Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Intelligence Is Not the Same As Elitism

One word that seems to be tossed around a lot during political debates and speeches right now is "elite." When it's used in that context, to be "elite" is almost never a good thing. The word seems to be used by one candidate against his/her opponent (and I've seen examples of this kind of thing on both sides), or by a candidate against the media (to be fair, I have to say I've only seen this kind of attack coming from one side, although I'm prepared to be proven wrong on that), almost invariably with the suggestion that the person or persons being referred to as "elite" aren't able to relate to the rest of us, or indeed may even be working against the rest of us. Although I haven't heard the suggestion spelled out, there seems to be this idea that "he/she/they think they're better than the rest of us," which of course is a sentiment that most of us would respond negatively against.

No one likes to think that someone thinks they're "better than us," although I wonder why we tend to have this reaction. For example, being honest with myself, I know that there are a lot of people who know more about how to run a business (something I have pretty much no experience at) than I do. But even so, I expect that if Donald Trump were to tell me that he knows how to run a business better than I do, I would probably be offended, notwithstanding the fact that he would almost certainly be right. Indeed, I would possibly have the same reaction against Mr. Trump if someone else told me that Donald Trump thought that he was a better businessman than I am, even though, again, he almost certainly is (and very likely would have such an opinion if he had the slightest idea who I was).

While reading through an Allspark thread on a comment made during last week's vice-presidential debates, the observation was made that many people are making decisions based on attacks of "elitism." That is to say, people support the candidate they see as not being "elitist." Also, more and more, it seems that people are confusing intelligence with being elitist. The problem is that, in so doing, we may well be supporting a candidate who is less capable of actually doing the work of being president (or vice-president, as the case may be), simply because we "don't like elitists."

Let me be clear. If I had to choose between two equally capable candidates (I will lay aside the issue of shared values for this discussion, but assume the candidates are comparable on these as well), I actually think it would be a good thing to vote against the one who was more "elitist." I do, in fact, want a certain humility in those who I choose to be my representatives in running the country. But I still advocate for the more intelligent or capable candidate, if a clearly more intelligent or capable candidate is present. I want a person who really does know more than I do about, say, getting a bill passed into law in the Senate. Moreover, such a person is not "elitist" simply because he/she chooses to try to explain some of the nuances and intricacies of the process, as opposed to a candidate who simply asserts that they "can" do it. Of course, some of these assertions can (and should!) be backed up by their records, but assuming that records are either roughly similar, or too difficult to understand at face value (seriously, we've all seen how opposing candidates distort records in these campaigns), I want a candidate who can explain in appropriate detail how he/she plans to meet his/her goals.

There are certainly legitimate differences of opinion to be had in this political season. But I think cries of "elitism" amount to little more than name-calling designed to trigger an automatic (i.e., non-thinking) response on the part of voters. Frankly, this is the very last thing we need.

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