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In defense of “the elite”



Iestyn Davies, one of the world’s foremost countertenors, described opera (in the Wall Street Journal) as “elitist in a good sense.” He didn’t explain what he meant, but one presumes he was using the word in its old-fashioned sense, as “the group or part of the group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary)

Historically, the elite have always been the ruling class. In early Rome, the control of government was restricted to “patricians,” the “fathers” of “great families”; later, in a burst of democracy, the “plebians” insisted on their own citizenship rights, which eventually were granted. However, This new concept of citizenship…did not mean full equality.” Patricians remained at the top of the social and legal hierarchy, and over the next two millennia, the elite class, in whatever nation, and whatever they were called, remained “the most distinguished and powerful.”

Suspicion and resentment of the elites, of course, always troubled societies, especially western ones, and, by the nineteenth century– following the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution—Europe saw a burst of anti-elitist sentiment that resulted, most famously, in the irruption of Communism, which identified “the elites” as capitalist warmongering plutocrats. This anti-elitist streak found fertile ground in the new American empire; our Declaration of Independence, with its “All men are created equal” credo, underscored the anti-patrician sentiment upon which this nation was founded (although the irony is that the white, land-owning men who founded it were themselves arch-patricians).

By the post-World War II period, with the triumph of Rooseveltian liberalism, a new cadre of sociologists and political scientists had identified a class of patricians formed and nourished by the new industrial state. The sociologist C. Wright Mills termed this new class “The Power Elite,” in a 1957 book of the same name that was very influential when I was a lad. This elite, Mills wrote, consisted of “political, economic and military circles” who decided national events. The new “plebes”—factory workers, farmers, clerical workers, teachers, nurses, mechanics—had no input into these decisions. Mills’ book not only identified the new elite, but cast a rather sour glance upon them.

Since the 1950s, the “elite” have become the target for populist resentment, both Democratic and Republican; but mainly the latter. Richard Nixon stirred modern anti-elite sentiment when he spoke of “the Silent Majority.” The rise of evangelical Christianity, under Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the like, capitalized on this resentment to lure poorer, under-educated Americans into their tents; and these Americans voted.

Today, of course, we have the tea party and its affiliated media, such as Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, continuing to stoke anti-elite resentment. This resentment forms the very basis of Trumpism; it is what got him elected; it is what makes his followers stand by him despite the torrent of lies and failures issuing from the president. The “elite” whom the Republican Party despises are said to live on the two Coasts, in the great cities, where they control the media; muckrakers such as Alex Jones routinely attack them, as he did last month when he ranted about the “Hollywood elite” as “a pack of ravenous psychopaths.”

This is funny stuff; I think of people like Jones and Limbaugh as comedians and entertainers, not authentic political commentators; but that they are believed, literally, by millions of their fans does make them a problem. Which brings me back to Iestyn Davies’s comment that opera is “elitist in a good sense.” I believe in the concept of a good elite. Who do I mean? Oddly, the Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib, a conservative, defined elites yesterday in the paper: “upper-scale white voters, millennials, minorities, suburban women and single women.” That’s a pretty good group to run America, it seems to me. “Elitist in a good sense.”

Elite Americans are better-educated, with sounder judgment and greater insight, than under-educated Americans. They also have a compassion and empathy that are non-existent in the white supremacist, xenophobic Republican Party. The elite class in America is, in the Republican strategist, Steve Schmidt’s, recent words, “a coalition of the decent”: liberally-minded, inclusive, tolerant of others, kind—just as they would want others to be of them. The father of classical Western liberalism, John Locke, put it this way: Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” That broad vision lies at the center of American freedom: no matter who you are, you are as valuable as any billionaire, President or four-star general. This vision, indeed, translates directly to, for example, Tuesday’s election victory in Virginia by a transgendered woman. Despite the animosity of the Republican-Christian party towards the LGBTQ community, Americans increasingly are liberal and tolerant of others. This is what makes America great, not a narcissistic pathological liar wearing a MAGA cap.

