Initial Thoughts on America and Its Elites

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over the weekend, I spoke with two people whose take on the Park51 mosque and community center, quite apart from the merits of their respective positions, can only be described as aggrieved. One argued that the mosque should be moved farther from Ground Zero, the other that a location two blocks removed presents no problem. But their upset sprang from a deeper place: a conviction, expressed more emotionally than anything, that their insights aren’t shared or even respected by those in “the other America.”

Said the man, a wealthy fifty-something executive, “Seventy percent sees what is wrong with this, yet we’re called bigots! If the people in charge don’t change their cosmopolitan attitudes we’re going to lose this country.”

The woman, a top tier business school student in her late twenties, insisted that if demagogues manage to mess up even this, “I’m seriously moving abroad. Ever since 9/11 I just don’t know what’s wrong with people.”

These laments aren’t exactly surprising.

The right generally lashes out by asserting that its ideological opponents are out of touch elites, disconnected from traditional American values and common sense. More common on the left is for aggrieved participants in the national debate to bemoan what they regard as the perversion of values being perpetrated. Opponents are cast as pawns being manipulated into irrational or even bigoted positions by powerful interests who benefit from the world that results.

What I found interesting is that these two people, who’ll both enjoy far more wealth, influence and power than the average American in the course of their lives, both earnestly conceived of others being in charge. The executive saw cosmopolitan liberal elites as exercising control, so much so that he feared the loss of what makes America exceptional; whereas the liberal business school student understood herself to be part of the elite, given her educational credentials, but felt that people who share her values haven’t been running the country since 9/11, making her complicit in policies that she abhors. Is the United States home to a liberal elite that basically runs things except when its power is checked or overruled by the larger population? That’s the way a lot of people talk on the right and the left, but I think it’s a misleading frame. In reality, there are a lot of different elites in America, ideology is but one factor that distinguishes them from one another, and ordering them to reflect their relative power is literally an impossible task.

In terms of who does more to shape the country and its future, try ranking Leon Panetta, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, an exceptional high school English teacher, David Foster Wallace, Barbara Streisand, Rick Warren, a successful small business man, Lynn Cheney, Haley Barbour, the mayor of Omaha, Nancy Pelosi, Kobe Bryant, Ezra Klein, Bill Keller, Sarah Palin, Chick Hearn, the scientist most responsible for Lipitor, Rush Limbaugh, a federal circuit court judge, the CEO of the biggest employer in Cleveland, a veteran police officer on the streets of Chicago, the Governor of Nevada, Rupert Murdoch, Malcolm Gladwell, Donald Bren and L. Ron Hubbard.

Were there an objectively correct ordering known only by God, what percentage of humans would arrive at it? And this is but an insignificant fraction of elites from a few different categories (it includes a lot of journalists, despite the fact that I think Americans generally attribute more power to individuals in my profession than we actually possess.)

The beliefs Americans form about the forces that shape this country matter. It’s unhealthy for a polity when an increasing number of people are alienated from a prevailing order they feel powerless to influence. Over the course of this week, I hope to delve deeper into this question of America and its elites. As always, e-mail on the subject is welcome.