On the political/cultural fronts, we’ve been hearing the word “elite” quite a bit recently and it seems to have become a condition to be avoided (if you’re a candidate with hopes of being elected) or condemned (if you’re a non-coastal voter). This is truly unfortunate. There was once a time when people strove to be elite. That is, they strove for excellence. Pedro Martinez was an elite pitcher. John Coltrane and Miles Davis were elite musicians.
I’m not naïve. I realize that the people who use elite as a pejorative nowadays are trying to manipulate voters by conjuring a negative image – a wealthy, Ivy-educated East Coast class who achieve power through privilege rather than hard work, people whose tastes supposedly control popular sentiment to our common disadvantage. Political image-makers are hijacking an appropriate and valuable word and diminishing it to the level of slur. We’re being asked to be suspicious of people who are exceptional, people with superior talents. We should be doing just the opposite, striving to produce more elite talent for leadership.
The fuel that fires this derisive usage is most likely found in America’s historical distrust of aristocracy. The Founders were indeed wary of the limitations of the feudal system which had dominated European history for centuries. They sought to avoid the social order by which political authority was granted to men simply by virtue of bloodlines and wealth. They considered “the aristoi” corrupt and dismissive of the virtues of the common man.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams addressed this issue by recognizing the existence of a more democratic condition which they called “natural aristocracy”, that is the presence of human excellence in men and women regardless of birth. In a letter to Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote, “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents … There is an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class … The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and the government of society.” What would be the characteristics found in a person possessing natural aristocracy?
Any measure of human excellence would by necessity include those characteristics which belong exclusively to our species, intelligence and the capacity for moral action. Can some people rise above others in these regards, rise to the level of excellence? Of course they can. Men and women who are literate – historically, scientifically, and politically – who demonstrate decency, moderation, fair-mindedness, and courage.
It’s quite possible to claim that all progress takes place at the level of those whom we call the elite or natural aristocracy, those who possess the capacity for creative, independent thinking, who are not shackled to the policies and practices of the past, who possess the self-confidence necessary to pioneer new ways of thinking. Functioning as past presidents had acted, Herbert Hoover declared, “Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement”. In contrast, once in office, Franklin Roosevelt altered the essential relationship between the people and their government by creating the New Deal. Roosevelt was both a social and natural aristocrat.
There’s nothing wrong with being an elite. We ought to be designing and supporting outstanding public schools so as to replicate in our children this “most precious gift of nature”. Perhaps, in the visionary words of educator Benjamin Barber, we can even imagine “an aristocracy of everyone”. The ideal of political leadership is as old as Confucius. “If your desire is for good, the people will be good. The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends.” Let’s aim higher, assuring that the wind is blowing in the right direction.