It’s almost 2018. We survived the past year, but it was a stormy one. Global politics are more unstable than at any time since the height of the Cold War, and maybe before that. Populist leaders are wresting power away from establishment parties in country after country. And within the United States, political rancor and malfeasance may be leading toward a serious crisis. But behind all these separate problems is one big problem: all around the world, our leaders and fundamental institutions are losing credibility. The leadership class – sharp-witted, globetrotting, educated at the best universities – has lost the support of wide swathes of regular people. The reasons why are complex, but the solution flies in the face of our expectations: that leadership class needs to stop being elitist and start being elites.
“Elitist” and “elite” sound similar, but they’re very different. Elitism is the defense of a high-status group and its values, often with a sense of condescension or disparagement toward people who don’t share that high status. Elitism is feeling superior to most Americans because you went to Duke or Stanford, or because you vacation in Switzerland. In general, elitism – as we’re defining it here, anyway – is inextricable from a sense of personal and class superiority. It’s using tokens of lifestyle, education, wealth, and privilege to elevate your perceived value over other people.
Being elite, on the other hand, usually entails having those same tokens of status – education at fancy universities or colleges, high-prestige occupations, and so forth – but choosing to try to use them for good instead of for padding one’s personal ego. It entails, in short, taking on the responsibilities of leadership – which include self-sacrifice, looking out for the common good, and being willing to make difficult decisions. It’s the inverse image of snobbery. Snobs and elitists care about themselves. But elites – as we’re defining them here – care about the institutions, organizations, and individuals that are under their care.
This difference matters. Societies can’t function without good leadership. Currently, we do not have good leadership. And while not all elites are good leaders, practically no elitists are. Why do I say this as if I know what I’m talking about? Because I’m an interdisciplinary social scientist and scholar of religion who focuses on how ritual and our evolved brains work together to generate social hierarchy, inequality, and status. So I think about status a lot. But more than that, I have a personal story.
Insecurity → Elitism
When I was younger, I was tremendously insecure. I mean, it was bad. You can’t come from a broken home with alcohol and mental health problems and be perfectly happy, but I was a wreck. I was always looking for validation from my surroundings – hoping that people would respect me, like me, value me. I wasn’t very nice to women because, like so many insecure men throughout history, I resented the enormous power they had over me as validators of my worth.
But at the same time, I was very self-satisfied with anything that seemed to put me in a higher status bracket than other people. I traveled to Germany and studied German, which made me seem worldly and sophisticated. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, which wasn’t Ivy League, but was still widely renowned. I wrote poetry and knew literary criticism. When I interacted with the dishwashers at the UW Student Union, or bus drivers, or essentially any kind of regular person who didn’t have the fancy worldly and educational credentials I had, I felt a sense of superiority welling up within me. And I enjoyed it. That superiority offered a tiny moment of respite from the nonstop torrent of life’s discomfort.
In short, I was elitist – relishing all the skills and lifestyle signals that set me apart from my fellow humans – while in fact being a fairly unpleasant person, and nothing like a leader. I enjoyed a lot of the privileges that come with highish social status, including travel, exposure to influential people, and relatively high earning power, but I didn’t associate those privileges with any kind of responsibilities or the possibility of doing good. They were for me and me alone. Mine.
Elitist Guilt → Moral Licensing
Of course, at some level, deep down, I knew this was wrong. It seemed unfair that university kids got to enjoy privileges and coddling, while the support staff – and most of the factory-working, farming, and inner-city-dwelling population of Wisconsin beyond the university – were relegated essentially to servant status, or worse. Later, when I traveled internationally for a couple of years after college (another privilege!) it started to seem really unfair that white Americans got to enjoy such wildly inflated socioeconomic status, while most of the world suffered in relative squalor.
So I responded to these injustices by…feeling guilty. When I taught English in South Korea, it made me feel tremendously uncomfortable that I was the sole white guy in the room, teaching a classroom full of black-haired kids how to, essentially, be more like me. When my frisbee team traveled to Shanghai for a tournament, I felt guilty because the (mostly) white English teachers earned enough money that they – we – could afford the plane tickets and hotel rooms, while many of our Korean teammates couldn’t.
But you’ll notice something: my guilty conscience didn’t actually lead me to give up any of my privileges. I still earned a good salary and enjoyed the freedom to travel all over the world. I just felt guilty about it. I needed to alleviate that guilt. So I began really hating on “privilege.” I talked smack about America and its oppressive colonialism. I wrote essays decrying global capitalism and its injustices. Aligning myself in my mind with the downtrodden and the lowly, I cultivated a burning resentment of establishment institutions – from the United States to the military to the banks where I saved money. Trying to distance myself from the unfairness of my own place in the world, I reflexively appropriated the language of subversion and revolt.
