The Corner

Elitism vs. Populism

Jonah:  So far as any art (in the older sense, embracing learned skills of every kind) is concerned, of course elitism is a wellnigh unqualified good.  I want the guy who takes out my gall bladder to have a string of degrees, the longest string I can afford.  In governance, though, I’m with WFB and the Boston phone book thing.

As you stare at these phenomena, they start to invert themselves, like that wire-frame cube that is pointing towards you.. then away.  Was (say) Juan Peron a populist?  Of course, he’s practically the archetype.  Yet he & his circle lived high on the hog, & were very particular who they let in to the governing project.  Was the Soviet Nomenklatura a political elite?  You bet:  and yet there is no doubt that, in circuses if not in bread, they satisfied widespread popular political appetites.  They are missed by large swathes of the Russian population even today (and in Belarus seem actually to be making a comeback). 

Similarly, the bogus egalitarianism you rightly condemned in your elitism piece–everything just as good as everything else–is being foisted on us by our cognitive elites.  It comes de haut en bas, not upward from the mass of people, who have too much sense to manufacture such rubbish.  In Orwell’s deservedly famous phrase:  You have to be an intellectual to believe something as stupid as that.

Political (let’s cut out the analogies with heart surgeons) elitism and political populism both have their dire excesses, no doubt about it.  The question at any point in time is:  Which one is nearer to excess?  Which one is the greater danger to our political ideals and social order?  In this time and place, it seems to me that the answer is elitism.  By a mile.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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