Elitism vs. Populism in Politics

Since the beginning of time political theorists have debated the relationship of power between the elites and the masses. Plato talked about it. Jefferson and Hamilton argued about it. Adams was wary of an overly democratic democracy; Paine championed the everyman. Contemporary thinkers have weighed in. Bill Buckley famously said he’s rather entrust the U.S. government to the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard. A few months ago an editor from the Wall Street Journal told me he believes an illiterate Afghan has a “horse’s sense” for what’s right and therefore can make the right choice at the voting booth.

I am less instinctually trustful of the common man. There is a worldly wisdom that comes from walking the earth, but it’s hardly sufficient to be an informed voter or ruler. I sooner put my lot with the well-educated elite.

If your car is broken, you want a mechanic who possesses elite knowledge. If you’re going to get surgery, you want an elite surgeon — someone whose knowledge of the matter far surpasses the average Joe.

Shouldn’t you want the same out of the people in government? Yes, with two qualifications.

First, elites should rule but be able to be replaced by the masses. This is why we have a republican form of government.

Second, the ruling elites need to be humble. One reason why elites are more dangerous in politics than in the narrow sphere of car mechanics is that they can widely exercise unbridled ambition. The Obama cabinet is stacked with elites — very smart individuals. And they are probably trying to do too much. They are too ambitious and too confident in their ability to direct and organize events. It’s tricky because ambition and talent tend to go hand-in-hand. In politics we need the rare talent who’ll be very humble once in office.

Elitism, by the way, has come in all sizes. Some of America’s finest leaders did not possess elite educations or ex ante high brow status, but rather were in an elite category in terms of their fundamental decency and perseverance. George Washington and Harry Truman come to mind. It’s unlikely we’ll see this type of elitism in the future.

I’ve read two main concerns about elites in politics.

There’s first the Sarah Palin View. She sees the common man as a better representative of the aesthetic ideals of Americana, and thus more fit to participate in the democracy. She will crack jokes about latte drinking, New York Times reading, sushi eating elites who are “out of touch.” I believe Palin’s dislike of elites is fundamentally stylistic not substantive. She disrespects George Will and Maureen Dowd, even if Will shares some of her policy beliefs.

Then there’s the Arnold Kling View. Arnold’s wariness of elites stems from their substantive failures in the past and policy tendency toward state control. He’s disheartened by elites’ failures: he sees “mostly harm in the way educated elites have exercised power…from Vietnam to the current economic crisis.” He agrees that the common man’s ignorance can be dangerous, yet he also notes the danger that can come from over-confident elites:

The gap between what one knows and what one thinks one knows may be higher in the ranks of the elite. The result is supposedly-clever government interventions, introduced with excessive confidence, leading to disastrous results.

Bottom Line: I share Arnold’s conclusion: “I think that the best solution to the elitist/populist dilemma is an elite with humility. Don’t let the mob rule, but at the same time don’t let the elite get too sure of itself.”


The “people” are stupider than you might realize. Here’s Robin Hanson reminding us of this fact. Here’s Bill Maher doing the same. Nick Shulz dubbed the following Summer’s Law, after Larry Summers’ utterance: “THERE ARE IDIOTS. Look around.”

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