Elitism is a frequent target of criticism, especially in politics. Historically, Americans haven’t liked elitists. They don’t appreciate the hoity-toity who look down on everyone else.
These days that disdain emanates most vocally from the populist right. To these self-described down-to-earth folk without airs or fancy talk, “the elite” is shorthand for those who are more educated and have more power, especially cultural power, code for people they don’t agree with and resent.
But the left also has a beef with elitism. To those concerned with social inequity, “the elite” symbolize a flawed meritocracy. In their view, certain demographic groups get elevated over others and bar access to those historically deprived of power, especially political and economic power.
Whatever their respective merits, both critiques are hard not to read as variations on “I want what you have.” The word “elite,” after all, signifies something people aspire to. We admire elite athletes. We rely on elite research institutions to make medical advances. Most people wish they too could sit in first class. Until then, they hotly resent whoever does.
A more sophisticated and productive critique of elites comes from Fredrik deBoer, known to those who read his popular newsletter as Freddie. DeBoer, a Marxist, activist and the author of the book “The Cult of Smart,” is one of the sharpest and funniest writers on the internet. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s always thoughtful and he pushes me to think. I hope his new book, “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement,” will be read especially by those on the left, because the left is where his heart lies and the failings of the left seem to break his heart most. In this, he and I are fully aligned.
“It’s OK to call nonsense nonsense, even if you feel it’s on your own side,” he writes. “You can defend your values, be a soldier for social justice and be merciless toward conservatives while still admitting when feckless people take liberal ideology to bizarre ends.” As deBoer points out, it’s far better for those of us on the left to clean up our own mess than to hand it over to conservatives as easy fodder for mockery. To that end, he scrutinizes the self-interests of the nonprofit industry, the “elite capture” of the Black Lives Matter movement, the neglect of class as a primary category of political thought and other failures and shortcomings among progressive movers.
What drives deBoer’s argument here is the idea that on the left, elites are undermining progress for the average Joe. Worse, they’re doing it in the name of progress. It’s time, he says, to forcefully question exactly what elites on the left claim is best for everyone else, especially when evidence suggests otherwise.
One of the bravest chapters in his new book examines the elitism of the defund the police movement, which, deBoer argues, hurts the cause of racial justice. Research shows more policing has reduced homicides, which disproportionately affect Black Americans. Black Americans are about 13 percent of the population but make up more than half of homicide victims. As deBoer explains, “police abolition and incremental efforts to reduce policing could easily result in more hardship for the very community that we’re ostensibly fighting for.”
In deBoer’s view, this misplaced enthusiasm for police abolition is largely a result of the economic and cultural gulf between elite activists of all races and the vast majority of Black Americans. What’s easy for radical activists and academics to write on a placard turns out to be hard for many Black Americans to actually live with. Taking police off the streets may minimize the possibility of police violence against Black people, but it will do little to mitigate the far greater problem of all other violence against Black people.
Many Black people, particularly outside of elite circles, are all too aware of this. As deBoer notes, “significant majorities of Black Americans want not less policing but better policing.” In 2022, Black Democrats were twice as likely as white Democrats to say reducing crime should be a top priority. A 2021 survey found that white liberals were more inclined than Black Americans to support defunding the police: “71 percent of white liberals say they would support reducing police budgets and shifting funding to social services,” compared with 53 percent of Black Americans; a significant 44 percent of Black people oppose it altogether.
Yet for many on the left, to point out these facts is considered sacrilege, somehow racist and essentially tantamount to serving the enemy. Many white progressives are so terrified of being labeled “racist” themselves that they prioritize self-protection and fear of their critics over helping out the very people they profess to want to help — people they may not understand well at all.
For deBoer, police violence and other problems of social justice require action from people of all races and ethnicities, rather than heeding the empty diktats of elite discourse. “I feel strongly that there must be a way — there must be a way — to take police violence against Black people immensely seriously and to fight for major police reform,” he writes, “while acknowledging that crimes and violence committed against Black people by those other than police are far more common.”
Last month I met deBoer for lunch near where he lives in Connecticut. He talked a lot about the class disparities of the state, which contains many of the wealthiest pockets in the nation alongside extreme poverty. He sees himself writing in the tradition of leftist thinkers like Eric Hobsbawm, Todd Gitlin, Richard Rorty and Adolph Reed. It seems to pain him that the left so often shoots itself in the foot.
When I asked why he wrote this book, he said, “I really do believe that we live in a country and a culture with deeply entrenched racial inequality, and all decent people have a duty to try to confront that inequality.” However, he emphasized, it’s not only something we have a moral duty to do — we also have a moral duty to do it well. The number of people who genuinely thought there was a chance of police abolition was very small, he told me. “But by making that a centerpiece of their demands, it allowed them to say afterward, ‘Look at how awful things are now, we didn’t go far enough.’”
It’s a way for the left, deBoer explained, to look like “a beautiful failure.”
DeBoer doesn’t consider himself an optimist, but he nonetheless doesn’t want to concede that kind of defeat. The left, he told me, needs to return to the “up from below” approach of the socialist politician Eugene Debs: It needs to invest in real change for those in need rather than heed elite rhetoric. To my ears, all this does sound quite optimistic, considering the polarized discourse and politics of 2023, where shouty or performative extremism often gets in the way of duller and more difficult action. But as deBoer says, a bottom-up approach may be the best, or only, option for meaningful social progress.
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