#20A: Elitism has three
related but yet distinct meanings:
1) preferring situations where the
leadership and rule of many is by a select few: an elite; 2) belief that
"the best"—those set apart from others by ability,
experience, wealth, etc.—should govern, lead, or be granted the most
influence; 3) one's conscious belief that he or she belongs to the
elite. These share setting
a select elite few apart from others and looking to them in an
uplifting, hopeful way for guidance or extraordinary service.
While elitism shares the same "hopeful looking to"
aspect as populism (theme #21A), otherwise the two are diametrically
Unfortunately the high-mindedness of elitism is sometimes
corrupted and it becomes a source of intolerance, discrimination,
snobbishness, and exclusivity. It can also be the source of a way of doing things—a
"top down" approach—that can be out of touch with people and
ignore widespread public sentiment. (See
Figure #20a.) Elitists tend
to prefer this, whereas populists like the opposite "bottom
With respect to preferred forms of government, populists favor
democracy or a type of democratic socialism which values the labor of
working people. Tending to
value capital more than labor, elitists may tolerate wealth based
oligarchy or monarchy. They
may even tolerate regimes which provide heavy-handed (authoritarian),
less than uplifting rule— provided they perceive the regime's
leadership as capable and competent.
Many elitists embrace democratic elitism.
This is the belief that,
not all the people, but only "the best" (experts, the well
educated, those who have proven themselves capable, etc.) should be
allowed to vote or otherwise determine important
A. Henry describes it in his 1995 book In Defense of Elitism,
"Some people are better than others: smarter, harder working, more
learned, more productive, harder to replace." He believes such people should be identified early and
trained to someday assume positions of leadership —perhaps as
presidents or prime ministers of democracies.
Government controlled by majority vote of the people as a
whole—how we usually describe democracy— has historically been
criticized by elitists. That
criticism most notably began with Plato (427-347 BCE), generally
considered to be the greatest of classical Western philosophers.
Living in Athens when democrats mostly ruled but feared the
return of oligarchs, Plato liked neither.
He preferred rule by "lovers of wisdom" and called them
He wrote, "Until philosophers are kings...and wisdom and
political leadership meet in the same person...cities will never cease
from ill, nor the human race."
He envisioned these rulers as "guardians...[who] will
dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the
democracies, where all citizens have an equal right to hold office, he
felt that very few
equipped by education and experience to do so. The vast majority, he felt, "have no
understanding," could be swayed by those gifted in rhetoric, and
thus "only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them."
In that regard he feared demagogues, and worried that often
passes into despotism." He
saw the whole problem of political philosophy as coming up with a way of
"barring incompetence and knavery from public office, and of
selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good" (in
the words of author Will Durant).
Nearly 2500 years later, Plato's concerns are echoed by those who
charge that American voters seldom understand the issues involved.
America's democracy is corrupted, critics charge, and its
citizens are manipulated and brainwashed by "the power elite"
through electronic media (especially
television) they control. Modern
day elitists tend to prefer alternatives to democracies, such as
meritocracies—where a meritorious few (based on education, expertise,
qualifications, demonstrated ability to do the job, experience, etc.)
are in charge—or technocracies—where the technically most qualified
people effectively rule. What
many who are seemingly promoting elitism are really calling for is
recognition and promotion of excellence.
#20B: Authoritarianism is a form of social control that
requires individuals relinquish certain rights and strictly obey
dictates of whoever is making these demands (and enforcing them): a
national government, political party, dogmatic religious organization,
etc. It can take many
different forms as Figure #20b illustrates.
The 20th century provides examples of democratic governments
becoming authoritarian ones: the election of Hitler and resulting
fascist takeover being the most notorious case.
While authoritarian regimes are typically undemocratic and often
quite oppressive, surprisingly some people are quite comfortable
providing the servile acceptance
of authority and obedience
such regimes require. (Such
individuals are said to have an authoritarian
personality. Note that
those in positions of power within authoritarian regimes typically do
not possess this type of personality!)
There are degrees of authoritarian control—most fundamentally
some are imposed upon people
who have no real choice, whereas others function with a social
contract. This refers to an
agreement between the people and their rulers in which the duties and
rights of each are defined and constrained.
While by itself hardly democracy, it establishes the principle
that rulers have legitimacy only if they have the consent of those they
govern. Authoritarianism and collectivism are alike in that
individuals give up rights and conform to beliefs, goals, and
expectations of the larger whole. They
can differ in how members submit to authority.
In the worst authoritarian regimes it is imposed whereas many
collectives operate with voluntary participation and consensus.