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.”

22 comments on “Elitism vs. Populism in Politics
  • To paraphrase Robert Heinlein

    Monarchy is based on the idea that one man is smarter than the combined wisdom of 1,000,000 men…

    Democracy is based on the idea that 1,000,000 of the uninformed masses are smarter than one well-educated individual…

  • Ben – I am afraid you have a lot to learn about the elitism versus populist stuff. For someone who has traveled the world as much as you have, how can you take such an American-centric view of things? Do you think this started with the Federalist papers? Look at what our founding fathers read to formulate their beliefs. Our system is actually a compromise on the issue. The senate versus the house is classic elite versus populist.

    There is no one right way for this Ben. Asking for elitists who are humble is really asking for Plato’s philosopher king. That would be perfect, but we don’t have a perfect form of government, we have the best of the rest.

    George Washington was hardly an everyman by the way. He was probably the most arrogant elitist of them all. The fact is our country has almost always been ruled by an elite class with perhaps the exception of the Jacksonian democracy period. A republican form of government means there are representatives of the masses, not the masses replacing them. that would be a true democracy, but also a mob-ocracy.

    But look at the rest of the world. Look at history. Look at Rome, Greece, Plato and Aristotle. Look at the birth of the modern European nation-state. What does Locke, Voltaire and some of the others say. Then go look at what Marx says about it. Some of it may surprise you. Let me know what you find.

  • Why so patronizing, Professor Ashimmy?

    I'm not sure what your point is here. Are you saying there's a lot of other
    historical examples of this dynamic? Yes. I agree. This is 300 word blog
    post, not a 1,000 page tome on the history of politics spanning all the
    world and all the time. If you're going to name-drop these various thinkers,
    why don't YOU summarize their cases or bring forth their relevant ideas?

    Or is your point that the humble-elite ruling class is really hard to
    achieve? I agree.

    I don't think you disagree that a humble elite the ideal, difficulty

  • hey Ben sorry to come off patronizing! I guess it is the political science major in me after all these years. You only had 300 words, I would need ten times that to start digging into some of the people I named. But this truly goes back to Plato and the philosopher king and can be followed from there. All the way through Marx who was certainly a “populist” kind of guy 😉 (though both Lenin and Mao created dictatorships of the proletariat run by a ruling elite). Funny thing is the “populist” thing has never actually worked for more then a few years. The reason is it goes against human nature.

    I had a professor once in poly sci, senior year. He had the dubious distinction of being the conservative candidate for the NY senate seat in 1964 running against a kid named Bobby Kennedy. In 1981 he was still bitter about the spanking he took. He used to boil it down to the have and have nots. The have not’s are always the one yelling for broader participation and letting the common man be involved. As soon as they become the haves, they want to consolidate their power and in order to preserve it they create their own elite class. I had another professor who said populist political theories are great if you have a society of atheistic saints, but mere humans were just to selfish.

    So is it humble or selfish that spoils it? Ben I think when you say elitist you are talking about the “best and brightest” sort of thing that JFK was famous for. Of course I would like to see a selfless. humble bunch of philosopher kings in charge. But that is a naive pipe dream. Political theory pretty much exists for trying to figure out what is the next best thing. Do we bond together as a people because it is our true nature or is their a social contract that is in place? (Locke and Voltaire). How do we balance that? But that is where our founding fathers were so wise. They knew it was impossible to have a perfect system, especially for any length of time (BTW even Jefferson, the populist was himself clearly an elitist). That is exactly why they put in place such a great system of checks and balances, culminating in the ability of the masses to “throw the bums out”. “Real politic” as coined by Willy Brandt is very much a give and take where compromise makes the wheels of government turn. Every single one of these people say they are for the people. But they all have their own band of cronies or elites or whatever you want to call them.

    So long story longer, of course I would like the philosopher kings to rule. It isn’t possible, so we have to watch who we do elect and marvel at our system of checks and balances as it keeps everything in line.
    take care!

  • Humble-Elite sounds ideal, if that twin can co-exist. Elites themselves may not like it; the reason why Abe Lincoln that came close got *eliminated*. [Merely six days after the large-scale surrender of Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee, Lincoln became the first American president to be assassinated] So I guess the flip side of elite is hubris.

    Even in a rarest of rare instance where those two traits are *allowed* to be present, any political or economic system will infect it and make it converge (think Obama!) to the mean (Pun?)

