In a recent post, I wrote about the current meaning of political labels along the liberal - conservative spectrum, especially as they were used in the very long 2008 campaign for US president. My personal conclusion was: "The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are alive and well when it comes to social issues, but they are increasingly irrelevant when applied to economic policy."
Another set of terms we heard a lot during the campaign were "elitist" and "populist." Barack and Michelle Obama were cast in the role of chief elitists by a variety of political opponents and commentators. The populist mantle was primarily worn by John Edwards and Mike Huckabee during the primaries, and even John McCain was cast as a populist toward the end of his presidential campaign. But without a doubt, the role of populist-in-chief in the recently concluded campaign fell to the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.
The frequent use of these terms caught my attention. I started hearing that Barack and Michelle Obama lived in the "elite" Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, where their daughters attended the "elite" University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and that Barack Obama taught constitutional law for twelve years at the "elite" U of C.
Wait a second. I lived in Hyde Park for almost ten years, from the time I arrived in the US from Cuba in October of 1960 to the time I moved to the New York area to go work for IBM in June of 1970. I attended the Lab Schools for my last two years of high school, and then went on to study at the University of Chicago for the next eight years. I think of Hyde Park as a very diverse kind of community anchored by the university, home to many different kinds of people.
For decades, Hyde Park has been one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in the US. When I attended the Lab Schools from 1960 to 1962, quite a number of my classmates were black, the children of the many middle class black families who lived in Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods.
More generally, the kids in my class reflected the diverse points of view of the community. Among my classmates was the son of community organizer Saul Alinksy, as well as the son of libertarian economist Milton Friedman. "Diverse" would be a far more apt term to describe Hyde Park than "elitist."
In today's world, what does it mean to be an "elitist"? What does it mean to be a "populist" - the term many use to characterize those opposed to elitism? What can we learn about the current state of political discourse by looking a bit deeper into the way these terms are generally used out there?
There seems to be no consistent definition for either term. Wikipedia defines elitism as "the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite - a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes - are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern."
Then later in the article it adds, "Personal attributes commonly purported by elitist theorists to be characteristic of the elite include:
• Rigorous study of, or great accomplishment within, a particular field.
• A long track record of competence in a demanding field
• An extensive history of dedication and effort in service to a specific discipline (e.g., medicine or law)
• A high degree of accomplishment, training or wisdom within a given field."
So, if someone calls you a member of the elite, they might mean that you feel superior to and look down on everybody else, or they might mean that you are a highly accomplished, successful, dedicated individual. Our President-elect certainly fits this latter category - as does his wife, but I suspect that most of those calling them elitist were not using the term as a way of praising their accomplishments.
Populism also covers a very wide range of behaviors: "Populism is a discourse that supports 'the people' versus 'the elites.'" More specifically, academics have defined populism as "pitting a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice." Whether populism is "good" or "bad" depends on the context and how it is applied.
Members of Fascist movements have typically viewed themselves as populists who are organizing and turning angry masses against their enemies – “the others” responsible for all their problems, such as happened in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow era in the US. These kinds of populists are essentially demagogues who achieve and hold onto their power by appealing to the popular prejudices, emotions, fears and expectations of the public. Extremists in the current US immigration debates are such quintessential demagogues, who view themselves as populists defending the country from the blight of illegal immigrants.
On the other hand, the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s was a populist movement against racial segregation. Cesar Chavez led a populist movement, the United Farm Workers, which helped get better pay and benefits for exploited farm workers in the '60s and '70s. Community organizers are populist leaders who seek to empower the members of a community so they can better represent and fight for their interests against powerful business or government institutions.
As we were reminded during the Republican convention, Barack Obama was a community organizer from 1985 - 1988, working with church-based groups to help people in the South Side of Chicago who lost their jobs when steel mills closed. Does that make him a populist leader? Can you be both an elitist and a populist?
When you look closely at the spectrum of populist behaviors, a few key distinctions arise. Throughout history, some have used populist rhetoric and discourse to help organize disenfranchised minorities and other groups at the bottom rungs of society. They try to use reason and moral force to make their arguments. They point out how much better society would be for all – oppressed and oppressors alike – if all sides could find common ground. Martin Luther King embodies this spirit of populism as a force for good.
At the other extreme are those populists like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh who traffic mostly in anger and hatred. By focusing on polarizing issues, and adopting a "red meat" style based on blaming “the others” for just about everything that is wrong with the country, they have succeeded in attracting large audiences, for whom their programs’ angry, divisive, strident tone resonates with their own feeling. This is what demagogues have always done through the ages.
Sometimes, populists can occupy both ends of this spectrum. The Populists of the late 19th century in America were often strongly nativist in their positions. Among the most celebrated was William Jennings Bryan, who was a passionate advocate on behalf of America’s poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, he also had strong nativist feelings and was dead-set against the theory of evolution which he thought undermined morality and religion – as evident, famously, in the Scopes trial of 1925.
In the end, it is not labels like elitist and populist that matter, but what people do when in positions of power. Given the very tough and complex problems all around us, let us hope for leaders who will use their power to help people find common cause, so that we can work together to better address these problems and make the nation and the world a better place.