So, yes, I defend the elite. I would much rather have elite people making important decisions than religious fanatics, neo-nazis, school dropouts, klepto thugs like the Trump family and ignoramuses who don’t believe in science. Elite people are smart, with common sense and sophistication; that is why the non-elite are jealous of them. So, the next time you hear a Bannon or a Trump or any tea party denizen attack “the elite,” know that there’s an agenda there: what passes for “anti-elitism” today is a rightwing, reactionary-fascist movement that is trying to take America backwards, not forward.

  1. And don’t forget Spiro Agnew’s “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism.”

  2. Ah, yes, the famous alliterative line from William Safire.

  3. Nancy Weil Brown says:

    As far back as I can remember, this country has been anti-intellectual. Adlai Stevenson was called an “egg head” by his political opponent when he ran against Ike way back in the 50s. This was not a compliment. I am not a part of the financial elite, but I proudly proclaim that I am part of the general group we are now calling the elite. I am not in the top tier by any means, but I am definitely part of this privileged group .I was lucky to be born to intelligent middle class parents. I am lucky that they taught me well and I am lucky to have been able to go to college for as long as I chose to. My parents were educated and passed their love of education on to me. My parents taught me critical thinking and a my education made sure I practiced those skills and they have served me well as an integral piece of every part of my life. I think an understanding of science is basic to understanding how we, as humans, operate and how we can save and improve our planet. I don’t see religion and science as enemies. My careers were all white collar and spent in offices where most of my colleagues were also college-educated. I don’t see this as a bad thing, nor do I think someone who didn’t have my advantages or does physical work for a living is less than I am or should be treated differently. The title of elite doesn’t mean that I think I’m better than others. It also does not preclude my sense of the injustices that seem to be growing in the country today. I would never have chosen the word “elite” to describe myself, but I fit the pattern of those who Trump supporters call elites as though that were a pejorative.

  4. Thank you, Nancy. For my whole life, I’ve rebelled against “the elite.” That was the basis of the 1960s. But with this new era of trumpism, his supporters have shown themselves to be total idiots, moral degenerates and, yes, deplorables. I DO consider myself superior to them–morally and intellectually. And I’m not afraid to admit it.

  5. Steve,

    I hope you will indulge me in reproducing a long and timeless advice article elites (in the best sense of that word) from now defunct Forbes ASAP magazine, penned by management consultant Tom (“In Search of Excellence”) Peters. An example that not everything can be found on the Web.

    The text will appear in my subsequent reply.

    ~~ Bob

  6. Excerpt from Forbes ASAP Magazine
    (Circa 1999 or 2000, Page 120ff):

    “The Quaint Idea of Absolute Mastery”

    [Link: not found on the Web]

    By Tom Peters
    “The Peters Principles” Column

    I’m troubled by the number of businesspeople I know, from CEOs to first-line supervisors, who are inexpert. I know their platters overflow, and every day brings a raft of unique problems. There’s hardly time to renew nodding acquaintances with the spouse and kids, let alone hit the books.

    Still, it’s painfully clear that most “new” products and services bring yawns. Most grand business strategies are insipid. And most functional strategies (information systems, marketing, whatever) are unimaginative. I contend that much of the problem stems from senior folks who lack or who have lost their thirst for continued learning and its partner, towering competence.

    What is “towering competence”? I got a graphic lesson years ago on a Friday afternoon outside Rochester, N.Y. An old friend (then a Xerox exec) and I sat on a hill overlooking the 17th hole of the Oak Hill Country Club watching touring pros pass by. One stood out. After watching his approach shot fall, he took a moment, surveyed the course and made a half-dozen practice swings — presumably pondering the next two days’ rounds. Who was he? The ageless student of golf, Arnold Palmer.

    . . .

    . . . Business schools imagine they have a lot to cram into 18 months. M.B.A. students may take a few specialized courses in their second year. Yet the fact is that these so-called citadels of professional learning turn out dilettantes (would the degree better be called P.B.A., for Pastiche of Business Administration?) who walk away with an acceptable technical vocabulary but little in-depth knowledge. Worse, because of the abiding focus on finding jobs, these “masters” have little taste for perpetual learning and mastery.

