AN ACADEMIC, a politician, a journalist, a film star, a nobleman and a banker walk into a bar. They order different drinks, and sit at separate tables each doing their own thing. There is no punch line; these people do not belong together in any sensible way. Yet members of these groups and others are regularly given the same label: “elites”. Careful writers should avoid this word; it is becoming a junk-bin concept used by different people to mean wildly different things.It is easy to understand why people reach for “elites”. If pundits can agree on anything about 2016, it is surely that it has been bad for elites. Populist wave after populist wave has broken over Western politics, with a vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and Italy’s loss of a popular young prime minister over a constitutional referendum that he called—and lost. The masses are out for blood, and the elites are quaking.
But if you can picture those masses in your mind—pitchforks, torches, perhaps overalls—what do the elites look like? For Mr Trump, the hated elites comprise the Washington political establishment and the press. But for his own opponents, the very idea of a billionaire who lives in a golden tower swanning in and winning himself the presidency just goes to show what elite status can get you.
Campaigners for Brexit railed against liberal elites—the economists, academics and journalists who warned of its consequences. But the face of the Leave campaign was Boris Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated toff. Michael Gove, another Leaver, said that folks were tired of “experts”. But Mr Gove, like Mr Johnson, is a former president of Oxford’s leading debating society, the Oxford Union, and one of politics’ pointier heads. In other words, no matter who you are or what you’re campaigning for, bashing elites seems a safe bet, while admitting to being a member of anelite is an absolute no-go.
The obsession with elites is relatively recent: the oldest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates back to 1823. It was only a singular noun, from a past participle in French, meaning “chosen”; from the same root as “to elect”. (Its very Frenchness may make elite such a delicious word for some Anglophones to hurl as an insult.) The OED says the English noun is “The choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of persons)”.
This entry has not yet been updated to include its more recent sense, the pejorative version, often plural, which can be glossed as “people with unearned privileges who keep honest folks from getting a fair shake”. Data from Google Books show the plural word “elites” beginning to be used in about 1940, with the obviously pejorative “elitist” rising from about 1960. The anti-authority cultural changes of the 1960s, it seems, brought with them a rising concern with elites and their apologists.
Data from the New York Times show an even sharper spike in mentions of elites since about 2010, as article after article has tried to diagnose anger at elites. Populist anger is hardly surprising: elite financiers tanked the global economy, elite economists failed to foresee it and political elites failed to respond effectively enough. Those elites in the crosshairs had to find other elites to blame, and they did so. Elite scientists and Hollywood liberals whining about climate change cost coalminers their jobs. Elite London journalists noshing on sushi ignore the problems that hard-working northern Brits suffer as a result of immigration. Cultural elites police what can be said about minorities. And so on.
But the rush to blame elites has nearly everyone in the crosshairs: Sketch Engine, a digital tool for lexicographers, finds among the common modifiers for elite not just obvious ones like “ruling”, “wealthy”, “monied”, but also “secular”, “cultural”, “educated”, “metropolitan” and “bureaucratic”. Elites are no longer “the choice part or flower” of a group, but merely anyone in a position of influence someone else thinks they do not deserve.
Words aimed more precisely serve their purpose better. Elites are an abstraction. If people are angry at bankers or at climate scientists, they should say so specifically. Those seeking to diagnose the causes of the current wave of populism need to understand what populist voters are truly angry about. Those who are angry at elites generally, but can’t say more specifically who they are angry at or why, should think twice before voting for a populist who promises to find and punish those elites, whoever they are.
Johnson: the meaning of “elites”