Today you hear a lot of discussion about elites. What exactly is an elite? TheFreeDictionary.com defines an elite as “a group or class of persons considered to be superior to others because of their intelligence, social standing, or wealth.” Note that the definition uses the term “considered” but doesn’t say who is doing the considering. In my experience, the people who think the elites are elite and typically the people who think of themselves as being elite.
Do these people really exist? Yes they do and they are not all in Washington, in the board rooms of tech companies or in the hallowed halls of academia. They live amongst us. We work with them and perhaps play with them, everyday. They live amongst your colleagues, associates, friends, and probably even your relatives. But most of them don’t think of themselves as elites. They see themselves as more knowledgeable, savvy, educated, worldly, or refined than the common folk, the hoi polloi. If you accused them of being elites, they would immediately dismiss you as someone who does not know what he or she is talking about. But if you observe closely how they act, and what they say, you can figure it out.
We all remember Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” I wonder, if that is the way you think about Trump supporters, are you any better than someone who judges all people of a certain race, ethnicity, religion persuasion, or gender identity with some common perceived negative trait? In some ways, however, what Hillary said doesn’t get people too excited because most of us have figured out that Hillary is a member of the elite, or at least she thinks she is one of the elite, and by any reasonable description, she probably is. And just so we are not maligning Hillary while letting other folks in Washington off the hook, I would estimate that a large number of the Washington folks either consider themselves to be elite (although they might not use that word) or they act like it.
Why this topic is important is that we might expect Hillary and the Washington gang to be elites, but we don’t expect it with our colleagues, associates, and friends. So when we find out they are amongst us, it is shocking and disheartening.
I have a few examples that I will share with you. Someone sent me a video of someone who is critical of those people whose politics are on the left. The person in the video is a male, white, about 40ish, wearing a sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and has a beard. There is nothing else in the video that would tell you much about the person. The walls are nondescript, there are no paintings or furniture that can be seen, and there is nothing to tell you where the person was when he made the video. The room could be in any house, apartment, office, or school in the country. The only other identifying item is a white board with some writing on it, but you can’t read what is written on the board.
I sent the video to a colleague of mine. He responded as follows: “I would hate to be in the same room with that guy. He looks and sounds like a looser. How would you have anything in common with a guy who looks at talks like that?”
I have a tuxedo and five or six suits and when the occasion calls for it, I am happy to put one of them on. But I also have several sweatshirts and baseball caps, and I wear them regularly. Further, I have been known to speak critically of the political philosophies of those on the left. So I guess we have some things in common. Probably my colleague thinks I am a looser too.
The diference between me and my colleague is that when I watch this video, I don’t see a looser in a baseball cap and sweatshirt. I have no idea of his background, what he does for a living and how much education he has. What I see is a man who is concerned about our country, who sees things happening in our government and political system that he doesn’t see as right or fair, and who thinks expressing his views is an appropriate way of exercising his first amendment rights but more importantly, bringing something he sees as very important to the attention of his fellow citizens. I’d love to be in the same room with this guy, discussing his ideas and thoughts, over a pint of beer. But my elite colleague doesn’t even want to be in the same room as the guy. How do we find common ground on issues if our attitude towards those with whom we disagree is not wanting to be in the same room as those people?
Another instance occurred in a restaurant in Beverly Hills. You know, those restaurants that charge you $20 for $1 worth of lettuce. I was having lunch with a business associate. I loosely call him a Beverly Hills money guy. The server came to the table and asked us if we wanted water. I said yes, money guy said no. A few minutes later the server dropped two glasses of water on the table. Money guy immediately blew his stack, saying, “I said NO, I don’t want any water. Get that water off the table right now!” I was embarrassed for the poor server. The server was a young female and from the look on her face, I thought she was about to cry. She grabbed the water and apologized. I chastised the money guy telling him that his behavior was not necessary and he went into a tirade about the lower class people his type had to put up with when it came to basic services such as servers, cleaners, gardeners and cab drivers. Money guy was clearly a member of the elite and I made a point of never doing business with him again.
Another time I was working for a company as its CFO. The company had had a bad couple of years, thanks primarily to the mismanagement by the CEO (that’s another story). This was at a time when the economy was doing well and the market for clerical and accounting people was good. Our small staff had all asked about raises, and had been told that due to the bad performance of the company, there would be no raises. The CEO thought a good moral boosting activity would be to take the accounting and administrative staff for a company lunch. During the lunch the CEO commandeered the conversation, telling everyone what a terrible time he had working on his house. He lived up on the Santa Monica mountains overlooking the San Fernando Valley and as with houses built on hills, the house had three levels and his wife was exhausted by walking up and down the stairs. So he was spending $150,000 plus to install an elevator in his house. And he was having trouble with the contractors. This at a time when we couldn’t give out 25 cent an hour raises to our staff. We got back to the office and I heard the staff mumbling under their breaths about the CEO, his elevator, and their raises. When I brought this to the attention of the CEO he went off on how hard he worked, how much talent and ability he brought to the company, and his pedigree of jobs with multinational companies. He never mentioned how his poor management had caused the company to lose money two years running. The CEO was a member of the elite and I made an exit from the company shortly thereafter.
I have other examples but for the sake of brevity I will save those for another time. The point is that we live in a complex society. That complex society requires some of us to sit in board rooms, and some of us to be accounting clerks. Some of us manage money and some of us serve tables. Some of us have educations from elite institutions and some of us make money using the hands given us by God. But everyone is important. The Founding Fathers had it right when they said “All men are created equal.” Further, something else I have discovered in my life’s journey. Elites and people in positions of power and prestige don’t necessarily have any more common sense, or wisdom, than truck drivers, mechanics, or bartenders. And sometime, much to my disappointment, they have considerably less. Fortunately I have also met many CEOs, executives and educated people who are humble, appreciative of everyone, and who understand that their positions in life are not all about hard work. That luck, timing, and lineage all play a role in the paths we follow. We can expect and put up with a crowd of elites in Washington (although in my opinion we should desperately try to do some thing about that) but its disappointing when we find those elites are people we work with, and interact with, on a daily basis.
I doubt very much any elite reading this article will change his or her ways, in part because as I mentioned earlier I don’t think most elites see themselves that way, and if you point it out, they will pull out every ounce of Cognitive Dissonance in their soles, and justify their actions, and try to convince you otherwise. But who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe just one elite reading this article will change his or her ways. If that’s you, let me know. I’ll buy the beer.