We are supposed to be against the elites and for the people these days. It’s the trend. It has been a longstanding argument in American politics and it is best that we understand that sometimes the popular sentiment was a better path and sometimes elite opinion was what saved us. It’s the tension between them that has worked best for us. Elites go wrong when they believe their expertise is general, like the doctor who pontificates about politics, taxation, or the Bible in his I’m-a-doctor voice. We have had a couple of generations of clergy with too many members who believe they understand economics from a moral perspective because of picture-thinking and anecdotes. You can take my personal word that many social workers make pronouncements about culture and character judgement of public figures. Most recently, people who have gotten rich in high-tech fields believe they know how to make the whole world work.
Even within their actual fields of training and experience elites can go wrong by following a particular fad or groupthink. Our intelligence agencies know an enormous amount I do not, nor can I even buy a clue. Yet they have gotten things deeply wrong about countries, regions, conflicts, and individuals. Somehow, they still think of themselves as elites because they know the capital of Azerbaijan and who the major players are there, and you don’t. Questions of class, of education and connection more than family and upbringing, lurk beneath
Still, they often do know things. They often are good at some things, sometimes very good. Better to know something than to know nothing.
Which leads me to the populists. Populism does not have a strict definition, or rather, it has too many strict definitions that do not agree with each other. Sometimes it means that the understanding of “the people” is collectively greater than the understanding of “the elites.” A second meaning is that the moral behavior of the Regular Folk is superior to the corrupt and self-serving morality of the elites. You can zip just about anything into the blanks – and people do.
There is so much that can go wrong here. There is first an attitude that comes from so identifying of oneself with the group that a man comes to believe in his own personal wisdom or morality contrasted with the elites, rather than the collective wisdom or uprightness. You will note that this is a variation of what the elites do, in each thinking well of his own wisdom in general. There is second an attitude that is reflexively against whatever “they,” the elites are for. This also doesn’t work well. Sometimes people really are experts and got to their position by working harder and smarter, and just being right more often. American history is littered with examples of when the popular wisdom was a fad and plain wrong.
Three pictures, plus a fourth: The populism of the left prefers a description of the 99%, which they believe should all have common cause against the 1%, who are ruining what could otherwise be a sweet deal for everyone. Careful observers might notice that paranoiacs believe something like this as well, though they usually have different solutions.) The populism of the right thinks they might have the support of 60 or 65% of the people if the institutional playing fields of media, unelected government, and academia were only level. The populism of the center sees itself as the 80% of sensible people in the middle harassed by the lunatic 10% on each side. The fourth picture grows out of the first. It has been standard leftist rhetoric even before the Russian Revolution to portray the struggle as between a minority of revolutionaries who understand what is really happening and must be done and that 1% in power who control everything. The rest of us are viewed as uninformed, uneducated, unintelligent, un-everything, who must be awakened to the struggle. If it seems a contradiction that they should view themselves as both a huge majority and tiny minority, it is. It allows them to claim they are the voice of the people, what the people would won’t if they only knew better. It is a quite delicious set of beliefs to live inside.
Have I given away my solution to how we navigate such things? I think the question of populism versus elitism is more moral than intellectual. Humility is the only road out of either. We need the self-observation that realizes we might be fools.