25 October 2010

Are the People never wrong?

In a column picked up by the Albany paper, San Antonio columnist Jonathan Gurwitz scores some cheap populist points against Democrats. Taking the anti-elitist argument nearly as far as it will go, Gurwitz equates the Obama administration to the East German communist regime of 1953, the object of a famous satire from Bertolt Brecht, himself a German communist, who suggested speciously in the face of strikes that the government might be better off appointing a new population in place of the present uncooperative citizenry. To Gurwitz, any attempt to attribute opposition to Democratic policies to error or unreason is equivalent to the Communist attitude satirized by Brecht. It's easy to take quotes out of context (specifically the context of Republican fearmongering) to make Democrats look smug, arrogant and, yes, elitist. For Gurwitz, such quotes prove the Democrats to be tone-deaf egoists asking for their comeuppance. Daring to tell voters that they might be wrong is the same as wanting to "elect the citizenry," East German style.

It was a predictable enough conservative commentary and probably not worth commentary from me, except that I found myself thinking what Gurwitz might think about the situation in France. There, a conservative government (by French standards) is ramming through an increase in the state pension age as the entering wedge of an austerity program. The government is meeting mass resistance in the form of demonstrations and some rioting. Gurwitz may have his own opinion on the propriety of street demonstrations, but would he consider it President Sarkozy's business to tell the angry masses in the streets of Paris and other cities that they're wrong, that their opposition to an arguably necessary reform is irrational and possibly self-defeating in the long run? If Gurwitz himself is conservative, he probably has had some sharp words in his head for the demonstrators, if he's given them any thought. Would that mean that he thinks that Gurwitz should dismiss the current French population and elect another? What about when the next Republican government in this country actually tries to push through an austerity program of massive cuts to social welfare programs? What if Americans, through some prodigy, take to the streets to resist. Would Gurwitz be willing, on behalf of a Republican regime, to tell the people that their opposition is based on error, unreason or poor moral character? American conservatives often console themselves with the thought that a "silent majority" always agrees with their views, but when confronted by the most vocal minority, would Gurwitz expect Republicans not to make the same arguments that Democrats have made in the face of the most vocal opposition to their policies?

In order to play the populist for a day, Gurwitz is trying to throw out the baby or leadership with the bathwater of alleged elitism. Some Republicans (Cal Thomas is a noteworthy example) acknowledge that their plan to wean Americans off dependence on government will require some form of moral or intellectual leadership when it comes to educating the public about the supposed necessity and desirability of the changes they propose. Thomas has no illusion that austerity will be an easy sell, and his ideal of moral leadership includes a readiness to tell the people when they've gone astray. A litany of Republican apologetics could end up looking as selectively damning to the knee-jerk anti-elitist as Gurwitz's anthology of Democratic condescension. Would Gurwitz respond to it similarly, or would that be when he'd choose the Brechtian option, "to dissolve the people and elect another?"


Anonymous said...

elite |əˈlēt; āˈlēt|
1 a group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, esp. because of their power, talent, or wealth : China's educated elite | [as adj. ] an elite combat force.

So I have to assume, since the right-wing is "anti-elite", that they'd rather have leadership from the bottom of the barrel, rather than from the creme de la creme?

Samuel Wilson said...

To be fair, right-wingers, at least at the grass roots, and then like most Americans, object more to "elitism" than to the existence of "elites." Consider these definitions to appreciate the difference:

1. belief in concept of superiority: the belief that some people or things are inherently superior to others and deserve preeminence, preferential treatment, or higher rewards because of their superiority

2. belief in control by small group: the belief that government or control should be in the hands of a small group of privileged, wealthy, or intelligent people, or the active promotion of such a system

Elitism implies privilege or, worse, self-assigned privilege. In an ideal world, elites wouldn't be elitist, but even then some might see them that way.

Anonymous said...

Well isn't that the very nature of competition? The superior person wins? So anyone capable of "playing" at an advantage is an "elitist"? Meanwhile, I'm sure the masses would be better off it were brought back down to the level of swinging clubs and brute force?

Samuel Wilson said...

The concept of "elitism" as some people understand it seems to pre-empt competition to the extent that it presumes "inherent" superiority that doesn't have to be tested. The problem is that people equate "elite" with "caste" or "aristocracy." The Founders believed in a "natural aristocracy" that would always be open to talent, but even that doesn't sit well with populists who resent the idea that their opinions might not be as good as someone else's.

Anonymous said...

Well, if their opinion is not an informed opinion, it is an inferior opinion.