All this posturing didn’t make the world a better place, but it did give me moral license to feel better about my unfair advantages. And as a bonus, I could keep enjoying those advantages at the same time! Win.
Becoming Elite As a Solution to Insecure Elitism
In my late 20s, after some tragedies in my family forced me to get counseling, I started to become a little less insecure. In this midst of this process, a funny thing happened: my relationship to my various social and educational privileges started changing. Before, I saw them as sources of ugly pride, or as embarrassing injustices to be covered over (often at the same time, ironically enough). Now, I started seeing my privileges as also, potentially, being intimidatingly enormous gifts that called for repayment. I still felt – still feel – uncomfortable with all the inequality in the world, from the ways males dominate most institutions to the pernicious racial hierarchies that still shape American life. But as I lost my deep-set insecurities, some of my privileges actually started to make me feel humble rather than haughty – especially as I took the concept of responsibilities more seriously. High status doesn’t automatically entail oppression and unjust dominance, I realized. It can also mean looking out for other people, making sacrifices.
I don’t think it’s especially fair that I have the privileges I have, while others don’t have them. But the world isn’t fair. And while people with privilege can choose to respond to that unfairness by repudiating their position or conspicuously alleviating their guilt with righteous rhetoric, I think a better option is to accept where they are and take ownership of any responsibilities that come with it.
A World of Leaders without Responsibilities
On both the progressive left and the conservative right, today’s crop of leaders is gut-wrenchingly bad, in part because they seem to see no connection between their high status in society and any kind of greater obligation or responsibility. The conservative side seems to think that the sphere of elite responsibility begins and ends with accumulating wealth and “creating jobs.” The progressive side, meanwhile, often sees all forms of hierarchy or privilege as illegitimate.
The first problem is obviously very bad, but the second problem is big too. As I’ve written before, elite universities, which are supposed to be training the next generation of leaders and professionals – “life’s officer corps” – are, by and large, good at producing elitists, but not at producing elites. Their antagonism to hierarchy is part of the reason why. Institutions like, say, Brown University, where a majority of the student population comes from the top ten percent of families (and one-fifth of students are one-percenters), are paradoxically filled with students who enthusiastically sloganeer against inequality. In fact, being vocally anti-inequality is a way to demonstrate that you belong to the club in that environment.
But then, when these students graduate, they go on to enjoy their plentiful advantages anyway.
On all sides of the political spectrum, we need leaders who aren’t elitist, but who are elites. We need Brown University graduates who, rather than merely alleviating their class guilt by attending rallies where various forms of “privilege” are called out, also come to accept that they are, in fact, enormously, stupefyingly privileged individuals – and who then start thinking about ways to use that privilege in service of the common good.
Life has called some people, including top college graduates of all colors and genders, to be among the leaders of our society. But leadership – unlike raw privilege – is difficult, taxing, and often unrewarding in the short term, if at all. It makes sense that young people would either excuse their privilege with anti-authoritarian rhetoric – thereby liberating themselves from the responsibility of exercising leadership while still getting to enjoy the perks of high status – or relish their high status without a shred of guilt, humbleness, or sense of responsibility. The first of these strategies is progressive, the second “conservative.” But neither is right.
People who are called to be leaders should be leaders. They should acknowledge that this will entail sacrifice. The world is facing enormous problems, from climate change to the failure of liberal-democratic governance, that are only going to get bigger if they aren’t addressed.
Leadership, Big Problems, and Science
In fact, as I’ve argued before, the potential for real global crisis is serious enough that scientists and scholars need to start paying attention to it on a selfish basis. Science and academic research, more than many other spheres of human life, depends on a lot of stability, infrastructure, and intensive, networked cooperation. If the world continues trending in the directions it’s trending now, those fundamentals might become seriously threatened, possibly sooner than we think. That’s why even scientists and researchers – a famously individualistic lot, not especially prone to patriotism, religiosity, or appeals to authority – need to think about what it would take to cultivate good leadership on a cultural level. The systemic collapse of leadership is going to seriously harm science and research, by undercutting the legitimacy of the institutions and societies that support it, and possibly by leading to serious political upheaval. Don’t think it can’t happen.
Around the world, elitism is one of the acids that’s corroding the basic functions of governments, social institutions, and universities. Yes, it’s also an insult that Fox News unfairly slings at educated people. But that doesn’t mean elitism isn’t simultaneously a self-serving tool that our privileged classes use to enjoy their advantages without having to take on any actual responsibilities. Elitism takes different forms for the left versus the right, but both versions are undermining the possibility of collective action that could help us tackle the big problems we’re facing. Those of us who have a level of education and social standing that makes us “privileged,” in prestige and informal influence if not also in terms of salary, need to learn to see ourselves as elites – which entails humility and a deep sense of service. Because only elites can overcome elitism.