WORD OF THE DAY

'Elitist': The Rarefied Term That's a Low Blow

Blends right in, doesn't she? Sen. Hillary Clinton raises a glass during a presidential campaign stop in Indiana to show that she's so not an elitist.
Blends right in, doesn't she? Sen. Hillary Clinton raises a glass during a presidential campaign stop in Indiana to show that she's so not an elitist. (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Other than being called a criminal, a philanderer or a terrorist sympathizer, is there an accusation in American politics worse than being branded an "elitist"?

The word supposes something fundamentally effete and out of touch, a whiff of brie and latte. There's something about it that grates against our Jacksonian, egalitarian self-image.

Barack Obama invited his opponents and the media, um, elite to wheel out the evil E last week by suggesting that some people in small towns "cling" to guns and religion, among other things, because of their embitterment. The comment created a rare moment of common cause for Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom characterized Obama's comment as "elitist."

For any politician, such an epithet pretty much stops the game in its tracks. So much of the machinery of modern political campaigns -- the speeches, the ads, the photo ops -- is calibrated to convey the illusion that the candidate is One of Us, that he or she is a man/woman of the people.

It doesn't matter that those who run for president are almost always better educated, better dressed, more telegenic, far wealthier and more articulate -- all in all, drawn from an elite class -- than just about every voter in the country. We know it, but prefer to hear about log cabin beginnings and back stories brimming with Horatio Alger spunk and Norman Rockwell imagery. We want politicians, in the cliched formulation, that we'd be comfortable having a beer with (tellingly, no one ever says "have a nice glass of merlot with"; we are not France).

And so candidates spend months burnishing their regular-guy cred. They chow down on corn dogs at the county fair (the county fair! so yeoman-farmer-ish! so pork-oriented!), visit the diner and the factory floor, and proudly sport their sweat stains at the Kiwanis parade. To prove her non-elitism, Clinton ginned up an anecdote the other day about learning to shoot a gun, and downed a beer and a shot in an Indiana bar (the Crown Royal chaser was a bit off message, however). Obama went bowling (the ultimate anti-elite game), though that didn't work out so well.

It might seem a tad ironic for multimillionaires such as Clinton and Limbaugh to be calling anyone "elitist," but "elitism" isn't really about money. Donald Trump has money, but few think "elitist" when thinking of Trump. Elitism is instead an attitude, a demeanor, a vocabulary, a self-possessed air. It suggests condescension and contempt, a lack of empathy, an arrogant aloofness.

Admittedly, it's a fine line. It's okay to be perceived as smart (Bill Clinton) but it's not okay to be perceived as bookish and intellectual (Adlai Stevenson). And it's okay to be elite. Olympic athletes are elite, as are Marines and Navy SEALs. But it's not okay to be insufferably proud of your elite skills, which is just obnoxious.

John Kerry's candidacy in 2004 was imperiled from the moment his Republican opponents started calling him "French," which was just another way of saying "elitist." Kerry didn't help matters much when he went windsurfing (the anti-bowling of recreational sports) and ordered his cheesesteak with Swiss (elitist foreign cheese!) at a campaign stop in Philadelphia.

Opponents of former president George H.W. Bush often described him as "patrician," which was also just a euphemism for "elitist." Bush didn't help the issue when he seemed befuddled by a supermarket scanner and at one point couldn't answer a reporter's question about the price of a gallon of milk. Democrats seized on both incidents to suggest that Bush was "out of touch" with voters, which is still another way of saying "elitist."

Many charges have been hurled at the second President Bush, but elitism has never quite stuck. Maybe it's the Texas twang, the self-conscious mispronunciations ("nucular") or all that Reaganesque brush-clearing at the "ranch" (ranch: not elitist; estate: elitist). In any case, Bush, the scion of Kennebunkport, has evaded the E-ticket. While his surrogates were painting Al Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 as privileged, Ivy League prisses -- i.e., elitists -- Bush's cowboy swagger may have helped millions forget his own privileged, Ivy League background.

Mitt Romney couldn't seem to shake the same aura of privilege that hung around his campaign like a gaseous cloud. Romney struck many as too perfect, from his movie-star looks to his Ozzie-and-Harriet family to his enormous personal wealth. On the campaign trail, Republican rival Mike Huckabee used to take a thinly veiled shot at Romney, saying that voters wanted to elect someone "who reminds them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off." Which, of course, is another way of saying "elitist."

Just as people can seem elitist, places can, too. Obama had the misfortune to make his "bitter" comment at a fundraiser in San Francisco, a city often derided as a bastion of ultraliberalism, which conservatives have long used as a synonym for elitism. No matter that the facts don't support the slur (do they ever?). Most people in San Francisco live in rented apartments (not elitist), and many of its residents are impoverished immigrants. Los Angeles gets the same bum rap, mainly because it's home to some wealthy and blabby celebrities. Some liberal college towns are caricatured as elitist (Cambridge, Berkeley) but other liberal college towns (Madison, Austin) are not.

Clinton's cry of "elitism" against Obama certainly tickled conservatives such as Richard A. Viguerie, the direct-mail wizard who has raised millions of dollars over the past four decades for conservative causes and candidates. Viguerie and his allies have been depicting their political opponents as being at odds with mainstream Americans for years, employing such red-meat buzzwords as "Hyannisport" and "white wine." So it's edifying, he says, to hear the charge coming from the mouth of a Democrat.

Even so, there isn't much in Obama's background that suggests the word will stick, says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. She runs through Obama's basic bio -- his father abandoned the family when Obama was 2; he was raised by a single mother who, at times, struggled financially; he worked his way through law school; he became a community organizer in a tough Chicago neighborhood. With that background, she says, "I think there's a pretty hard case to make that he is elitist." Her alternative characterization: "Insensitive."

Agreed, says Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist and political consultant in Atlanta who is the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." But Westen offers one key amendment: The accusation of elitism plays into a larger narrative spun by his opponents -- that Obama is different. Some voters, Westen says, will assimilate the word along with other false notions, such as that Obama is secretly a Muslim, that he doesn't wear a flag pin because he's unpatriotic, that his pastor is unpatriotic, "that he isn't one of us."

Westen suggests not letting it go. Obama should fight back swiftly and often, he says, by offering the "counter-narrative" that is his autobiography: "Let people know that he's just like them."

Let them know, in other words, that you're far too good to be an elitist.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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