    The story is repeated on the job. The excruciating pace of the marketplace is the excuse. Financial service companies must produce new offerings each month. Computer companies introduce dozens of products per month. And the consumer-goods mavens add grocery and drugstore products to U.S. shelves at the rate of one every 30 minutes, all year long. No wonder we all have trouble getting a grip. There’s hardly room for the sort of competence Mehta portrays. Or is there?

    Practice, Practice, Practice

    Back to sports and my fellow Forbes ASAP columnist Bill Walsh. The NFL Hall of Famer is a consummate student. He’s like a four-year-old, perpetually curious. Off-season or on, as young assistant coach or grizzled veteran, he has an appetite for learning that defines him.

    Walsh’s former team, the San Francisco 49ers, has a strong work ethic, even by the high standards of the National Football League. Yet even among the hard-working 49ers there are differences. A reporter commented last fall on a rainy pregame scene: Most players congregated near the entrance to the field, doubtless praying to the rain god for surcease. One didn’t. He gestured toward a teammate, who grudgingly tossed him a couple dozen balls while he reran pass routes. The foul-weather overachiever? All-Pro, all-everything Jerry Rice.

    The not-so-dumb jocks can teach us a lot. Think about it. Pro football enterprises, typically worth a couple hundred million dollars, are out-and-out learning machines. Starting moments after the final whistle blows on Sunday, it’s tear the films apart (yours and your next opponent’s) and create something new and different within the next seven days — else.

    Another fellow Forbes ASAP contributor, George Gilder, got his 15 minutes (and then some) of Warholian fame as a godfather of Ronald Reagan’s supply-side movement. But he didn’t sit on his significant laurels. Gilder’s sparky intellect was lit anew by information technology while researching Silicon Valley’s yeasty culture. Rather than dabble in his new love, Gilder dove in and became an apprentice. He tried to cadge a free subscription to Ben Rosen’s influential computer industry newsletter. Happily for Gilder, Rosen said no; the subscription would have to be earned. And so, hat in hand, Gilder won his newsletter only by becoming Rosen’s newest junior reporter.

    Sorry to say, Walsh and Gilder hardly resemble the average marketing, purchasing, logistics or information system manager I meet. Most, to be sure, are bright. Most log yeoman’s hour’s. But towering competence? Forget it.

    This Ain’t Academic

    Let me be clear. I’m talking not about academic excellence but about excellence that derives from total, consuming immersion in a topic.

    Of course, some do pass my test. Superstar car dealer Car Sewell, coauthor with Paul Brown of Customers for Life (Penquin, 1991), will go anywhere and talk with anyone (and has) to learn anything new about customer service. Johnsonville Foods CEO Ralph Stayer, who created a winner in his sausage business, has spent decades immersed in the study of empowerment. Ditto PepsiCo vice-chairman Roger Enrico in marketing and General Electric chairman Jack Welch in business strategy. Then there’s 76-year-old Roger Milliken, who’s headed Milliken and Co. for almost half a century. Roger is the Bill Walsh of the textile business and a passionate student. He ceaselessly studied manufacturing technology, and it shows in his sparkling corporation’s manufacturing excellence. Then in the late 1970s he dove into quality like a child and apprentice, and mastered it. Next, customer satisfaction. Studenthood in perpetuity is Milliken’s signature. Towering competence is his game.

    These exceptions, as they say, prove the rule. When I reflect on conversations with Sewell or especially Milliken, from which I depart shaking my still-spinning head, I know I’ve just finished an invaluable tutorial (and been thoroughly shaken down for any tidbits I might be able to offer). I also know how far these conversations stand beyond the norm.

    [. . .]

    The upshot of all this is clear, if tough to swallow. Whether you are a new B-school graduate, rising marketing exec or CEO, ask yourself if you are onto “something.” Do you have a towering competence that can become the basis for startling new moves in your industry? If not, precisely what do you plan to do about it? (And when do you plan to start?)

    As CEO, look at your top divisional and functional execs, as well as your stars another level or so down. Sure, they’re “fine performers.” But are they on a fast track to towering competence? If not, what do you/they plan to do about it?

