parties (and even the SNP) have significant differences of opinion on the EU within their own parties. Brexit rather un-tidily cuts across left-right, socialist-capitalist, Labour-Conservative boundaries.

I think that in our Westminster-style first past the post electoral system, big is good and therefore all major parties consist of, to a greater or lesser extent, a coalition of interests grouped broadly into centre-left, centrist or centre-right. In the UK, the 2 large parties seem to manage holding these different interests to the common party platform and consider themselves a ‘broad church’ of views and opinions. As an aside, this may be a reason why first past the post tends to not favour more radical parties.

The unity of the parties is tried at times. Think the Conservatives over the EU and Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. John Major often had to deal with backbench revolts from his Euro-sceptic wing (he had on occasion to solicit the aid of the Ulster Unionists – ironically). Labour is coming through an internal bloodbath, if you excuse the phrase, with the far left wing taking revenge on the centrists – the Blairites. With Jeremy Corbyn’s better to be expected election performance, I think Blairism will be erased from the Labour agenda for a long time.