Who are the Elites?

By: | May 3, 2017

The elites: it’s a term that’s been picking up more and more momentum on both the left and right. President Donald Trump ran as a traitor to his class, railing against the financial and political elites he later went on to staff his cabinet with. Nonetheless, the wave Trump rode was clear: nationalist and populist. As Pat Buchanan wrote late last year, “not only Europe but the whole world President-elect Trump is about to inherit seems in turmoil, with old regimes and parties losing their hold, and nationalist, populist and rightist forces rising.”

Populist nationalists from France to the Philippines routinely criticize political elites and the accompanying bureaucratic supporters who staff their administrations. Such “anti-elite” sentiment has always been a mainstay of political movements – it just seemed to experience a temporary wane prior to the rise of Trump. It’s fair to say that even the elites are against the elites nowadays – or at least pretending to be if they want to win.

But who, exactly, are the elites – or whom do you perceive them as? What is their motivation and method of maintaining power?

These are complex questions that are worth tackling.

The term elite derives from the Latin word eligere, which means “to select” (presumably to select the top or best individuals). Every culture since recorded time has had some form of elites, from the days of Abraham to modern China. Whether measured by nobility (bloodline), ethnicity, religion, culture, ideology or merit, an upper tier of insiders who call the shots has always been a defining fact of human life in some form or another.

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto first used the term “elite” as a critical moniker of the top echelon of society in his 1902 book Socialist Systems. Pareto wanted to look at the concept in an even-handed way, judging objectively how and why a small but powerful elite always seemed to rise to the top in a given society. Rather than necessarily judging it as morally good or bad, Pareto was most focused on the nature of the governing elite in an objective sense. He saw those with influence outside government as basically a talent pool that the governing class would draw on to replace its stock from time to time. Pareto believed the elite in a society inevitably slides into decay and stated that “history is the graveyard of elites.”

Pareto divided the elite into foxes and lions. Foxes were savvy and indirect, using tactical and devious ways to maintain control, whereas lions were confident about the outright exercise of power and authority whether people liked it or not. He characterized history as a continual struggle between these two groupings of elites replacing each other, combining forces, or being wiped out in a revolution and replaced with new elites altogether. The campaign rhetoric of Trump, and some of his behavior thus far in office represents a move towards lion statesmanship, and away from the clever, foxlike bureaucracy and political correctness of President Obama, Chancellor Merkel or the EU.

Nonetheless, a new, reshaped elite is certainly emerging under Trump, per Pareto’s theory, rather than a total doing away with “the elite” and some may have perceived the campaign to inspire. Various groups, families, and individuals are asserting a claim to power behind the throne, and many of those closest to Trump’s ear come directly from “the ranks of the financial elite.” Trump’s National Economic Council is directed by Gary Cohn, former COO, and president of Goldman Sachs, while multi-billionaire Wilbur Ross serves as secretary of commerce. Ultra-wealthy and well-connected heiress Betsy Devos serves as secretary of education. These aren’t exactly hayseed men and women of the people, although it’s also fair to say they aren’t quite the same style of elites that reigned under Obama or Bush.

Little snippets of news from the elite ruling class are easy to find: marriage notices in the New York Times, new hires at Goldman Sachs, the graduating law class at Yale. Sure, some students may have got where they are on scholarship, but with a successful career ahead – if they play ball – they will become part of the elites in terms of influence and power.

It’s worth specifying that anger of the recent past has been most directed at political elites, but financial elites and media elites have also drawn their share of incensed scorn from some of the public. People have gotten used to reading dramatic reporting from mainstream sources like the Washington Post or New York Times with a giant grain of salt, as breaking news (particularly vis-