    In an age in which value stems from knowledge, it’s about time to take a look at the quality of the cards we hold.

  7. And let’s not overlook the long time commitment and “grit” necessary to becoming a master of one’s profession.

    From Fortune “Leadership” Section
    (November 24, 2008, Page 160ff):

    “Secrets of Their Success;
    Malcolm Gladwell on what separates
    extraordinary achievers from the rest of us.”


    Interview by Jennifer Reingold

    In the business world, managing talent is one of those topics that are both overanalyzed and misunderstood. What separates the legendary CEO from the chronically dissatisfied cubicle dweller?

    In his provocative new book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” (Little Brown), Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that the answer isn’t innate talent. New Yorker writer Gladwell, also author of “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” sat down with Fortune to talk about Bill Gates’ lucky break, why Asians are good at math, and why some of us aren’t destined for success — but still can make it big.

    Fortune: What exactly is an outlier?

    Gladwell: It’s a technical term for a phenomenon that is outside normal experience. Scientists use it all the time when they are graphing data. You’ve got a nice little bell curve, and then you have a couple of things that are way out here. Well, this book is about people who are way out there.

    F: How did you become interested in this topic?

    G: I was interested in writing about success. I just became convinced that our explanations [of what drives it] were lacking. We have the kind of self-made-man myth, which says that super-successful people did it themselves. And we have a series of other beliefs that say that our personality, our intelligence, all of our innate characteristics are the primary driving force. It’s that cluster of things that I don’t agree with.

    The premise of this book is that you can learn a lot more about success by looking around at the successful person, at what culture they belong to, what their parents did for a living. Successful people are people who have made the most of a series of gifts that have been given to them by their culture or their history, by their generation.

    F: Talk about Bill Gates. The mythology is that he was spontaneously drawn to computers. But you say that’s not the case.

    G: Bill Gates has this utterly extraordinary series of opportunities. When he’s 13, it’s 1969. He shows up at his private school in Seattle, and they have a computer room with a teletype machine that is hooked up to a mainframe downtown. Anyone who was playing on the teletype machine could do real-time programming. Ninety-nine percent of the universities in America in 1969 did not have that.

    Then, when he was 15 or so, classmate Paul Allen learned that there was a mainframe at the University of Washington that was not being used between two and six every morning. So they would get up at 1:30 in the morning, walk a mile, and program for four hours. When Gates is 20, he has as much experience as people who have spent their entire lives being programmers. He has this incredible headstart.

    F: What link does practice have to success?

    G: The 10,000-hour rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.

    F: You also talk a lot about culture. How does it affect math skills, for example?

    G: We give kids from around the world the same set of math tests, and every time we get the same results: America is just below average, and then at the very, very top are Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. It occurs again and again.

    There’s an ultimately unconvincing argument that this has to do with IQ. I think what it has to do with is culture. Asian culture has a profoundly different relationship to work. It rewards people who are persistent.

    Take a random group of 8-year-old American and Japanese kids, give them all a really, really hard math problem, and start a stopwatch. The American kids will give up after 30, 40 seconds. If you let the test run for 15 minutes, the Japanese kids will not have given up. You have to take it away.

    I argue that this has to do with the kind of agriculture pursued in the West and the East going back thousands of years. I have ancestors who were peasant farmers in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. They probably worked 1,000 hours a year, if that. In the winter, they slept. They drank a lot of beer.

    These Asian cultures are all wet-rice agricultural economies. Growing rice is this extraordinarily complex, labor-intensive activity that requires not just physical engagement but mental engagement. So a farmer in 14th-century Japan or 14th-century China was working 3,000 hours a year — three times longer. I know it sounds hard to believe, but habits laid down by our ancestors persist even after the conditions that created those habits have gone away.

    F: You share a fascinating story about culture and airline safety.

    G: Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

    But Boeing and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren’t as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.

    I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn’t correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it.

    F: So let’s broaden this out. Are there lessons in this book that are applicable to the business world?

