Sunday, April 20, 2008

We’re No. 1 in the U.S. and we demand the best

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 20 April 2008

As a sociologist I am typically fascinated more by people’s responses to events than the event itself. Sen. Obama’s recent remarks given at a private fundraiser is a good example. As is well known by now, Sen. Obama, donning his sociology cap, tried to answer a question about rural, small town Americans. He suggested they were bitter because their local economies are in a shambles and no one pays them any attention.

Instead of discussing this sociological insight into rural America, Senator Obama’s opponents have instead attacked him as an “elitist” and out of touch with regular Americans.

Fascinating. I am not going to defend or even explain Sen. Obama’s remarks. I do want to explore the charge of elitism.

What exactly does elitism mean? According to, elitism has several meanings: 1) practice of or belief in rule by an elite: 2) consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group; and 3) the belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

Aren’t the same folks accusing Sen. Obama of being an elitist also the same ones who suggest he is not fit to be President because he has insufficient experience? All three major candidates work very hard to make their resumés look the best, the longest, with exaggerated claims of legislative daring do, avoiding sniper fire, and brandishing their ignorance of the Middle East. Each one argues they are the most qualified and they believe they are the best to rule. And if experience isn’t enough, we’ll go bowling, knock back a shot and a beer, and appear on late night comedy shows, to show we are hip, regular, and in touch with the “real” people (even if it is just once an election cycle). Does it seem to you that those accusing Sen. Obama of elitism fit the first definition of elitism, too?

If Senators Clinton and McCain are not elitists, according to the second definition, then they must not be proud of belonging to a select or favored group. I wonder which group it is? The U.S. Senate? Both do want out, to join an even more exclusive club (so does Sen. Obama), so are they elitists or not? Perhaps Senators Clinton and McCain are not proud to be Americans? If that were true, they would probably be disqualified. Both have trafficked in suggesting Obama is anti-American, or a lacks pride in belonging to a select or favored group (Americans, or Christians, or Democrats, or Republicans). That then seems a catch-22 doesn’t it? If he is proud to be American he is an elitist. If he is not, then he is anti-American.

Let’s examine the third definition: The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources. Hmm. This sounds strangely similar to another idea: meritocracy or (again according to an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. All three candidates are over-achievers. McCain, a Naval Academy graduate, Clinton, a Wellesley graduate, and Obama a Columbia graduate. Are we to believe that McCain and Clinton would prefer winning the presidency due to their family connections?

I don’t think a charge of elitism is going to make much difference. I think Americans, in general, are elitists. We demand the best, the elite in everything. Everyone wants the best doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, quarterbacks, and presidents. Chanting “We’re Number One” is not common anywhere but in the U.S. That seems pretty elitist to me.

Sen. Obama may be an elitist. But are we to believe those leading the chorus of those charges are not also elitists? Do they fit the opposite of the meaning of elitism? If they accuse Sen. Obama of being an elitist but are them selves elitists, doesn’t that make them “elite” hypocrites?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the fact that they all have characteristics that suggest that they are elitist. However, when Clinton projected the elitist label on Obama for his comments on small town voters, I thought it was disconcerting and disingenuous of her. Also, I wanted her to specify what type of an elitist she thinks him to be. I mean, does she mean that he is an intellectual elitist, political elitist, or wealthy elitist? Clearly, his background does not suggest that he has wealth. He has not been in Washington long enough to amass the connections she and Bill have. I think that might clear him of two forms of elitism. Anyway, good observation.

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