Accompanying the American obsession with polling to check the pulse of public opinion is a growing tendency in the blogosphere to label views that are at odds with the majority’s opinion (or the undefined average American) as elite, or even more strongly, elitist. The second word is stronger because it means one is a partisan of that which is elite, not simply that one happens to be elite in some descriptive sort of way.
But the words elite and elitist are thrown around without explanation. They are conversation stoppers, not because they have to be, since one could with just a little effort explore them, but because they are ad hominem attacks. (The use of Latin probably makes me an elitist.) In that regard, they function a lot like the word “gay” in middle school hallways. “That’s so gay.” Is the use of the dismissive phrase “But that’s elite opinion” so different, after all?
Absent from most discussions in which these epithets are thrown around are considerations of power and of time. To use an example in our own back yard, how is it meaningful to describe opponents of the effort to make English the official language of Nashville “elite?” What precisely joins the opinion of progressive knowledge workers and immigrants other than its minority status? Minority status with power perhaps equals elitism. Consider global warming. Most Americans think it is a reality and 49% in one poll last year believed it is having a serious impact. But a smaller group is using its power to block significant changes in policy that could reduce global warming. Yet they are seldom described as suffering from elite opinion. They are, however, hit with a host of other epithets that it would be useful to explore in a future post. And those epithets obscure more than they reveal, too.
I’ll bring the point even closer to home. Does the fact that many of my friends and I advocate marriage equality make us elitists in a state that overwhelmingly opposes such a policy change? If so, the word elitist erases the fact that we can’t exercise the rights of marriage. Gone is the discussion of the higher taxes levied against us, our lack of certainty about being able to visit our partners in the hospital, the wrangling we endure over child custody, etc.
And that seems to me to be the paradox of the use of the word elite. It allows the speaker magically to change the subject of the conversation and make those with the disadvantage (or those defending them) appear to be the villains out to pull one over on the majority in some zero-sum game of rights. So much for power.
Perhaps the word time will strike more of a chord. Polls are a slice of opinion at a particular time. Unless several are taken together over time, they’re just lag indicators of where the majority was on a particular issue. Let’s apply that thought to another marriage example. The recent passing of Mildred Loving of the famous Loving v Virginia case, in which bans on interracial marriage were struck down, comes to mind. Wouldn't we find it quaint and even laughable or perhaps disgusting to find descriptions of her supporters as elitist, even though we know most Americans would not have approved of her marriage at the time the case was decided? Now more than 75% of Americans approve of interracial marriages. Should we call the rest the victims of elite opinion? It makes absolutely no sense to call anyone advocating the protection of minorities elites. It adds nothing to the debate and it obscures the actions, positions, and rights of those involved.