Who are the Elite?

by George Hatjoullis

The populist movements of 2016 has been financed by some very wealthy people. The US has elected a president whose only achievement has been to make himself wealthy. The implication is that wealth alone does not condemn you as one of the elite in the eyes of the populist electorate. Who, then, are the elite?

Elite refers to a group that is superior in terms of some quality. By definition, not everyone can be a members of the elite. You must have this quality. Wealth is not an intrinsic quality. Nor is it necessary to have the elite quality to become wealthy. Anyone can become rich. It requires luck more than anything though hard work or rich parents can give you an edge. The populist electorate thus does not resent wealthy people as such or regard them as necessarily part of the elite. The populist electorate can envisage themselves as wealthy. It is not an exclusive club. It is a club membership to which they can aspire. So what is this elite quality?

The modern elite quality is education, or more precisely, qualifications. It is not intelligence. There are unqualified intelligent people, many of whom have made themselves wealthy. There are many well qualified but not exceptionally intelligent people. It is education that defines the modern elite. Education is a necessary condition for membership of the elite (though not sufficient). Qualifications guarantee entry. The populist electorate are not intimidated by wealth but they are intimidated by qualifications. Typically, they have few and, more important, do not feel they could have acquired more than they have. It is the defining barrier of the elite. The latter are graduates, professionals, and, most important, experts. The dismissal of experts by the populist politicians makes sense in this context. The anomaly is that the populist politicians are themselves typically well-educated and qualified, usually at elite institutions. This is the Achilles heel of populism. Ultimately, it is logically still in the hands of the elite, if you believe in elites.

If qualifications is the defining barrier of elitism then qualified populist politicians do not leave the elite simply because they choose a populist path. They still have more in common with the Eton and Oxford chaps with whom they were educated. They have nothing in common with the Chavs and Jams that constitute their electorate. Educated populist politicians are simply opportunists that will revert to form once political power is achieved. The present populist movement is simply a battle for power among the elite. It is always so unless the leadership is in the hands of someone who does not originate from the elite and even then this person will become dependent upon the elite. Populist revolutions can be destructive forces but ultimately, can never succeed. The elite always win in the end.


One reader has suggested that elitism is defined by the lust for, and pursuit of, power. Populism is also the lust for, and pursuit of, power. Elitism has no monopoly. Self-perpetuating elites are defined by the desire to retain power. An education based elite, which I believe describes the modern elite, is best defined by a lust for knowledge. But of course knowledge is power.