  • There is a simpler solution than trying to locate the elusive “humble elite.”

    Drastically limit government power.

    The founding fathers attempted to do this, and it mostly worked for about 150 years.

  • The humility aspect poses a problem.

    What sets politicians apart from the other professions you presented is that the politician’s ambition often stands in opposition to the population’s best interests.

    If you’re a mechanic, you satisfy your ambition by doing your job in a manner that satisfies your consumers’ inquiries.
    The better you are at fixing cars, the more people you’ll help, and the more money you’ll earn. Your ambitions align with your duties.

    As a politician, the opposite is often true. As with any profession, politicians seek to expand their own power, but in this case, the politician’s quest for power often hurts his constituents.

    Humility certainly plays an important role, but it’s not as if it’s a common trait in fields other than politics. It’s simply a bigger problem because instead of gaining power by helping people, politicians expand their reach in ways that hurt the general populace.

  • The only way to have a reliably humble elite is to have a non-human elite. For humans, power corrupts. Not always, but often enough to make it the rule rather than the exception. The only likely path to human survival over the next centuries is the creation of benevolent transhuman AIs to rule us!

  • Humble elite. Is that an oxymoron? Are the two traits mutually exclusive, or at least on two ends of a spectrum?

    I hear when Ben is saying, and I am almost certain that I agree with what him. But maybe elite or humble elite is not the best word or term to describe the kind of character and capcacities that elected leaders should have. Maybe there is no single word to describe it.

    And I would guess that more of the guys who have that quality that Ben is looking for are not the politicians that we read about in history books. It makes sense that they might more likely be the guys/ladies who didn’t win that next election, because they took a principled position on something that was unpopular…

  • Ben, topics are always thought provoking and valuable. thanks.

    Elite versus common man made me think of a story. I shared an office with a woman who was frequently visited by a co-worker. The conversations would imply navigating the Stupider than You Realize test may be a challenge. One day, my office mate says to the co-worker “hey, I’m going out on maternity leave soon. What kind of benefits are available? What should I do?” They start white boarding the situation. Amazing. Complex math, multivariate equations. You’d think they were splitting the atom.

    People aren’t as stupid as we think especially when it involves an issue that directly affects them. The collective wisdom of the masses (by sheer numbers can connect with and analyze many different scenarios with the widest variety of perspectives i.e. a market) is preferable to the brilliance of one or a group of elites. For this reason, the government rarely takes on issues the masses care about or, if they do, it is not with sufficient rigor to make an impact. Maybe a better role for government is providing the framework for discussions and infrastructure for user developed solutions – like a Wikigovernment – rather than making assumptions about and choices for people they don’t know.

  • For a minute I thought Herbert Marcuse was posting comments here.;-)

    It may not be germane to this discussion, but anyone who reads Marx should remember that the great champion of the workers of the world allowed two of his children to starve to death because he was too proud to perform manual labor himself.

    Karl Marx was the worst kind of elitist.

  • Vince – good point about Marx (though I am not sure that it is just propoganda), but isn’t that the point. Who is really a populist? I think it is more a case of the have’s and have not’s.

  • I guess what I find disturbing about the anger at political elites is that it comes from people who DO want the best mechanics and surgeons. People don’t consider governing well and leading well and implementing well real jobs…they think anyone can do it. So the fact I want skilled people running this country – just like I want a skilled pilot flying my plane – makes me an elitist?

  • You’re framing this argument in a very odd way. Is the choice really between “a well-educated elite” and its opposite?

    You’re a businessman. In making hiring decisions, would you expect a decision rule like “I’m only going to hire Ivy League graduates” to result in optimal outcomes? The least-worse outcomes? An average outcome?

    Our Republican democracy is a bit of a shell game. It seems to be set up like a big company — one CEO and 535 VPs directing their staffs in search of the highest and best use of political capital. But in reality it’s more like a season of Survivor, with the shrewdest competitors emerging the winners through a kind of political darwinism. Players selected for their group affiliations have an advantage over the merely competent in that kind of game. But in reality, what you want is a system that rewards competence, period. Is that what you think we have? I don’t. I’m astonished, repeatedly and naively, at the level of incompetence displayed by elites. And I’m very reluctant to respond to that by saying, “well, it’s better than the alternative,” particularly if the altnerative is defined merely in terms of where you earned your graduate degree.