    Yes. Instead of thinking about talent as something that you acquire, talent should be thought of as something you develop. Procter & Gamble is a great example of a company that does that and has prospered as a result. Look around Wall Street, or what’s left of it today, and you’ll see lots and lots and lots of people from Goldman Sachs. That’s not a coincidence. It’s because they took their mission to invest in people seriously.

    F: Should people be expected to take the issue of developing talent seriously right now, in the middle of a crisis?

    G: Paradoxically, this might be the perfect time. When it’s easy to make money, you have no incentive to think about development of talent. Now, you’re forced to. At least that’s my optimistic hope.

  8. Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (October 7, 2008, Page E5)

    “Goldman Sachs’ Survival in Wall Street Jungle”


    Book review by J. Bradford DeLong
    [a former deputy assistant U.S. Treasury secretary, is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley.]

    “The Partnership:
    The Making of Goldman Sachs”
    By Charles D. Ellis
    (Penguin Press, 752 pages, $37.95)

    For the last two generations, Goldman Sachs has been the rising firm to watch on Wall Street. For at least the last generation, the consensus judgment of those who work in the financial system has been that Goldman Sachs is the “best” large-scale Wall Street firm. As Ellis writes, the firm “recruited more intriguing people” and “people who cared more about [the long-term welfare of] their firm” than in other firms. Its leaders “took a longer-horizon view” and “were more alert to [operational] details.” They “worked harder” and “were more modest” — that’s what Ellis says, but I don’t believe it.

    The saying is that B-grade people hire C-grade people to work for them, and A-grade people hire A-grade people to work for them. The Goldman Sachs mathematics, however, has been that A+-grade people hire A+++-grade people — the best in the world — to work for them. That is many things, but it is not “modesty.”

  9. Google likewise strives to hire elites . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (April 26, 2006, Page A16):

    “Management à la Google”


    By Gary Hamel
    [Visiting professor at London Business School, and director of the Woodside Institute]

    The ultimate test of any management team is not how fast it can grow its company in the short-term, but how consistently it can grow it over the long-term. In a world where change is relentless and seditious, this demands a capacity for rapid strategic adaptation. In recent years we have witnessed adaptation failures by incumbents across a wide variety of industries: airlines, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, newspapers, and recorded music. In many cases, companies haven’t been changing as fast as the world around them. What the laggards have failed to grasp is that what matters most today is not a company’s competitive advantage at a point in time, but its evolutionary advantage over time. Google gets this.

    While Google’s growth will inevitably slow, there’s a good chance that its revenues will arc upward for years. Why? Because its novel management system seems to have been designed to guard against the risk factors that so often erode an organization’s evolutionary potential:

    Evolutionary risk factor # 1: A narrow or orthodox business definition that limits the scope of innovation. Google’s response: An expansive sense of purpose.

    . . .

    Evolutionary risk factor # 2: A hierarchical organization that over-weights the views of those who have a stake in perpetuating the status quo. Google’s response: An organization that is flat, transparent, and non-hierarchical.

    Evolutionary risk factor # 3: A tendency to overinvest in “what is” at the expense of “what could be.” Google’s response: A company-wide rule that allows developers to devote 20% of their time to any project they choose.

    . . .

    Evolutionary risk factor # 4: Creeping mediocrity. Google’s response: Keep the bozos out and reward people who make a difference.

    Elitism may be out of fashion, but Google is famously elitist when it comes to hiring. It understands that companies begin to slide into mediocrity when they start to hire mediocre people. A-level people want to work with A-level people. B-level people are threatened by class-A talent. So if you let a B-lister in the door, he or she will hire equally unremarkable colleagues. As the ranks of the mediocre expand, it becomes harder to attract and retain the exceptional. The process of dumbing down becomes irreversible.

    Google’s grueling hiring process, akin to a Mensa test, values nonconformity nearly as highly as genius. Preference is given to candidates who have weird avocations and out-of-the-ordinary experiences. It’s one thing to hire ambitious brainiacs, and another to keep them. The Founders’ Awards, an annual multimillion dollar payout to teams who’ve made outsize contributions to Google’s growth, is one key retention mechanism The goal: to ensure that internal entrepreneurs have no incentive to take their best ideas somewhere else.

    . . .

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