In popular usage, elite is a contentious term used by admirers and detractors alike to denote the ability to use economic and political power for both positive and negative ends. A loose definition corresponds to the word aristocracy, a situation that entitles one to privileges and the right to exercise power based on his or her inherent traits and advantages, including wealth derived from status. In the United States, the term elite has often been used instead of aristocracy because in the rest of the world aristocracy is primarily based on hereditary titles and primogeniture. The positive connotation of the term elite is obscured by the fact that elitism as a philosophy is viewed with suspicion, if not outright contempt, especially during periods of populist unrest when there is a focus on the “the people” and the latter's perceived needs.
Characteristics universally associated with elites are privilege, power, and ownership. All varieties of pundits, from comedians to serious authors, have mocked elitism and highlighted the need for a shift of power back to the majority. In an article entitled “Preparing for Power: Twenty-Five Years Later,” Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell note that not only have American elites positioned themselves on the upper end of the economic and social hierarchy but also “increasingly took on the role of a leadership class and increasingly saw the projection of American power as a necessary adjunct to domestic tranquility and increased economic power” (Howard 16 ). Thus, in essence, the American elite has created its own version of a European aristocracy, in which economic and political power is bequeathed to the next generation, through education and social connections, to become a self-perpetuating leadership class.
Populists generally decry the accumulation of power for the few over the many, and in that scenario, the elites become tyrannical, a situation that is detrimental to the betterment of the majority of Americans. This critique has reemerged in the twenty-first century via the Occupy movement and found negative expression through presidential candidate Mitt Romney's gaffes about average Americans and their relationship with government. The power elites to whom Mills refers are essentially opportunists, devoid of the ethical or intellectual traits that would in the past have set them apart. Author and talk-show host Christopher Hayes has researched the more recent rise of elites and elitism as embodied in meritocracy, or the idea that some people are intrinsically better than others. He argues that Americans have embraced inequality to the point that they are complicit in the nation's economic collapse and related social failures of the early twentieth century. He states “it is those same elites who have been responsible for the cascade of institutional failure that has produced the crisis of authority . . . Major League Baseball, Enron, Iraq . . . the consistent theme that unites them all is elite malfeasance and elite corruption” (Hayes 22–23 ). Therefore, the elites have manufactured their power yet failed to wield it wisely or ethically, all the while maintaining their dominant social and economic positions.
Ideally, a meritocracy would give the poor a chance to move upward simply by virtue of talent. Instead, power relations reproduce themselves without giving the deprived an opportunity to enter the predetermined system of privileges. While pointing out that “unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible,” Hayes recognizes that the so-called meritocracy is in fact a contradiction in terms in that
the Iron Law of Meritocracy makes a different prediction, that societies ordered around the meritocratic ideal will produce inequality without the attendant mobility. Indeed, over time, a society will grow both more unequal and less mobile as those who ascend its heights create means of preserving and defending their privilege and find ways to pass it on across generations (Hayes 57–59 ).
Disenchanted populists have done much to define the term elite and set the tone of the discussion, yet scholars such as sociologists John Higley and Michael Burton have also attempted to define the term more objectively. Higley and Burton distinguish “three basic types of political elites” based on “structural integration,” which relates to “the relative inclusiveness of formal and informal networks of communication and influence among elite persons, groups, and factions” and “value consensus.” The disunited political elites occur when “structural integration and value consensus are minimal,” while the consensually united come together when “structural integration is extensive in the sense that overlapping and interlocked communication and influence networks encompass and tie together all influential factions and sector elites, with no single faction or sector elite dominating the networks”; the last are the ideologically united where “structural integration is extensive in the sense that a single communication and influence network encompasses all elite members” (Higley and Burton 9, 13–14 ). Owing to globalization, elites seem to be moving towards the ideologically united, which is how Mills sees power elites. The superrich in Mumbai and Lagos—two Third World cities—have more in common with the superrich in New York and Paris than with the middle classes and the poor in their own countries. This kind of ideological unity of the wealthy classes on an international plane accentuates global class-based divisions, thereby eliminating any real competition that might challenge the existence of the few at the top by the many at the bottom.
See also: Bacon's Rebellion (1676) ; Bourbon Democracy ; Mills, C. Wright (1916–1962) ; “The People” ; Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787) ; World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884–1885)
Ferrari, G. R. F., ed. Plato: The Republic. Translated by Tom Griffith. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Hayes, Christopher. Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.
Higley, John, and Michael Burton. Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
Howard, Adam, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. Educating Elites: Class Privilege and Educational Advantage. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2010.
Mills, C. Wright. The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings. Selected and Introduced by John H. Summers. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Santas, Gerasimos, ed. The Blackwell Guide to Plato's Republic. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.