Americans, upward mobility, elitism

Anne Applebaum at Slate thinks about a common tactic in this election season: decrying “elites” or “elitism.” Why exactly are some political figures derided for taking advantage of America’s meritocracy?

Despite pushing aside the old WASP establishment—not a single WASP remains on the Supreme Court—these modern meritocrats are clearly not admired, or at least not for their upward mobility, by many Americans. On the contrary—and as Bell might have predicted—they are resented as “elitist.” Which is at some level strange. To study hard, to do well, to improve yourself—isn’t that the American dream? The backlash against graduates of “elite” universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies.

These ideas about elites and elitism do seem tied to particular colleges and settings, like Ivy League schools. Could a political candidate attack make an effective charge of elitism versus someone who had done really well with an advanced degree from a state school?

Another problem could be anti-intellectualism. Leaders who were able to work their way through top schools may be regarded differently than leaders who worked their way up through the business or political ladder. The intellectual is not as prized in America (think of the attention “public intellectuals” receive in American life compared to other groups of people) and may not be seen as the same kind of “self-made person.” Perhaps this could be tied into Bourdieu’s ideas about the differences among those with lots of capital: there is a split between those with educational capital and those with economic capital.