The other day while I was turning my compost pile and mixing in some steer manure and coffee grounds, I got to wondering what it takes to be classified as an “elitist.” That particular term is snarled frequently these days during political discussions, usually by people who don’t get their way or can’t get their politicians elected.
Naturally, each of us wonders with great trepidation: “Am I an elitist?” Or even more frantically: “Could I be an elitist and not even know it?”
I’m not sure I qualify as an elitist. One would think that a guy who graduated (barely) from an obscure college in the middle of nowhere — a guy who drives an eight-year-old car with 121,000 miles on it, who doesn’t own a pair of cufflinks, who does his own yardwork, and who can’t tell a merlot from a chardonnay — gosh, he sure seems to fall short of the highbrow standard. Thank goodness, too. That term “elitist” oozes such vitriol when it’s uttered, no one wants to suffer its sting. It’s the same word we use to disparage the supercilious royalty over in England. Elitist? Not me. No, sir.
But then I got to poking around in The Columbian’s archives and found five letters to the editor in the past year that have branded me with this painful pejorative. Two of the letters back in September insisted I am an elitist because I graduated from college and had the temerity to point out in a column that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have no college degrees. Shame on me; damned elitist. Another letter hung the rap on me for this reason: “He speculates there was a conservative bias at Glenn Beck’s Lincoln Memorial rally Aug. 28.” Mercy! Such reckless guesswork by a columnist must not go unpunished!
Fortunately, a thick skin and a sense of humor guard me against these insults, which only inspire me to turn my compost pile more vigorously.
Defining ‘we the people’
What else might lead a person or an institution to be castigated as elitist? Well, some local activists argue that operating outside the realm of “we the people” proves that you’re an elitist. The trick, of course, is defining who “the people” are. If 12 people speak up at a city council meeting and 11 make the same point, they’ll gladly claim to represent “the people.” But do they?
A more accurate measure can be obtained by comparing newspaper endorsements with election results. Last November, The Columbian expressed editorial opinions on 16 candidates and nine ballot measures. And in that election, the will of the voters in Clark County coincided with 72 percent of the newspaper’s opinions.
(To be clear, this is a local calculation. The Columbian endorsed Dino Rossi for senator, and Rossi carried Clark County, but he lost statewide.)
Meanwhile, a wealthy local activist who contributed $150,000 to nine candidates didn’t fare so well. Only two of his endorsees won; that’s 22.2 percent. Still, David Madore of notolls.com often hurls the “elitist” epithet at many with whom he disagrees. This seems strange. While I’m pressure-washing my own deck, this guy pays people to hold up his signs at public meetings, and calls his detractors elitists.
Another surefire way to be called an elitist is to speak favorably of incumbent politicians. Supposedly, “we the people” hate incumbents. But, again, to understand “we the people,” study election results. Last Nov. 2, 10 incumbents appeared on local ballots. (I’ve included only those who had opponents; two ran unopposed. I’ve also excluded judicial races, where candidates are nonpartisan and often unopposed.) Of those 10 incumbents, nine were returned to office by “we the people.” Victors included a U.S. senator, five legislators, a county commissioner, a county treasurer and a sheriff.
Two things might cause such a solid support of sitting politicians: their proven performance, and the low quality of opponents. Likely in most cases, it was a combination of both. But to suggest that elected officials serve only the elitist “powers that be” is to dismiss as irrelevant the consensus of the voters. Generally, that’s not a good idea.
Excuse me, but I’ve got to wrap this up. My apple trees are not gonna just prune themselves, you know.
John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.