Let’s start with a poll: Which person described below would you call an “elite”?
A) The multimillionaire real estate tycoon who inherited his business from his multimillionaire father.
B) The mixed-race public-interest lawyer raised by a single mother.
The answer you chose may say a great deal about your political point of view and the cultural assumptions that undergird them.
Choice A describes President Donald Trump, who built his campaign on angry denunciations of “elites.” Choice B, of course, is a thumbnail sketch of one of the primary targets of Trump’s rage: President Barack Obama.
2016 might well be called the Year of the Populists around the world. From the Philippines to Poland, from Brexit to Trumpismo, politics across the globe were upended by voters angry at … well, any number of things. Lumping them together, the commentariat called all these angry voters “populists” and it has expended a good deal of energy defining the species.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte of the Philippines posing with a military division in 2016 (top left). A 2015 demonstration in Gdansk, Poland against the populist ruling Law and Justice Party (top right). A sign supporting Britain leaving the European Union (bottom left). A 2016 London rally in favor of remaining in the European Union (bottom right).
Whatever else they may or may not have in common ideologically, these populists share an antipathy toward “elites.” But we haven’t spent nearly as much time defining just who those people are, what they’ve done to deserve the wrath of voters, and what the implications might be when voters turn on them.
Americans have a funny relationship with elites.
We worship our “elite athletes.” We swoon patriotically over our “elite military units” like the Green Berets and SEAL teams. We seek out “elite” doctors when things go wrong with our health.
Obama’s preference for arugula lettuce became a means for opponents to paint him as an elitist (left). A variation on Obama’s “Hope” campaign poster, this parody presents the president as a snob and elitist (right).
But “elite” has become an epithet lately in our political discourse. The elites are, ipso facto, the enemy of the “people.” They are responsible for what has gone wrong, what is going wrong, and what threatens to go wrong in the future.
But who are “they,” more precisely, this cabal of elites who run the show, game the system, and subvert our democracy in the process? Part whipping-boy, part straw-man, the elite serve a rhetorical purpose for sure, but tracing just who has been on the receiving end of the epithet tells us interesting things about how American politics have changed over the decades.
When Elites Were Revolutionary
The declaration made in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 formally announced what would become not only the American Revolution but the Age of Revolution. In France in 1789; in Haiti in the 1790s; across Europe in 1848; culminating perhaps in Russia in 1917.
Among the features setting the American Revolution apart from those that followed, however, is that it was in many ways a revolt of the “better classes,” or the elite. While the loyalties of ordinary colonists were deeply divided, those who led the movement to divorce from Great Britain were among the wealthiest, best educated, and, especially in Virginia, landed, slave-owning men in the colonies.
A depiction of the drafting committee presenting its work to the Continental Congress in 1776 (left). President George Washington leading troops against a populist uprising known as the Whiskey Rebellion in 1795 (right).
Many of them, in fact, were deeply suspicious of “the people”—whom they referred to derisively as “the mob.” When these elite met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, they baked that suspicion into our political system.
Unwilling to have the people elect the chief executive, they created the truly bizarre Electoral College. Uncomfortable that the legislature should correspond to the population, they invented the Senate to counter-balance the House of Representatives in giving states—really just a set of arbitrary lines on the map—equal power.
And states themselves echoed these suspicions of “the mob” by restricting the right to vote in all sorts of ways. Most infamously, Southern states made it effectively impossible for African Americans to vote between the 1870s and the 1960s. In the last several years, states controlled by Republicans, like Indiana and Wisconsin, have enacted voter restriction laws that have curtailed access to the polls dramatically.
A Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicting African Americans being denied the right to vote in 1874 by the White League (left). A 1912 cartoon mocking Oregon’s election system in which voters weighed in on a variety of proposed state and local laws (right).
In short, the United States was created and shaped by people who were not comfortable with democracy.
In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington wrote: “It is one of the evils of democratic governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act.”
And he was not alone in his disdain for “the people.” Alexander Hamilton would have been pleased about the sky-high ticket prices now serving to keep the riff-raff out of his namesake Broadway hit.
At the same time, plenty of observers in the early years of the republic noted that distinct lack of deference ordinary Americans showed their betters. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American men all greeted each other with handshakes and thus ostensibly as equals. No one bowed before their betters in the United States, and if a rich man walking through town should meet “his cobbler on the way, they stop and converse; the two citizens discuss the affairs of the state and shake hands before they part.”
Across the first decades of the nation’s history, citizenship rights—particularly the right to vote—caught up with this cultural sense of equality. By the election of 1860, almost all white men could vote. Four million enslaved Africans certainly could not; nor could women of any color. (Americans would remain scared of “mob rule” by women, of course, until 1920.)
Men looking at the window display of the National Anti-Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C. in 1911 (left). A sign outside a New Hampshire polling place in 2013 warning of the photo ID requirements to vote (right). Since 2006, 33 U.S. states have enacted voter identification requirements.
And in 1860, those white American men elected as president a man whose personal story aligned with the nation’s egalitarian, anti-elite aspirations: Abraham Lincoln. Or at least that’s what we want to believe in retrospect. Lincoln took office having received less than 40% of the popular vote—the other three major candidates that year split the remaining 60%.
