How “elite” became a bad word

Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on business leaders to get the US through the Great Depression. But now the word “expert” has become the derogatory “elite.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on business leaders to get the US through the Great Depression. But now the word “expert” has become the derogatory “elite.”
Image: Library of Congress/Harris & Ewing Photographs
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Once upon a time, elites were revered to the same degree they are distrusted today. They also had another name: experts.

Woodrow Wilson’s “Inquiry” of experts advised on the Versailles Treaty following the 1914-1918 War. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Brain’s Trust” planned the New Deal in the 30s, rebuilding America. The world’s most esteemed economists led by JM Keynes structured the world economy after World War II at Bretton Woods, putting a system for free trade in place within the parameters of fixed exchange rates. Once Bretton Woods collapsed in the early 1970s, the supply side Chicago School experts took the reins and made the market sovereign. Every president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama has since relied upon “experts.”

But now the word “expert” has become the derogatory “elite.” No one dare admit to being part of an elite: the tech aristocracy of Zuckerberg, Musk, and Bezos wear the democratic uniform of t-shirt and jeans. To admit to being an elitist, even a believer in the role of elites, now seems verboten. Following #MeToo, the elite coven of white male Hollywood producers has become a useful shorthand for exclusion and the abuse of power.

Is this true? Does an elite of the few inevitably create injustice for the many? How did experts—scientists, economists, mathematicians, academics—as well as journalists and government officials get thrown into the pot and become demonized? Why did politicians conspire in this demonization?

Since Watergate, according to Washington’s Pew Institute, there has been a steady but inexorable decline in public trust in the elite triumvirate of government, the media and the scientific community. The three are intertwined in the public’s mind and trust in all three has eroded.

This is one explanation: to get news coverage, politicians needed to become more polarizing, emphatic and non-consensual in their arguments to make an impact on a medium that—following the Wall Street buy-out of ABC, CBS and NBC all in 1986—required a more brutal, commercial approach. News was now in competition for ratings as never before, and if you wanted to get on it, you needed to do or say something dramatic.

This new “rolling news” also required the story to keep building dramatically with minute-by-minute “developments.” Reporters spoke with hyperbolic, breathless urgency, each new plot-twist of the “story” catastrophized or over-simplified. A storm wasn’t merely a storm, but the worst imaginable storm, diplomatic relations weren’t merely stalled but at a dangerous, all-time low. Utterances of politicians soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy: a ramped-up “news worthy” version of what news said it needed to be.

If one wanted a moment when news began undermining its own authority with the audience, and politicians joined in the party, look no further than the Goldman Sachs audit of ABC for new owners: Cap Cities/Warren Buffet in 1986. A report that rightly said TV needs to be more commercial to make money, but which TV producers interpreted as the application of high-beam entertainment values to the coverage of facts. Today’s polarized world of Fox, CNN and “fake news” cat-calling has its roots in these structural changes.

But science also needed news coverage to get funding and began making similarly inflated claims for itself. (“Miracle cure for cancer in blueberries!” one week, “blueberries cause cancer!” the next). As a result, Pew discovered, Americans stopped believing what they were told and primed for hyperbole. In 2013, Professor John Ioannidas of the 7th Peer Review Congress in Chicago used the Boston Cookbook to prove how science became science fiction. Of 50 randomly selected recipes, forty had been linked with ingredients claimed to increase or decrease risk of cancer. These cancer links had been repeated thousands of times in the media yet meta-analysis showed them to be “correct in almost no cases.”

Falsification-drift was picked up with gusto by Manhattan Institute’s Fred Siegel in his 2014 book, Revolt Against the Masses (which came out a year before Trump announced his candidacy and provided the mood music to the campaign’s identification of “elites” as a potential vote winner). Siegel honed-in on Silicon Valley, the “fake news” media and Washington as a “clerisy”—a modern day clergy. Siegel was updating and expanding on John Carey’s The Intellectuals and The Masses, which accused the literary and intellectual titans of the early 20th century—DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, HG Wells, The Fabians—of being modernist elitists with a narcissistic Nietzschean will to power and disgust for the lumpen masses, for whom eugenics and sterilization were deemed the answer.

This provided the intellectual grounding for the anti-elitism of both Brexit and the 2016 presidential campaign. But the old elites which the new “anti-elitist” elite attacked were willingly guilty as charged. Representative government is itself “elitism” enshrined by constitution: government on behalf of the people, not by the people, designed as a safeguard against dictatorship of what HG Wells referred to as “The Mob.” But now The Mob, rather than elites, are deemed the custodians of moral right and direct democracy rather than representative democracy conflated with democracy per se.

The prosaic truth is that historical context determines how elites are judged at any moment. Sometimes we like and need them, sometimes we don’t. When the economy is managed well on our behalf, we go along with elites, but when the wheels come off the economy—as Trump successfully claimed in 2016, blaming the triumvirate of “the swamp”, elites and globalisation—we blame them.

Anti-elitism becomes the language mouthed by the elite itself: Trump and Boris Johnson were as far removed in origin from “the people” as Lenin had been but became the voice of the people, keen to crucify the elite. In these periods of a crisis of legitimacy for the elites, they regroup, mouthing the language of anti-elitism to curry favour with the masses whilst masking their true elitist identity.

Trump, like Putin and Xi Jinping, are redefining the 21st elite in the 18th century mould. Not as an “inquiry” or “Brain’s Trust” like FDR’s, but as a group of courtiers on-message with the vision of the king. With the upturn of the economy, Trump is emboldened in confidence to see that singular vision through without needing to counter-balance his court with “experts,” jettisoning alternate views such as Rex Tillerson’s or Steve Bannon’s as he grows stronger.

Meanwhile, the old media elite remain mystified by this new way of doing business because they don’t get it: The president doesn’t need to listen to other people because he holds all views from A-Z and can switch in a heartbeat. Like his autocratic counterparts in Russia and China, his power is not weighed down by ideological baggage. This old media elite continues to evaluate his presidency wrongly, like a group of giraffes discussing why a rhino doesn’t behave more like a giraffe. He doesn’t need to, he’s a different beast entirely with a very different idea of what he wants from the elite.

Jacques Peretti’s new book, The Deals that Made the World: Reckless Ambition, Backroom Negotiations, and the Hidden Truths of Business, went on sale March 27.