from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme(s) #20


#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 opposed.

     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 up" approach.

     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 public matters.  As William 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 "philosopher-kings."

     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 state."  In democracies, where all citizens have an equal right to hold office, he felt that very few



were 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 "Democracy 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.  


Figure #20a

Two Approaches to Bringing Change


within a government or organizational power structure...


assemble the experts and smartest people  to understand a particular problem


have them study the situation, produce a report, and legislate or implement it!


within a community of dissatisfied individuals...


identify each other, share visions, organize, set goals, have meetings


make this grassroots people power work to bring change at state, national level





Figure #20b

Authoritarian Government—

The Forms It Can Take:

Absolute Monarchy



Fascist Dictatorship

Marxist Totalitarian State

Military Dictatorship Military Junta

Mob Rule

Police State

Single Party Rule


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