Saturday, November 08, 2008

Populist Chic

Mark Lilla in the Wall Street Journal:

Back in the '70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about "radical chic," the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their "struggles." But "populist chic" is just the inversion of "radical chic," and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.
At some point, there needs to be a serious critique of the term "elite," particularly with respect to democratic society. Under what conditions is a democratic elite possible, let alone desirable? I am not sure that Lilla has this right, or whether he's even off to the right start -- but it seems clear that we have all been attacking, defending, and discussing elites without really knowing what we are talking about.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

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