Ah, the Elites. To be one of the most learned, connected, socially upward, high-flying, doted-upon, passionately appreciated members of society.
Well, maybe not so appreciated anymore.
A 2008 Gallup poll revealed public trust to be at an all-time (35 years of polling) low for newspapers, banks, and especially government. Which is not surprising given the recent litany of mistrust that has dominated the conversations emanating around our front pages, airwaves, water coolers, bar stools and convenience store check out counters.
“In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society – whether its General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media – has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent, or both,” wrote Christopher Hayes in last month’s Time piece, “The Twilight of the Elites.” And not surprisingly, it’s all the Elites’ fault. “At the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order.”
Now, the notion of our society as a meritocracy can be debated. While few individuals reach the upper echelons of society without hard work, many do so with the added help of an array of various societal advantages. But what seems of little debate is the broad-based harm that Elites can inflict on the general populace when they abuse their power.
“Mistrust and corruption,” notes Hayes, aptly describing the general mindset of most folks in this age of anti-business, anti-government angst, “feed each other in a vicious circle.”
Which is how The Story of Stuff Project director Annie Leonard recently found herself put on the defensive when Glenn Beck misrepresented her notion that “it’s government’s job to take care of us” as anti-American.
“I didn’t mean government should remind us to floss our teeth and tuck us in at night,” clarifies Leonard. “I meant take care of us by tackling the big problems that can’t be solved by individuals (or even charity).”
Which describes elitism at its best, a sort of uber-elitism. As Hayes points out, “research shows a firm correlation between strong institutions, accountable elites and highly functional economies.”
And while such attitudes sound like they were lifted from a speech prepared by President Obama, it is a good reminder that those with elite status can (and should) serve society well.
And is a perspective that seems to be missing from much of the recent political, social, activist, populist-surging, anti-elitist/government/Wall Street dialogue: that Government and Business and the Elites (can) perform functions which are beneficial to society-at-large.
Does this mean we actually need those annoyingly elitist Elites? Hayes thinks we do. “It’s not really news that very gifted and talented people can make poor, even colossally catastrophic judgments. But the fact is, a complex society like ours requires many tasks to be performed by experts and elites, and tackling some of the most difficult and urgent problems we face requires repositories of authority that can successfully marshal public consensus.”
We need leaders who freely, willingly lead. As opposed to power-holders who irresponsibly act in direct opposition the interests of 90+% of us.
“Economic growth was once a mean towards an end – good jobs, healthy communities, greater well-being,” notes Leonard. “But somewhere along the way, growth became a goal in itself, even when it throws workers out of jobs and undermines the health and well-being of our communities.”
If we are to go down a different path, one that doesn’t value economic growth as the sole measure of success, progress, liberty, happiness, “truth, justice and the American Way,” and whatever else we collectively and/or individually aspire to, then we need not only a new vision, but also a better way to implement such a focus. And this transformative task would be realized most effectively if it were served, in part, by a group of socially responsible (new and improved!) super Elites, who freely choose to act in the better interest of all.