    I think that “humbleness” and the election cycle are simply mechanisms to limit the damage caused by endemic incompetence. That may help prevent the US from becomming a South American dictatorship or a failed African state (all of which, by the way, are ruled by elites often educated at the best American universities), but that’s rather a low standard.

    I’d like to see a more entrepreneurial attitude in politics, with policies organized more around outcomes than around principles. Using educational pedigree as a filter is sometimes the right path to the best outcome, but without a mechanism to change tactics and strategies very quickly, that kind of decision-making shortcut can be extraordinarily destructive. Vietnam is truly the case study in this, and I’m afraid that five or ten years from now, Iraq and Afghanistan may be too. Ultimately, though, I think that “should we put a member of the elite in this job?” is simply the wrong question to be asking in almost every case.

  • Ben isn’t defining elites as being the “most skilled.” He’s defining them as being the “well educated.” That’s not the same thing at all, particularly if one uses, “educated at an elite institution of higher learning” as a short-cut to establish that someone is “well educated.”

  • Educational pedigree is just one aspect and not at all the main ingredient
    for what constitutes "elite" in my view. Other aspects would include IQ,
    work ethic, team work ability, etc. Being the elite in those categories.

  • IQ, work ethic, team work ability: useful to have, but they simply don’t predict competence.

    In bringing up the idea of humility, you’re getting at something that I think is important. Part of true competence involves self-examination, questioning, the ability to change one’s mind, the ability to hear (not just listen to) contradictory ideas and accept inconvenient facts. The ability to maintain critical thinking when the volume gets turned way up, when the number of variables starts increasing, when things start going wrong, when your plan fails. Flexibility.

    The ability to work as part of a team is a mixed blessing. Teams are extraordinarily effective tools for getting things done — when led well. When led poorly, they’re equally effective at screwing things up. You can populate a team with members of the elite and get good outcomes and poor outcomes.

    I sense that you’re trying to design the perfect soldier here: you want to reach into the applicant pool and pull out someone who, by virtue of some measurable and visible criteria (Harvard MBA, only needs 3 hrs of sleep, varsity cornerback before that shoulder injury), can be plugged into an important job and be expected to perform better than anyone else. I think this is a backwards way of approaching the problem. Looking for a shortcut around this creates more problems than it solves, and the problems it creates — Vietnam, the current financial crisis, Afghanistan — are gigantic.

    A model for you to consider is the military. The military doesn’t bother to sift through the applicant pool. They take everyone and focus on creating systems to train and lead their people. They teach team-playing, but they also teach leadership and they build self-interrogation into every management structure up and down the line. Their focus is on planning and execution. They are completely goal-oriented. They constantly test for competence, not based on pedigree, but on performance in the service of very specific goals. And they create an institutional culture that cultivates, among other things, the quality you’ve identified — humility. You want a shortcut? Soldier-scholar.

  • In Louis Menand’s review of “The Myth of the Rational Voter” he stated that the author wanted to “raise the cost of voting” in order to get a better electorate. While this has the slight downside of being completely unconstitutional, “raising the cost of voting” by requiring voters to pass tests covering critical thinking, economics and other pertinent subjects would be ideal in my opinion. Anyone running for office should have to pass exams too. It is outrageous that a senator can be on the finance committee (for example) but essentially have no background or knowledge of finance. Basically, I want an “elite” voter pool and an “elite” ruling class. A humble elite would be ideal, but I don’t have enough faith in human nature to have any group that is considered elite to also be humble.

  • The problem isn’t with voters: it’s with candidates and the system they work within, and with politicians and the system they work within. Smart, engaged, educated voters will still be presented with the same slate of nincompoops, and voting itself still presents the same binary feedback loop that tends to push politicians to the extremes of behavior. (Does it really make rational sense — apart from political sense — that not a single Republican has voted in favor of any of the health reform proposals?) Whether you’re a smart member of the elite or a dumb member of a non-elite, you work within a system that constrains outcomes to a depressing degree.

    It’s also important to remember that elected officials are only the tip of a vast decision-making apparatus, and that most of that apparatus functions entirely outside of the electoral system. Robert McNamara was not elected, nor were Paul Wolfowitz, or Donald Rumsfeld. However, they were all members of the elite. They had super-high I.Q.s, were team-players of the highest order, and had a work ethic that was unsurpassed. A better-educated electorate would not have prevented the ascension of these men.

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