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Vol. 16, No. 3, 2017
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the co-opting of the world elite by



Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit ( May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).

Trump Win Should Send Elites Back to the Drawing Board
Thomas Sowell
Nov 14, 2016, Toronto Sun
Reckoning With a Trump Presidency and the Elite Democrats Who Helped Deliver It Betsy Reed
Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald
Nov 12, 2016, The Intercept
The Hubris of Democratic Elites, Clinton Campaign Gave Us President Trump
Kenin Gosztola
Nov 9, 2016, Shadowproof

These are but three of the countless headlines that inundated us days after the American election asserting that left-wing “elites” were responsible for the election of Donald Trump. But hold on folks. Surely billionaire Donald Trump who was born into a mega-rich family is also an elite? And of course, notwithstanding that Trump’s wealth is far greater and far less transparent than that of the Clintons, this didn’t prevent him from constantly assailing Hillary Clinton as an elite on social media.

After the Brexit vote, Trump declared that his support of it showed that he was “on the right side of the issue . . . with the people” whereas “Hillary, as always stood with the elites.” Trump’s Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, and former chief guru of the euphemistically-dubbed alt-right, once complained that “elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working and middle class Americans.” Incidentally, man-of-the people Bannon received an MBA from Harvard and then plied his knowledge as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. In case, you’ve forgotten, Trump consistently denounced Goldman Sachs during the presidential campaign for its ties to Hillary Clinton.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, proponents of Brexit railed against the bevy of liberal elites in a variety of disciplines such as economics and journalism who warned about the consequences of abandoning European integration. It is, however, somewhat rich that the two main faces for Brexit, Boris Johnson and former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove were former presidents of Oxford’s leading debating society, the less-than proletarian Oxford Union. Prime Minister Theresa May had the chutzpah in October to claim that the “liberal elite” was sneering at voters who voted for Brexit, notwithstanding that just weeks before the June Brexit referendum she warned group of investment bankers that the UK’s leaving the EU could lead to economic disaster.

However, Canadians shouldn’t be smug and imagine that the same selective elite-bashing hasn’t occurred in Canada. In November, Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch sent an email that congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory, praised his anti-establishment message and declared “the elites are out of touch.” Leitch and her advisors have made “elite” the buzzword of her campaign bid. They have criticized Lisa Raitt for supporting “the left-wing media elite” and called Andrew Scheer an “out-of-touch elite” for launching his leadership campaign at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. Incidentally, MD Leitch, who grew up in an affluent family in Winnipeg made these comments while promoting a $500-a-person fundraiser organized by lawyers.

Similarly, one of the mantras of former Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was that he governed according to the views of “ordinary Canadians” rather than on “elite opinions.” Invariably, these “elite opinions” referred to any proposal emanating from anyone to the left of him on the political spectrum.

This disparagement does not extend to the use of elite as an adjective. An elite quarterback, elite troops or Elite Chocolate merely designates excellence. So, how did ‘elite’ when used as a noun take on this nasty connotation referencing people on the left of the political spectrum?

Dictionaries are not of much help in explaining how elite has acquired a tainted sense when used as a noun. The first OED definition of elite is as the “choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of person” and has its first citation for this definition in the 19th century. Actually, it does show an earlier meaning in the 15th century but with a very narrow sense as “a person chosen, spec., a bishop elect.”

The Encarta World English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary get closer to the implied sense in the headlines quoted above. The former defines “elite” as “a small group of people, within a larger group who have more power, social standing, wealth, or talent than the rest of the group ” and the latter as “a group or class of persons considered to be superior to others because of their intelligence, social standing or wealth.”

But even these definitions don’t explain why the term is used nowadays almost exclusively to refer to the liberal left. If the classic connotation is of people by virtue of birth being able to achieve status at the expense of others, surely the word applies more to the Trumps and Leitches of the cosmos.

In 1956, in The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills defined elites as “those who have the most of what there is to have, which is generally held to include money, power and prestige, as well as the ways of life to which they lead.” However, Mills’ generalized definition of elites didn’t come to dominate in mainstream politics. In 1951, in God and Man at Yale, patrician William F, Buckley Jr. excoriated the socialistic and atheistic elites who dominated academia in the liberal arts at Ivy League institutions. In fact, the 1952 presidential election between Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was cast by Republicans as a choice between “regular” American, war hero Eisenhower and “egghead” liberal Stevenson, and the regular guy trounced the egghead in the election.

Starting in the 1950s, a process developed whereby the term elite was increasingly used to refer to politically left-leaning people, whose education was viewed as opening the doors to affluence and power and to thus to dominating managerial positions. I checked the site Google Ngram Viewer which charts the frequency of words and expressions from the years 1500 to 2008, and discovered that the expressions “liberal elites,” “political elites” and “Democratic elites” enjoyed huge spikes in usage starting in the 1960s. I suppose, the underlying premise of those who employ these terms is the belief that many left-leaning people who claim to support the rights of working men and women are themselves members of the ruling class and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect. An example of the contempt toward liberals is expressed in this advice from a political advertisement from the right-wing Club for Growth towards Howard Dean who was running to be the Democrat candidate for president in 2004: “Take your tax-hiking, government-spending, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.” Who knew lattes were so deliciously seditious?

So it is clear that by the turn of the century, right-wing talking heads were able to change the focus of the term elite away from one of class to one of culture. It’s possible that many people supported Trump because they were put off by what they saw as the smugness of some people in the Democratic Party and by the left-leaning media. Exemplifying this was political commentator Bill Maher’s suggestion that people who intended to vote for Trump suffered from congenital defects. Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s comment during the campaign that half of Trump supporters were “deplorables” caused her great political harm.

Claiming that you are somehow superior to others in any aspect of your life is a no-no in our post-modern, post-truth world. Therefore, right-wing propagandists use the designation “elite” as a polemical tool to declaim positions associated with the left as varied as environmentalism, secularism, feminism, sexuality, immigration, and multiculturalism.

Ironically, because “regular” Americans were angry at the elites represented by the Democratic Party and the media, they nevertheless elected one of the richest and most elitist people in the United States. And the worth of those he has selected in his cabinet is staggering. CBS News calculated that the net worth of seven members of Trump’s cabinet exceeds eleven billion. And “ordinary Americans” disdained the Democrat Party notwithstanding the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama had among other advantages brought them the Affordable Care Act, a form of health care previously only afforded to the elites, that became available to over 20 million hard-up Americans.

Only time will tell if “elite” to refer to so-called ivory tower groups with certain political leanings is more appropriate than “elite” used to designate the resident of the Fifth Avenue, pseudo-Versailles Trump Tower. Stay tuned.

For more of Howard Richler:
Calling the Caliphate Wannabes Daesh
Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged
How Happy Became Homosexual
Linguistic Correctness Redux
No Apology for Neology
The Enigmatic Palindrome
We Stand on Cars and Freeze
As You Like It.
Can I Have a Word With You

The Significant Other Conundrum

The Oxfordization of Poutine


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