Saturday, March 21, 2020

Elitism Vs Populism

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.


Sam L. said...

I have no faith in those who claim to be "the elite". They may be rich; they may be in power; but "smart" and/or "intelligent" is highly "iffy", as I see it.

Donna B. said...

"The populism of the center sees itself as the 80% of sensible people in the middle harassed by the lunatic 10% on each side."

Place me here and not because I think I'm right but because it gives me the most leeway in describing who is wrong. Or right. Or what I wish might be.

IOW... I'm lost. I make judgements based on some stew of morality, logic, and emotion that I can't quite define.

Texan99 said...

I like elites. Anyone who convinces me he's part of a group with special expertise probably will win my admiration as well as my willingness to take his word on subjects within his demonstrated expertise.

If he has suggestions for controlling my behavior that are outside his area of expertise, I'm less likely to cooperate. If he claims an elite status but can't persuade me of it, ditto.

It's about trust, and it has to be earned. People who abuse trust get a backlash, and rightly so.

Donna B. said...

One of the websites I visit regularly is Science-Based Medicine. I do not go there for political insight just as I don't go to Instapundit for science information. What I like about AVI is that he makes me think and question what I thought I always knew as well as what I might read today elsewhere.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: 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.

There's also a strong undercurrent of nativism in many forms of populism of the right.

Grim said...

There's a debate here at least as old as Plato (in the "Protagoras" for example). Socrates, then a young man, challenged Protagoras' assertion that he can teach the right kind of expertise to make good political decisions. First, he said, while there are questions (like how to build a good ship) in which we can recognize elites and heed them, in politics we don't recognize elites but think everyone has a right to speak.

"And I ought to tell you why I am of opinion that this art cannot be taught or communicated by man to man. I say that the Athenians are an understanding people, and indeed they are esteemed to be such by the other Hellenes. Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; when the question is one of shipbuilding, then the ship-wrights; and the like of other arts which they think capable of being taught and learned. And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh and hoot at him, until either he is clamoured down and retires of himself; or if he persist, he is dragged away or put out by the constables at the command of the prytanes. This is their way of behaving about professors of the arts.

"But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say-carpenter, tinker, cobbler, sailor, passenger; rich and poor, high and low-any one who likes gets up, and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and having no teacher, and yet giving advice; evidently because they are under the impression that this sort of knowledge cannot be taught."

Furthermore, Socrates added, those recognized as 'elite' couldn't actually pass their virtues on even to their own children:

"And not only is this true of the state, but of individuals; the best and wisest of our citizens are unable to impart their political wisdom to others: as for example, Pericles, the father of these young men, who gave them excellent instruction in all that could be learned from masters, in his own department of politics neither taught them, nor gave them teachers; but they were allowed to wander at their own free will in a sort of hope that they would light upon virtue of their own accord. Or take another example: there was Cleinias the younger brother of our friend Alcibiades, of whom this very same Pericles was the guardian; and he being in fact under the apprehension that Cleinias would be corrupted by Alcibiades, took him away, and placed him in the house of Ariphron to be educated; but before six months had elapsed, Ariphron sent him back, not knowing what to do with him. And I could mention numberless other instances of persons who were good themselves, and never yet made any one else good, whether friend or stranger. Now I, Protagoras, having these examples before me, am inclined to think that virtue cannot be taught."

Protagoras' response is a story in which Zeus gives out some gifts to only a few, but the political virtue is distributed widely so that men may live in peace with each other. That's not really a proof, it's literally a myth. Still, it may well be true that almost everyone must have a share in the ability to make peace together or else we couldn't do it. If so, the fact that we do it proves that we must most of us have the right virtues to do it; and thus, that we should listen to each other widely about how to do it rather than trying to construct an elite class to dominate and direct the rest.

So there are areas in which expertise is valuable, but also areas in which it is proper to resolve the questions through a broad-based democracy.

Grim said...

Protagoras' answer about why good men have bad sons may interest you, given your convictions on nature/nurture.

"But why then do the sons of good fathers often turn out ill? There is nothing very wonderful in this; for, as I have been saying, the existence of a state implies that virtue is not any man's private possession.

