Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Political Blogging: Why I Want an Elitist for President

America essentially paints itself in two opposing characteristic hues; equality and elitism. The two poles of American achievement call everyone to simultaneously be like everyone else, and to be the very best. This schizophrenia reaches fever pitch in presidential candidates; they are to be both your bar-buddy and political-science professor. They are to wax eloquently of the policy nuances that pervade tax-codes and foreign affairs, while also jovially discussing with blue-collar workers the chance the Cubs have of winning their first World Series in a hundred years.

We hold our presidential hopefuls to this paradoxical task because it begins with a fallacy. All children are cajoled to believe that they too can be President someday. What an awful lie. A society seemingly built on hyper-individualism and the spirit of manifest destiny also holds within it a deep sense of egalitarianism. Succinctly: "You can be whatever you want to be." This truth seems so palpable in childhood; one need only extend ones hands and grasp their desires. Though as the days linger on, we find our choices more confined, our dreams more elusive. Where we once dreamed of living abroad, we now settled for a vacation across state lines, and where once we hoped to become a lawyer we settle on being a paralegal. What makes this lifestyles so seemingly despicable is that it is so desperate from what was promised. This, to be sure, is the resounding critique of Ayn Rand's objectivism (and the myriad of self-help, and get-rich books); namely, that we are not autonomous, individualized creators of our own future. The human will cannot fashion itself into its own wanting; we are constrained by a myriad of factors in such endeavors. We both love and loath the idea that we are very nearly like everyone else.

And yet, there are those seemingly rare cases of stardom and celebrity: those intractably charismatic personalities and those captivating and enigmatic minds that seize our attention. Are not these elites? Without falling into idolatry, there is something admirable in recognizing greatness.

The critique against Barack Obama is that he is an elitist. The connotation being that he looks despairingly down upon blue-collar workers and rural America. Though such an outlook ought to be rejected, it is most likely not truly imbued in Obama. However, more importantly, Obama, Clinton, and McCain all (and rightfully) ought to embrace the denotation of being elitists; that they exceptional citizens, specially suited for the most powerful political position in the world. They are the elites of American society.

However, such overtures begin reactions to those allergic to non-egalitarian sentiments. Again, we want presidents who are an impossible both/and. Of course, Obama is an elitist, but so are Clinton and McCain. There exceptionalism is the very reason for their political success. They are exceptional, because they are exceptions. We are asking presidential candidates to do the impossible: to be the exceptional and concomitantly exceptionaless. I want a president who is an elitist, I want Obama.


M. Sipe said...

WAIT... we're electing a president?


Hellernot said...

Why do I get the feeling that no matter what this guy says or does that you’ll come up with some kind of justification for his actions? Or is this tongue-in-cheek? Or maybe I’m just “bitter”---where’s my gun? Here it is---OK I feel better now.

The Catholic Atheist said...


I refer you to the previous post, where I voice opposition to the slogan, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

And no, this isn't tongue-in-cheek. I do honestly want a president who is an elite, (and of course, so do you).

Hellernot said...

The proletariat would interpret “elite” a little differently, more like “snob” or full of himself. The elite don’t make decisions that are good for the proletariat----this is because they feel they have an “entitlement” to make decisions that are only good for them and their other elites. In addition the proletariat has no voice in matters and all opinion other than the elite opinion is to be quashed. At this point all you get with the elitist Obama is “hope” and “change” but the proletariat correctly interpret this as nothing more than “chuck” and “jive”. Every day that goes by more and more people are picking up on this and as the election gets closer his minstrel show gets smaller and in the end the snake oil salesman will have to find a different audience.

Mark Koester said...

Jason, I think you are confusing how egalitarianism is generally expressed with the idea that "we are the same." Clearly, we are not all the same. From a very early age we distinguish ourselves from others through our neurobiological predispositions, our personal efforts, and our individual (though often shared) experiences. Being distinct and individual is a biological and societal fact. Egalitarianism expresses not that we all be the same but that we all be equal.

Equality has numerous ways of being conceptualized in political history. One way is Mill's expression of equality as "the greatest good for the greatest number"; this idea is expressed in maximizing general happiness for the whole through a general calculation of individual pleasures and individual happiness. This is simply a conception of justice and equality through maximization.

Another way is through John Rawls' conception of equality as equating “justice as fairness,” which I would translate as equating to every place in society being equally worth having. Rawls is far from supporting the idea that we all should be the same in terms of positions and even wealth. This is clearly impossible, outside of limiting the potentially strong and intelligent and upgrading the potentially weak and stupid. What Rawls is supporting is the idea that our society is one of equality and of justice if by some act society and societal roles were suddenly rearranged, everyone would find their place in society acceptable and good (along with certain services like health care and educational opportunity). Rawls translates this out as supporting the need to improve the state of the least fortunate. In short, this is a conception of justice in which equality and fairness equate to a state of acceptable substitution.

This being said, egalitarianism doesn’t necessarily see exceptional individuals and leaders as “the elites,” meaning people that are outside of society’s egalitarianism, instead these exceptional individuals represent the extremes of a society’s shared conception of a fair, equal and just communal life. Certain societies like Holland or Sweden embody a kind of egalitarianism in terms of health care, education and opportunity but this doesn’t equate to making people the same nor limiting individual, exceptional achievement.

While Sweden attempts to make the starting opportunities of all children the same at least until the end of high school (and even after with numerous programs to “get you up to a certain level” or to have certain credits), this doesn’t mean that selection doesn’t eventually happen as people choose different routes. These different routes end in a different jobs and professions with different payrolls, while still maintaining a high level of shared equality. Egalitarianism still expresses the need to have leaders and highly trained professions (if you want, you could call these the “elites” but I’m not sure I would because the sharing of wealth, health care, etc. does not equate to a separation as elitism supposes).

On the other hand, I would say that education equated often in the US to inequality at onset in terms of better schools and school districts along with a process of selecting progressively the “best” and pushing these best forward. In the US this results in clear inequalities across the board in terms of wealth, healthcare, educational opportunity, etc. from the onset to the end result. Obama is “elitist”—err is an elite—in the sense that he had opportunities and chances not everyone in American society gets.

In any case, I think it would be better worded if you said you wanted a candidate who was an exceptional leader, intelligent and gifted and who supported an egalitarian conception of society. I’m not sure any of the three major candidate support such a view.