Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Elites. There’s the villain of the day, the word bandied about by both the hard right and the hard left to signify those from whom all woe emanates. It’s a nice handy shorthand, and works everywhere. In Trumpian America, Brexit Britain, Le Pen’s France, Paul Murphy’s Ireland. If we could only get rid of elites, sure, wouldn’t we be in clover?
Yeah. I’ve yet to find a definition of “elite” which has common agreement. Is it the mega-rich? Not if you look at who just got elected to the White House on a Down-With-The-Elites platform. Is there anyone who thinks Donald Trump and the Republican congress is going to dismantle capitalism? Even his supporters don’t expect that.
Surely, if it were a revolt by the poor against their economic betters then Jeremy Corbyn would be topping the poll? Or the alphabet left in Ireland would be at least bumping around the same 25% in the polls that the distinctly counter-revolutionary Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each command? Marine Le Pen is certainly more economically left wing but even that’s more to do with populism than a dismantling of capitalism. Nigel Farage is a former City of London trader. The same struggling white working class who elected Trump also elected a majority Republican congress, a party that has systematically and unashamedly tried to dismantle the modest US welfare system.
Sure, you can point at Davos and Martha’s Vineyard and Blair and Clinton types all meeting in pretty salubrious surrounds, and of course the sharing of wealth is an issue.
But the reality is that when many talk about the elites they are talking about a group, even a class, that they say is not just economically but culturally apart.
Look at the breakdown of who voted Trump. 53% of white women voted that he was closer to their values than an actual white woman. 29% of Latinos voted for him. They saw something in him that they couldn’t see in Hillary Clinton. Was it that she represented some sort of elite disconnected from their lives?
Let’s look at this elite. Who are they? They’re pro-immigration, more secular than not, internationalist, pro-free trade, socially liberal, economically centrist.
Against them, we’re told that the “ordinary people” are nervous if not openly hostile to immigration, traditionally religious, nationalist and suspicious about it, against free trade and economically in favour of both lower taxes and higher spending.
The problem with the disconnected elite argument is that when you trace it through history, the liberal elite are right more often than they are wrong. It was the unrepresentative elite who pushed for an end to slavery. Votes for women. Desegregation. Indeed, all three were condemned at the time as being lofty interference from on high by pointy-headed intellectuals in their ivory towers. Desegregation was forced on the southern states of the United States almost completely against the democratic wishes of the people of those states. The fancy-pants liberal elite literally sent soldiers into those states to enforce elitist liberal laws that black children could attend the same schools as white children.
Take our own country. A liberal elite here scrapped the marriage ban in the civil service in a time when Fianna Fail had a motion at its Ard Fheis suggesting that married women in work were unfairly depriving others of work. Homosexuality was decriminalised without much national debate, with no party of significance taking a stand against, despite the fact that there probably was a significant minority opposed.
Having said that, our own constitution has probably helped in this regard, in that many changes on everything from the special position of the Catholic Church to divorce to marriage equality to the death penalty all had to go before the people. But movement on all were started by a small liberal elite whose views eventually became a majority view.
Across the west, the liberal elite has been right more often than it was wrong. It championed international cooperation on security (NATO) and economic prosperity (the EU) and on trade (the WTO). It pushed for the sanctions that toppled apartheid.
But more than anything else, it did details. That’s what made it work, and now threatens it.
The liberal international elite was the force that patiently negotiated the compromises that let an Irishman work in Estonia, or a Japanese car be bought in Belmullet. They negotiated the agreements that lets planes cross from one jurisdiction to another, using the same air traffic control protocols. That lets a man in Dublin buy insurance in Tokyo to safeguard a container being shipped to Helsinki.
Rail all you want about the WTO and NATO and TTIP and faceless international bureaucrats, but there are mortgages in Cork getting paid because a product shipped from Cork can go on a shelf in Beijing or Boston. It’s the elite that put those deals together.
The alternative offered by almost every opponent of the elite is to regard a slogan as a policy. Scrap NAFTA. Take Back Control. Build the wall.
Last week, a movie, “Arrival”, came out. It’s about a group of elite scientists desperately trying to communicate with newly-arrived vast alien spacecraft whilst shock-jock DJs are whipping up mobs to attack the alien ships under the slogan “Save our species”.
It’s a curiously appropriate metaphor for where we in the west find ourselves today.