Review: In Defense of Elitism

After Donald Trump was elected in 2016 and through the duration of his first term as the US President, there have been, by my estimation, at least two new types of literature that have gotten popular, usually in the form of appearance in NYT and Amazon best seller lists. The first consists of exposés from family and associates and subordinates in government, disillusioned with Trump’s behaviors in office or his past sins, essentially an airing of dirty laundry that’s easy to rage/hate-read if you dislike his politics. The second is more investigative and exploratory, authors who are seeking the reasons behind Trump’s populist movement and trying to uncover its root causes. Mary Trump’s book in the former; Hillbilly Elegy in the latter.

In Defense of Elitism falls squarely in the camp of an author, previously a columnist at Time magazine, looking for answers to why Trump got elected. The book starts off where you’d expect: he travels to a rural county with a huge percentage of Trump voters, and within a few days of experiencing their hospitality starts realizing that these people weren’t racist caricatures, Dance of the Wolves-style. The story then contrasts that with the self-described elitist lifestyle that the author leads, gatherings with Hollywood liberal partygoers who get to commiserate on the state of the world with like-minded folks. Eventually he interviews his conservative elite counterparts, en route to constructing a framework to think about our politics and how we got here.

Admittedly, that overview makes the book seem formulaic, but I found this take is unique because the author is a humor writer and injects some lightness throughout his stories. A couple of his jokes are legitimately laugh-out-loud funny, and most are charmingly inoffensive. His writing style reminds me a little bit of Dave Barry, in that the interjected humor makes it easier to work through the serious stuff1.

Amidst the silliness, though, In Defense of Elitism actually advances a useful hypothesis, one that was at least new to me: based off of the sociological theories of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto2, the idea is that social and political revolutions are explicitly not the oppressed raising up against their oppressors, but rather transitions of power between groups of elites. In the case of America in 2020, that divide is between the political establishment (Democratic party, never-Trumpers, etc.) and the “outsiders” (Trump and current GOP), those who are in power to drain the swamp and overthrow the establishment. The author helpfully labels these groups as the Intellectual Elite and the Boat3 Elite.

Note that this division is less aligned to the traditional liberal ↔︎ conservative schools of thought, and more around the social statuses of these different elite groups. Intellectual Elites value educational credentials, highbrow culture, “book smarts” as a defining characteristic, and generally that glamorous lifestyle that many currently deride as “elite.” Boat Elites feel like the relatable everyman who just happens to be well-off, the proverbial “I’d have a beer with them” acquaintance who’d invite anybody to hang out with them on their, uh, boats. And for a long time, the first set of elites have interacted with those outside of their circles4 with smugness and condescension.

The observation that people don’t like being talked down on is not exactly revelatory. What clicked for me, though, was the idea that a significant chunk of the population—both in the US, but also around the world, via the global rise of populism—are so sick of having elites play by a different set of rules that they’re willing to tear it all down, and instill another set of elites in their place regardless of consequences.

It reminds me of how in sports, when a team is perceived to be underperforming relative to expectations, a common response is to blow it all up by firing coaches, turning over general managers, trading superstars, and generally just hitting the reset button on the franchise. This sentiment isn’t just from armchair quarterbacks who think they know how to run sports teams either; a lot of times, team owners do exactly that. After a tough season or playoff loss, there’s a good chance that the team will roll the dice with new personnel.

Reflecting on this framework a bit, I lean much more heavily in the intellectual direction5, but I can sympathize with the boating perspective. If you feel like the system is rigged against you, that there’s a class of smug know-it-alls who keep rubbing in their intellect-derived status like their superiority is just a god-given right, then getting off your boat to punch said smug face seems like a perfectly reasonable response. The only antidote to maintaining the status quo is blowing it up.

My big problem with the boat approach of resetting everything is that there’s rarely an actual plan that’s better or even comparable to what it turned over. Yes, it feels satisfying in the short-term to just stick it to the establishment. But then a new set of populist/boat elites take over, and they have to actually run the show, whether it’s an underperforming sports team or a national government. And since the revolution is against intellectuals, the response is necessarily anti-intellectual, based more on emotion and “common sense.” Stephen Colbert nailed this 15 years ago with describing, eerily, the idea of truthiness.

The other factor that irks me is that anti-intellectual movements are fundamentally pessimistic and regressive. There are few coherent principles other than to be anti– an opposing set of values, and engagement is driven primarily by fear and anger and negative emotion. It’s strenuous to just keep getting mad over real and perceived slights, a state of mental unhealthiness that has now permeated our polarized political environment6.

I like books that are thought-provoking, so In Defense of Elitism fits the bill nicely. It’s an informative and inquisitive read that’s easy to digest with plenty of humor, and for me it served as a great palate cleanser between more serious7 literature.

  1. That said, he also has a bad habit of dropping really blatant cliffhangers at the end of chapters which are supposed to get the reader to keep turning the page. It’s somehow even worse than how Dan Brown does it.

  2. Yes, of the Pareto Principle, sometimes known as the 80/20 rule.

  3. Apparently they’re also rich and powerful, but they like spending their money on boats. The humor here betrays an underlying, somewhat unexpected truth.

  4. Sometimes also known as the “unwashed masses.”

  5. If you’re reading this blog and made it this far, you’re probably in the same camp. My posts’ readability scores—measured via an Automated Readability Index plugin—trend annoyingly high and elitist.

  6. COVID piles on top by introducing doomscrolling, which somehow makes it worse.

  7. I.e., business & management.

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