"If so-and nothing can be truer-then I will further ask you to imagine, as an illustration, some other pursuit or branch of knowledge which may be assumed equally to be the condition of the existence of a state. Suppose that there could be no state unless we were all flute-players, as far as each had the capacity, and everybody was freely teaching everybody the art, both in private and public, and reproving the bad player as freely and openly as every man now teaches justice and the laws, not concealing them as he would conceal the other arts, but imparting them-for all of us have a mutual interest in the justice and virtue of one another, and this is the reason why every one is so ready to teach justice and the laws;-suppose, I say, that there were the same readiness and liberality among us in teaching one another flute-playing, do you imagine, Socrates, that the sons of good flute players would be more likely to be good than the sons of bad ones? I think not. Would not their sons grow up to be distinguished or undistinguished according to their own natural capacities as flute-players, and the son of a good player would often turn out to be a bad one, and the son of a bad player to be a good one, all flute-players would be good enough in comparison of those who were ignorant and unacquainted with the art of flute-playing?"

My understanding of your position is that Protagoras must be wrong, at least on average; but then Socrates' objection becomes stronger. It might be your object, too: we really can't teach this stuff. Then what?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You brilliantly anticipated in your second comment what I was in fact thinking while reading your first. You deserve a prize of some sort.

The children of flute-players are on average much better flute-players, even if they are brought up by adoptive parents. Not all, but that's the way to bet. I doubt that the tendency is anywhere near as strong with virtue and wisdom, but I think there is at least some. Wisdom, as distinguished from intelligence, really does seem to me a nature/nurture balance. Because the successful have their children acculturated in the values of the day much more than the children of the poor, the natural gifts or lack of gifts is disguised for a generation or even two.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Zachriel - And what is the mirrored leftist pathology?

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: @ Zachriel - And what is the mirrored leftist pathology?

The slant rhyme is class.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Imagined class" would not be a wrong answer. And there are values for the word "class" where that is true, but that is moving target. I was looking for the fascination the left has with internationalism - and the disdain for mere nativism - as the counter, but I see where you are going. I did like the phrase "slant rhyme" to describe it.

My offer to read everything you write for two weeks if you open your own site still stands. I'll bet others here will also welcome the chance to see you have a try at it. We're all in.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: "Imagined class" would not be a wrong answer. And there are values for the word "class" where that is true, but that is moving target.

While the cobwebs of the old aristocratic system have largely been swept away, there's little doubt that the rich have more political power and are treated differently by justice systems in most of the world.

Assistant Village Idiot: I was looking for the fascination the left has with internationalism

That would be closer to the mirrored image of nativism.

It's been said, "All men are created equal." Internationalism follows from egalitarianism. In that view, America would be first among equals on the world stage, and would largely lead by example and persuasion rather than by coercion.

Assistant Village Idiot: My offer to read everything you write for two weeks if you open your own site still stands.

That's greatly appreciated. However, we find your own posts to be thought-provoking and well-thought. We generally lurk and learn, but will post on occasion if feel we have something to add.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Judging by class" and "egalitarianism" are opposites, and that is why I left internationalism years ago. It's something they tell themselves but isn't true. Just today a co-worker told me, in his complaints about Trump, "Maybe people from West Virginia will fall for his lies, but I sure won't."

As for coercion, decent countries don't seem to be coerced by us. I don't think the Danes, the Japanese, the Israelis, or the New Zealanders would describe our treatment of them as coercive. Trading nations all play advantages - I suppose one could call that coercive, but I think that's inaccurate. It's stretching the garment over too large an area. Countries that interfere with trade or with international agreements do sometimes find themselves coerced, by coalitions including or even led by us. Perhaps you don't like that - many don't, and I see their point - but that's not the same as being coercive by nature.

I think the writing of posts would be instructive. As Bacon said “Reading maketh a full man; and writing an exact man."

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: "Judging by class" and "egalitarianism" are opposites

That's right, which is why the old aristocratic system, whereby someone's power and prestige was primarily due to whose greats-granddaddy won a battle centuries past or whose distant ancestor was better at stealing sheep, was abandoned. That doesn't mean a new class system hasn't arisen, at least in part.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The new class system is tied to universities, facility with words, and imitating the values of the chattering classes. NPR was its flagship, but I hear the rising generation isn't buying in to that. They will likely pick something worse.