Who is an elite?

“So, who’s an elite?”  “Am I an elite?”  “Are you an elite?”  “Isn’t Trump an elite?”  “Don’t you just call ‘elite’ anyone you don’t like?”

Fair questions all, which I am I often asked.

If I write a lot about our elites (see here and here), it’s for a reason.  I find elite behavior and rhetoric to be pathologically maladapted to the digital age.  Much of the toil and trouble of our time, I have argued – I mean the fractured politics, the anti-establishment fervor, the nihilism – follow from the willful blindness of the people at the top to the fact that the rules at ground level have shifted forever.

But exactly who are these people at the top?  It’s easier to say what they are not.  They’re not a bloodline caste like the Brahmins of India – although their children are usually well placed in the hierarchy, even if a bribe or two is required for the favor.  They’re not a Marxian class endowed with a special “consciousness” – although, from timidity and herd instinct, they share many of the same narrow fascinations and opinions.  The elites would be horrified to be considered in this way, because they imagine themselves to be the winners in the great meritocratic competition that is their understanding of democratic society.  With the simple faith of the mystic, they believe that they have earned their place at the top.

The elites aren’t solitary heroes who conquer against the odds.  Rather, as I noted, they are herd animals, who graze contentedly on the upper reaches of the institutions that sustain modern life.  They are political people, government people, media people – members of some established order that amplifies their reedy voices into thunder, and wreathes their coiffured heads with high status and prestige.  The most remarkable thing about them is how unremarkable they are, once they step down from their lofty perches.  Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America when at CBS News, on retirement became just another geezer grousing irritably at any unsuspecting soul who happened to say hello.

The institutions these people run received their shape in the twentieth century.  They are, invariably, top down, obsessed with rank, titles, and accreditation, and stuck in broadcast mode:  they speak but they do not listen.  The twentieth century remains the alpha and omega for the elite mind, the paradise lost that must be regained.  While piously mouthing a creed of science and progress, our elites, in fact, have become profoundly reactionary.

In the media, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and their television brethren, have kept up a Wagnerian shriek about “fake news” and “post-truth” and Vladimir Putin as the supervillain behind the badness of our times.  They want to see the information superhighway as tightly tolled and regulated as the New Jersey Turnpike.  They expect Donald Trump to melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West:  all it will take is a bucket of “real news.”

In politics, Trump and Bernie Sanders stand for disruption – of the worst kind.  The rest in the vast buffalo herd of Democratic presidential candidates are running on a promise to bring back the twentieth century.

If you ask yourself, “Do I belong with this crowd?  Am I an elite?”, I would answer with another question:  on whose behalf do you speak?  That will change depending on the context and the moment.  If you ask, good reader, whether I am an elite, that can be easily dealt with.  When I toiled in the labyrinths of CIA, the answer was Yes; today, and ever since I left government service, the answer is No.  I am a free agent – a rank amateur – and I speak on my own behalf.

The central question is:  why should we care?  The population of Eliteland can’t be very big:  there’s only so much room at the top of the pyramid.  I have made the case that the great industrial institutions, having lost their grip on information, are fast hemorrhaging authority and legitimacy.  Those in charge, as anyone with eyes can see, now scuttle around like mice when the cat is close.  Why worry about their fate?

Of course, the wobbliness of our institutions is precisely the reason they matter.  We need to medevac them to a Digital Emergency Center for transfusions of fresh blood.  The decadence of our elite class is exactly why we should care about their fate.  We must insist that they impersonate leadership and integrity with some conviction, or get out of the way of those who will do so.  Beyond that, habits of obedience, deep-rooted and long-engrained, still favor the elites.  A fraction of the population, having lost faith in everything else, will always believe in experts.  I’d guess this group correlates with the obsessively well-informed – individuals whose heads are so cluttered with “news” that they are unable to cross the street without a kind neighbor taking them by the arm.  The well-informed aspire to expertise, but are condemned to recapitulate for all eternity the Mickey Mouse role in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Even stranger, the twentieth-century mindset that is the genetic marker of the elite class provides us, to this day, with the only acceptable rhetorical model for imagining the future.  The public, angry and volatile, erupts out of digital chaos, but it is reaching for stock images of Utopia imprinted during the industrial age.  The political consequences of this time paradox have been predictably unintended.


