Stanley Crouch misses several things in this column, but the most important thing he misunderstands is the source of hostility to different kinds of elites. There is always some thread of anti-intellectualism in any reaction against an “academic elite,” but the things that rankle people most are hostility to their cultural values and the presumption by elites to tell them how they should think or how they should live. Fundamentally, the dissatisfaction with different elites is an expression of dissatisfaction with disparities of power and how that power is being deployed against the majority: the elites have it, they don’t, and the elites use it to their disadvantage. Even this would not necessarily be so galling for many people, but when it is married to a sneering contempt for the people and their way of life it often sparks a backlash. It is, of course, ludicrous to say that this dissatisfaction is anti-democratic, since it is what the demos does time and again. For most of our civilisation’s history it was the philosophers and the educated who rejected democracy, partly because they genuinely thought this type of regime was disordered and partly because they understood that it threatened their position and their ideals. There have been peoples, including the Byzantines, who valued classical education and accepted fairly great social mobility in the ranks of the bureaucracy and military, but who nonetheless abhorred democracy. Democracy does not necessarily have anything to do with social mobility, and in its pure form democracy can encourage a culture that despises achievement in the name of equality. In our culture today there is an excessive disdain for expertise, as if anyone could equally understand any field and those who have spent many years working on a subject are not better qualified than others, and this, too, is a very democratic habit of despising authority and resenting excellence.
Elites are unavoidable in any system, and democratic polities reconcile themselves to this reality of oligarchy by claiming that the oligarchs are accountable to the people. The existence of elites is itself non-egalitarian and in that way anti-democratic, but most of us see the absurdity and futility in pursuing such a strict social egalitarianism that we would do away with them. We not only reward education, but we also reward inborn talent, and both of these work to erode the myth of equality, which is at the heart of justifying democratic government. Whatever the flaws with complaints against this or that set of elites, they are not anti-democratic flaws.