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Where the "Elites" Meet

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 4/25/08


People are always splitting off new meanings for words. Much more rarely they'll shmoosh together two old ones. As with other kinds of inbreeding, the process can produce monsters. Take the curious recent development of the noun elite. Not long ago it was a barely nativized French word that still opened with a jaunty accent aigu on its é. Now it can drive items like health care, torture, and immigration to the bottom of a network's debate agenda.

Elite used to have two distinct meanings.[1] It could be a la-di-da word for the upper crust, what people used to call the bon ton. Or more consequentially, it could denote the interlocking command structure of society that the sociologist C. Wright Mills referred to in the title of his classic 1956 book The Power Elite. As Mills described them, those were "the people who rule the big corporations... run the machinery of the state [and] direct the military establishment."

Until a few decades ago, the two senses of elite rarely even nodded to each other. The first appeared only in the society pages and the names of pastry shops; the second showed up only in foreign political dispatches and sociology journals.

The blurring of the two senses was first audible in the 1960's, when Spiro Agnew first put the phrase "media elite" into wide circulation and joined it with descriptions like "effete snobs," which evoked the social meaning of the word. But the new meaning of elite didn't really make its debut until the summer of 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle sparked a national controversy by denouncing Candace Bergen's TV character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock. Quayle put the blame on a "cultural elite" who were mocking ordinary Americans "in newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges all over America. . .We have two cultures," he said, "the cultural elite and the rest of us."

Those attacks weren't sufficient to save the Bush-Quayle ticket from going down in the fall elections, but they did put the E-word at the center of national attention. When he was asked who exactly made up the cultural elite, Quayle answered coyly, "They know who they are." But Newsweek obligingly published a list of its 100 most prominent members, which with scruplous evenhandedness included both poster-child liberals like Bill Moyers, Frank Rich, and Oprah, and conservatives like William Bennett, George Will, and Lynne Cheney.

By any reasonable measure of cultural influence, those were all uncontroversial calls. But by then, elite had been sent spinning inexorably leftwards. It wasn't just that it was now exclusively prefixed by liberal and implied a seditious taste in cheese and beverages. Even the job descriptions of the elite had changed, so that qualifier "cultural" came to seem redundant.

In the British media, you still see elite used predominantly to refer to economic and business leaders, whether you look at the left-wing Guardian or Rupert Murdoch's Times of London. But on Murdoch's Fox News, references to the media elite outnumber references to the business and corporate elite by 40 to 1, and the disproportion is only slightly less dramatic on CNN. When Americans hear elite these days, they're less likely to think of the managers and politicians who inahabit the corridors of power than of the celebrities, academics, and journalists who lodge in its outer boroughs.

It remained only for elite to undergo its final democratization, where it was emptied of its last connections to social position or to actual wealth or power. All that was left of its original meanings was the implication of insufferable pretension and an unwarranted sense of entitlement. As the conservative radio host Laura Ingraham explains it in Shut Up and Sing, elite Americans "are defined not so much by class or wealth or position as they are by a general outlook. Their core belief is that they are superior to We the People. They think we're stupid. They think where we live is stupid. They think our SUVs are stupid. They think our guns are stupid."[2]

That broadened meaning of elite is apt to create some confusion for liberals who haven't cottoned to it. They're apt to get indignant when they hear elite pronounced with a sneer by people who would indisuptably qualify for the label under its old definition. And they may be puzzled by the expansive use of we that modern critics of the liberal elite tend to fall into when they're bonding with non-elite Americans. How does a Connecticut-raised, Ivy-educated lawyer like Ingraham get to share a first-person plural pronoun with a working-class deer hunter from western Pennsylvania?

For that matter, what are we supposed to make of that we when we hear it from the quintessential blue-state conservative David Brooks: "Is Obama someone who doesn't know anything about the way American people actually live, or does he actually get the way we live?" I mean, if you give Brooks that "we," who exactly is the "they" supposed to be?

But then if you don't have to have money, power or influence to qualify as elite, it follows that having those things needn't necessarily disqualify you from being one of the rest of us, so long as you can knock back a shot occasionally and commune with your inner g-dropper. The crucial thing, as Barack Obama learned, is not to be caught looking "out of touch" -- a phrase that was paired with his name in 3500 Google News stories after the "bittergate" episode. Summer wherever you like, but if you don't want to be described as elite you'd better be able to work Dale Earnhardt Jr. into your conversation.

1. I'm ignoring here the use of elite as both an adjective and noun to refer simply to the cream of a class -- elite runners, elite fighting force, the NBA elite, and so on. Used in this way, the word has no particular social or political connotations. Return

2. Ingraham is one of the people who have adopted the pioneering (though to my ears, weird) practice of using elite to refer to individuals, as in "There are a lot of elites in that neighborhood," or "She's an elite." This usage isn't restricted to the right, as I noted in a post a couple of years ago on LanguageLog. Return

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.