It should be evident that each domain has its own set of elites, and that, on rare occasions, a clash of interests can ignite intra-elite quarrels that have all the cheesy drama of sibling rivalries.  Our political class, for instance, has become the mean older brother to the high-tech people, who get punched in the face for inventing the internet and other abominations.

But mostly the elites look on the multiplicity of domains as a bountiful field to be harvested by their families as well as themselves.  Briefly and mysteriously, Chelsea Clinton worked a stint with NBC News.  Chris Cuomo of CNN is actually the little brother of the governor of New York.  Given the chance of a sideways shuffle, scarred political warriors will pose as fresh faces in a new medium.  George Stephanopoulos was once a consigliere for the Bill Clinton mob.  Joe Scarborough started out as an obscure Republican congressman.  Now both make a good living yapping in front of TV cameras.  Ever since Ronald Reagan, entertainment figures have been crossing over in the other direction.  Before he resigned last year, Al Franken had descended from funny skits in Saturday Night Live to the soggy punchline that is the US Senate.

The epic example in this category is of course Donald Trump.  Is Trump an elite?  In fact, he is three.  Propelled by a hunger for attention that verges on a medical infirmity, and assisted by what can only be described as a world-class genius for self-promotion, Trump has hopped to the top of the pyramid in business, entertainment, and politics.  Does that disqualify him from playing the populist rebel?  Not on any account.  Elites monopolize all the important jobs – even that of revolutionary.  George Washington was a real estate magnate.  Lenin came from an aristocratic family.  In this particular case, there is, in addition, the unutterable strangeness of the man.  Trump desperately wants to be what he can never be – to be perceived as what he is not – to reorder the world, regardless of damage, until he becomes an object of admiration and applause from the people who matter.  For all the glittering splendor of the towers with his name affixed to them, Trump will always be an outsider, peering in.

The various domains can turn into employment opportunities because all elites share a worldview and an attitude.  The worldview is as old as Plato’s Republic and as contemporary as a Hollywood red-carpet walk:  those who possess power and fame are believed to own an equal measure of virtue and intellect, otherwise why are they there?  Success, in other words, is always deserved.  In a just society, many are called, but only sturdy pillars of the establishment must ever be chosen.  They are the Platonic guardians of the modern world.  They are the super-scientific experts who understand complexity and nuance in a way that ordinary people, driven by base appetites, never could.  Politics, for this crowd, is a game of “Us or else.”  Democracy is the best of all possible systems when it favors elite candidates and projects.  Democracy dies in darkness when it delivers into office mutant monsters like Trump or Boris Johnson.

The attitude follows logically from the worldview.  The people at the top watch one another with unnatural fixation, and are morbidly sensitive to minute changes in fashion among their own kind.  But if you are not an elite, you don’t exist.  It isn’t a question of snobbery or protocol.  If you are not them, you simply are not there.

The elites never really debate an issue with the public.  Today the public may scream at authority in a rolling, deafening online roar:  but the elites hear nothing.  They were not trained to listen.  Lesser breeds can have no knowledge to impart, being prisoners of a skewed perspective.  (Their own skewed perspective the elites call scientific truth.)  When they trouble to think about ordinary persons, it’s invariably to fix them – to push and pull them this way or that, for righteousness’ sake.  Thus the political tropes most beloved of the elites are those that take for granted the public’s innate nastiness and ignorance:  economic inequality, ecological devastation, racial prejudice.  The public is a beast to be caged.

And when, as increasingly happens, the elites are unpleasantly surprised, there is no need for reflection, much less soul-searching:  reflexively, like a sort of hiccup, the beastliness of the public will be blamed.


Do I turn the word “elite” into an insult, aimed at individuals and groups I don’t like?

I think the persons who have charged me with this are themselves grumpy elites.  (Is that an insult?  Work it out.)  They wish I would be nicer to their tribe.  I do, too.  Elite used to mean superior.  It should do so again.  I’m not alone in articulating that wish.

