There’s a thing that happens in any social movement where the people who are negatively impacted by something attempt to articulate the unquantifiable, and people with privilege pretend there’s no problem at all. That’s what privilege is: The state of being comfortable enough to not notice.
We are running into this problem with the word “elitism.” Editors who normally love my pitches won’t publish an article about it. If I use the word online, I will immediately be deluged with people arguing that there is no such thing at all, or that it’s a figment of the GOP’s imagination. Elitism is hard to prove, because it’s not an event. It’s a mood and a tone. It is an undercurrent, oft-mentioned and never examined. It is a thing that I know because I am myself elite these days, though I never was before.
Most people become elites after going to universities and putting in time in the trenches of D.C. or some media outlet; their status takes years to build. I hacked the system; I was a second-shift cook who wrote a cri de coeur that garnered worldwide attention, and just like that I was a critically-acclaimed author who is invited to lecture all over the world. It’s possible that many elites don’t understand just how set apart they are because they have never seen the juxtaposition. They might not understand what things look like to those who aren’t so lucky.
To be an elite is to be listened to and respected, to have autonomy, to think that your life and your work might be remembered by history. For me, it was obvious when I tipped over that line: I count national politicians in three countries amongst my friends, and if I am curious about something I can simply dial up an expert and know that my call will be taken.
That’s what power looks like now. Power is social capital that I trade on to build the networks that I need to get more social capital that I can trade for more power. That is the nature of the game, and you need an invitation to play.
Progressive circles are still not equipped to wrestle with imbalances of political power. If you ask someone on the left to explain racism or sexism or homophobia, they will be able to expound at length about how we must listen to the people who are impacted, and how those with the upper hand in any given situation must try to identify and mitigate systemic imbalances. Ask about elitism—about inequality in access and cultural power—and people have a harder time articulating it.
Consider it through the lens of the disruption that I had in my life. There are my old friends, the ones I swapped shifts with: low-income, disabled, unemployed, high-school graduates struggling to make ends meet. Then there are my new friends, the ones I made when I was elevated: politicians, household-name pundits and writers, deans of upscale schools, Hollywood stars. For me, the question of social capital is really that stark. There is Before, and After.
When I talk to my old friends about the problems of the nation, it is always personal and immediate. Will needed services like heating assistance or low-income health insurance be cut? Will I be able to keep my job if I don’t have a child care credit? Will we still have the home health nurse that takes care of my mom when I can’t be there? With my new friends, these problems are real but also somehow theoretical. Millions of people are at risk of losing these things, which everyone agrees is awful. We talk about who we might call to lobby, or what organizations are good soldiers in the fight.
It boggles the mind that people cannot see a difference in those two kinds of conversations, even as they bemoan the terrifying increases in inequality in America. I still feel an ancient rage building in my chest when I see someone on TV telling the viewing audience—most of whom will never be invited to be a pundit—that any cultural divide is the sole fault of nefarious right-wing populists.
I’m calling bullshit. I hear the jokes and the asides and I am here to tell you, there absolutely is such a thing as toxic elitism. It’s in the comments about how people need to be told how to vote in their own best interest, without questioning why so many people don’t have the information to judge for themselves. It’s in the constant draining refrain of “why don’t people get more involved in the process?” as though we’ve designed a process and system that would allow for that.
My complaint isn’t that elitism exists. It’s that we’re pretending it doesn’t, and defending the instances that we can’t ignore as meritocratic. People tell me that I am an embodiment of the American Dream, having been discovered one day and elevated to success beyond my imagining. But a world in which an average bright young person has to wait for a book deal to access social capital or a promising career is more like a nightmare, and our democracy can’t afford it much longer.