There has been a long-standing argument in American culture between those who respect the benefits of elitism, namely advanced education, expertise and specialized knowledge, and those who put their trust in popular taste, common sense and ordinary intelligence. Both strains of opinion have had long histories in this country.
Many Americans embrace both sides of this spectrum. For example, there are evolutionary biologists who are avid baseball fans and there are high school graduates who love opera.
Similarly, it's possible to respect education and educated people while also mistrusting intellectuals. Americans pay lip service to the value of education but have doubts about those who inhabit the "ivory tower." Experts are sought for their specialized knowledge but also derided for their snobbishness and precious tastes.
The term elite has been bandied about a great deal in this political season. It is usually used as an insult. Politicians accuse their opponents of being elitists while they claim to be "of the people." Andrew Jackson, a 19th-century president, was one of the first leaders to claim that anyone could serve in government, no experience or knowledge necessary.
His inauguration reception was inundated with ordinary people seeking jobs. That trend has continued to this day. It's now called nepotism or favoritism. Giving your wife's relative a job, however important the position and however ill-qualified the relative, is of no consequence. There is nothing to be gained from only hiring people "with qualifications."
The populist claim is rarely dissected and examined carefully; indeed, the charge of elitism also goes unstudied. The tea party in the 2010 election cycle was responsible for electing many people with modest experience in government. Was this a virtue or a mistake? The answer depends upon your view of elitism versus populism. If you think government service only requires commitment to a set of personal principles (including the view that government is not good), then you support the tea party movement.
If, on the other hand, you consider education and experience necessary prerequisites to government service, then you may be considered an elitist by those who don't share your views. You may see yourself as a commonsensical pragmatist, but others may not share your perspective.
Accumulated knowledge is lost when voters reject incumbents uncritically and replace them with novices. Traditions, hard-won truths and basic experience are lost in the process. This is not to say that longevity in political office is an inherent good; it is not. There are many occasions when the longtime office holder has lost his or her efficacy and should be replaced with a new, fresher applicant.
However, the assertion that government service requires only commitment to a political ideology and no understanding of government operations is a recipe for disaster. Knowing American history, the workings of legislation and the importance of information in the process of lawmaking are of paramount importance.
One of the reasons the U.S. Congress has ground to a halt is because many of the 2010 newcomers to the House of Representatives have no knowledge or regard for the legislative process. They view incumbents with suspicion and negotiation with disdain. They have no knowledge of the legislative history of the country nor do they have any interest in learning it. They view their ignorance as a virtue rather than the liability it is. Reasoning, a fundamental activity needed to govern, is lacking in the populist strain now evident among many members of Congress.
The words elite and populist have been used as adversarial terms. They need not be so viewed. Elite simply means the few and populist the many. In the U.S., citizens are members of both elite and populist organizations and hobbies.
It is only in the extreme application of both terms that the ugly features of both appear. Only when elite means snobbish or exclusionary and when populist means ignorance and prejudice do the terms rightfully become enemies.
Otherwise, they can sit compatibly side by side.
We can learn to respect the elite educations that produce impressive thinkers and leaders while enjoying the fruits of popular culture. Network television and cable television, hip-hop and symphonies, and Jane Austen and Stephen King can all be enjoyed in this highly diverse and lively culture.