Monday, June 04, 2018

Just who are these "elites" that populist politicians talk about?

Donald Trump was elected on the promise of "draining the swamp" and fighting back against "the elites". The Brexit vote turned on Nigel Farage's disparagement of "the global elites" and "political elites". Doug Ford talks all the time about the "elites", or often more specifically "downtown elites" (as though the whole population of central Toronto, for example, were rich playboys), whom he comically characterizes as "drinking champagne with their pinkies in the air", just as his brother Rob did before him. "Elites" are a favourite whipping boy for populist politicians.
Technically, according to the dictionary, "elite" means "the richest, most powerful, best educated, or best-trained group in a society". But this is presumably not who Trump, Farage and the Fords are actually referring to when they use the term in their political rants. Hell, they ARE the elites: Trump is a billionaire businessman; Farage is the privately-educated ex-stockbroker and son of a stockbroker; the Fords are multi-millionaires who inherited a successful business from their father. You really think these people care about what they superciliously call "the little guy" ?Furthermore, much of the political base of these people is made up of rich and influential conservatives who want to stay rich and influential (i.e. "elites", by any normal definition).
So, who are these "elites", and why are they so denigrated by rich, powerful populists? Just to be clear, "populist" maybe also needs defining. The dictionary describes populism as "political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want". This gives us a clue as to where these elite populists are coming from. They need a way to appeal to the average working class Joe, the "ordinary people" of the definition, which is rea1not their natural political base. They do this by appealing to the working class' natural resentment (jealousy?) of the rich and the powerful, by establishing an "us-against-them" narrative, no matter how false and how disingenuous. It is essentially a deception, an attempt to establish fake credentials as a "man of the people".
Doug Ford's characterization of champagne-drinking denizens of the downtown Toronto core is particularly telling, as he has (and will always have) next to no support in downtown Toronto, so he can afford to use them as stooges in his demagoguery, to set them up as "other", as scapegoats. He really doesn't care if he offends them, because they were never voting for him anyway. And, after all, "elite" is a much more satisfying derogatory epithet than "well-educated" or "successful", and does not given the unfortunate impression that these people have intellectually weighed him up and found him lacking.
So, essentially, in this context, "elite" doesn't really mean anything. It is just a convenient stand-in term for "different" that is designed to appeal to the kind of less discerning rural voter who responds well to dog-whistle politics and single-issue campaign promises. I know I have just marked myself down forever as an "elite" But, you know, at this point, I just don't care.

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