There is much not to like in the behavior of the divided and sectarian public.  Its demands tend to be vague and shifting.  Its street revolts at times descend into vandalism and nihilism – destruction for the pure hell of it.  The Yellow Vest Movement in France burned banks and bashed at the Arc de Triomphe.  The protesters in Chile destroyed a chunk of Santiago’s mass transit system.  These are not elites.

Yet nobody gets offended by being called part of the public.  Nobody thinks it an insult to be plopped in the same bucket with hairy hipsters and monument-smashers.  Part of that is reverse snobbery, I imagine, but mostly the reason is that the revolt of the public was never about the public:  it’s about those who possess power and once possessed authority.  The public can rattle the cage but remains trapped in the moment.  Only the elites have the perspective for a long view of events – long, in particular, regarding the future, which is the realm of change.

Instead, we get a dream of reaction.  It’s impossible to exaggerate how uncomfortable our elites are with the present, or how frightened they are by the future.   The sheer speed of digital life terrifies them.  These are people whose idea of progress in transportation is the bicycle.  (Paris, most perfect of cities, is being destroyed as I write this:  not by barbarians, but by politicians mandating bicycle lanes.)  Naturally, only the public will be condemned to pedal in heavy traffic, while they themselves – the bearers, I mean to say, of that misbegotten signifier, “elites” – continue to ride a golden motorcade towards the darkness they have mistaken for tomorrow.

Which leaves me wondering just who, exactly, is insulting whom…

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11 Responses to Who is an elite?

  1. You define elite as a mindset, someone tied to industrial top down model of leadership. This is fine as a critique of elites, but does direct answer the question posed by your post title. Many elite wanna bees have that same mindset. After all, the 20th century was not that long ago.

    So I think a better title for this piece is “what is the elite mindset?”

    I’m a big fan of your book and work. Yet I still remain unclear on who is an elite even after reading your piece.

    One idea is to create a list of examples of who is elite in particular industries (media/news/sports/movies/business/etc), and who qualifies and who does not, would have helped me understand this point far better. Perhaps do another post if you decide to do it. And I realize that if you don’t feel plugged into the ins and outs of current culture, a list like this might be very hard to create. And get widely mocked. Nonetheless, I think it would be worth attempting. Esp if you have people you trust, who may be plugged into the zeigiest, who could proofread a draft. Of particular interest would be borderline cases. Is the writer of this op ed an elite? They have their day in the sun right now, and are getting widely mocked. But I’d say probably not an elite. But honestly unsure.

  2. Sid Stafford says:

    It’s not just elites–it’s those who aspire to be elite, as this twitter user noted;

    “The ferocious pro-EU rearguard action does not just represent the anger of an incumbent ruling class defending its perks. It also expresses the class anxieties of the lower echelons of th[e] supposedly elite ‘open’ classes.”

    In every era, members of the aspirational class are the most fervent defenders of the ruling class.

  3. princeNYC says:

    Elites have always been around and always will because they are based on human’s institutions of the era. Those institutions may change ( i.e. the Catholic Church is not as powerful as it was 300 years ago) but the leadership and nepotism of institutions is as much a part of human history as war.

    So let’s ask the right questions. What are going to be the institutions of the prevailing institutions of the 21st Century and what can we do to guarantee that those of us who are not part of it’s elites are not screwed over as our late 20th Century brethren?

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  7. nico says:

    I’m not sure your last example is correct. Most Parisians don’t have a car, because they don’t need one. Paris is a small city with very good public transport, and the people who live in the city prefer to walk or use bicycles.

    The bicycles lanes are built for this Parisian elite. And they target the cars. The goal of our politicians is to decrease the number of cars in the city. And the people who suffer from this are the “poor” who live in the suburban and who need a car in order to work in Paris.

    In France, the elite don’t need cars
    The public need cars in order to work.
    And the poors can’t afford cars.

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  10. Mr m says:

    Missing how elites who have existed throughout history are worse/different now and do not reflect cultural values as a whole? How is the media elite in an era in which a President rules by twitter? If these protests are ‘viral’— how to contextualize expertise? (Consumers eat potato chips then seek advice on their blood pressure) The article seems coy around real values questions— environmental vs desiring large cars. Ultimately feels like a statement pretending to stand magically outside the field of battle in a sign of possible existential ‘bad faith’

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