Lincoln embodied what Americans wanted to believe about their political system. Wise without a formal education, from humble beginnings without having been in any squalid sense poor, Lincoln represented the promise of what an ordinary American could be. He remains the most biographized American figure, supplanting that other figure who had much the same cultural resonance, Benjamin Franklin. Lincoln, much like Franklin, demonstrated that one could rise to the top without being an “elite.”
Robber Barons, Fat Cats, and the New Moneyed Elite
The Civil War, among many other consequences, accelerated the growth of large-scale industrial capitalism, especially in the burgeoning cities of the North and the Midwest. The size and scale of the fortunes generated by the unfettered, unregulated, and untaxed industrial economy simply boggled the minds of observers and seemed to put the lie to the notion that Americans lived in a nation of equals.
For every robber baron who emerged in the late 19th century, a thousand “wage slaves” were created. Here was America’s new elite. They remain familiar to us—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Mellon, Field, and the rest—their names literally carved in the stone of the buildings dedicated to them.
In the 1830s, de Tocqueville noted that the rich wanted to "conceal" their wealth from public view. "His dress is plain," the Frenchman commented, "his demeanor unassuming."
By the end of the century, America’s rich had changed their attitude. No more unassuming demeanors, but ostentatious flaunting instead. In 1899, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen developed a theory of this new leisure class who participated in a whole set of behaviors he labeled “conspicuous consumption.”
Many Americans objected to the rise of this new moneyed elite for a number of reasons, but none more than the influence these plutocrats had over the political system.
The term “fat cat” itself dates to the 1920s and did not simply mean wealthy person. The term, as coined by Frank Kent in the pages of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, described a very rich person who wanted to buy political influence, a robber baron who, “finding no further thrill . . . of satisfaction in the mere piling up of more millions, develops a yearning for some sort of public honor and is willing to pay for it.”
In fact, the new moneyed class had been corrupting politics for at least a generation. In 1906 journalist David Graham Phillips published a series of articles investigating the way money sloshed around in the U.S. Senate. He gathered them together as a book with the title The Treason of the Senate.
But for their part, many of the rich elite seemed to revel in the influence their money could buy. In 1895, millionaire businessman Mark Hanna quipped, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” The following year he financed William McKinley’s successful bid for the White House and won a Senate seat in Ohio to boot.
Enter Economic Populists
The election of 1896 was the culmination of the first wave of populist unrest in the United States and the first political reaction against the new moneyed elite.
The original populist movement grew out of the increasingly dry and unprofitable soil of America’s grain belt. Farmers through the 1870s and 1880s in the nation’s rapidly expanding midsection found themselves squeezed economically by a number of forces including railroad shipping rates, access to bank credit, falling farm prices on national and international markets, and drought in the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains.
They decided that the root of their problems lay with wealthy merchants, bankers, and industrialists and that the solution to those problems was electoral politics. In 1892, they gathered in Omaha, Nebraska and formed the People’s Party.
In the “Omaha Platform” they issued on July 4, the populists minced no words in describing their political anger.
They denounced land ownership “concentrating in the hands of capitalists.” And they decried that, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
Later in the document the populists declared: “Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery.”
If these middle Western farmers in 1892 sound to you a bit like, well, European Marxists, you can be forgiven. Their proposals were quite radical—nationalizing the railroads, for example. But they actually looked backward and wanted to give the country back to “the plain people” from whom it had been taken by the capitalists, and in 1892 that message did quite well at the polls.
While the movement flamed out after the election of 1896, it left its mark on the language of American politics. The elites, who perverted the political system to their own advantage, were the rich.
That refrain in American political discourse continued through the early decades of the 20th century. Socialism, with its analysis of class conflict, was a respectable political position, at least before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs won a million votes in his run for president in 1912; he got nearly that many in 1920 when he ran while sitting in prison for speaking out against American involvement in World War I.
The language of class conflict—that there were two kinds of Americans, “tramps and millionaires,” and that the latter was exploiting the former—reached a crescendo in the 1930s during the Great Depression.
The Depression seemed to prove all the predictions of socialists right: the capitalist economy had collapsed on itself, leaving ordinary Americans in desperate straits. The Depression was the fault of the elites who ran the economy and had betrayed the people who worked for them.
Franklin Roosevelt did not need to take advantage of those feelings in his 1932 campaign; simply running against the flailing Herbert Hoover was enough to ensure his victory. But in 1936 he did. In accepting the Democratic nomination to run for a second term, Roosevelt delivered a blistering attack on the moneyed elite. He called them “economic royalists,” harkening back to the nation’s founding struggle against monarchy, and he sneered at the “privileged princes of these new economic dynasties.”
With its stark juxtaposition, this 1937 photo of African Americans in a relief line in front of a billboard presenting an idealized America became instantly iconic (left). Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wealth and elite upbringing, many thought of him as a man of the people (right).
At the end of that campaign, Roosevelt denounced those princes again. Railing against “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,” he told the crowd in Madison Square Garden, “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”
Then FDR went on: “Never before in all our history have all these forces been united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” The crowd roared
Never before—and never since—has a presidential candidate appealed so directly to voters by pitting ordinary Americans against the moneyed elite. And when he won 60.8% of the popular vote in 1936, and all but two states, never before had a candidate won so sweepingly.