Elite. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as:

“A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, especially because of their power, talent, or wealth.”

But the applicable definition of “elite” – and what it means to actually be elite – is much richer than that. Being elite is a double-edged sword in America these days. On one hand, it connotes someone who’s worked hard to get to the top of their profession. We praise elite athletes, give awards to elite actors, are proud when our children get accepted into elite colleges. Yet, when someone starts behaving in ways we perceive as uppity, we hurl the word as if it were a weapon; elitism is something to be abhorred, admonished, not admired.

Most of this country’s very rich are, by the very definition of the word, elite. Despite what we tell ourselves (usually to make us feel better about our own less lofty jobs, skills, or bank accounts), most of the people who get to the very top of this country’s power hierarchy didn’t get there because of nepotism or family wealth (I’m talking to you, Mitt Romney). Most of the richest, most powerful Americans did the old fashioned “American” thing and pulled themselves up by their own boot straps: neither of the late Steve Jobs’ parents had a college degree; Oscar-winning director Ben Affleck’s mom was a school teacher, while his dad worked a plethora of blue collar jobs, including janitor; First Lady Michelle Obama was born on Chicago’s rough South Side to a secretary and city water worker. They overcame their humble beginnings to reach great heights, both professionally and personally, to earn the title of “elite.” Yet being “elite” continues to be a dubious title. Calling someone a “liberal elite” is worse than most four-letter words in some circles; being called a “Washington elite” is even worse.

The real distinction, at least to me, lies in whether you are elite – based on your accomplishments, accolades, and assets – or whether you’re elitist. There are decidedly fewer shades of grey when it comes to this definition:

“A person who believes that a system or society should be ruled or dominated by an elite.”

It may be ok to attend one of America’s elite colleges; it’s even ok to have an elite career; we’ll even tolerate your seven-figure bank account. But the minute you go from being elite to becoming elitist, you’re going to have trouble in this country. That’s because America’s political practice of democracy abhors elitism; we don’t think people should be given large amounts of power simply because of their social or professional status. We believe that each one of us has a role to play in the execution of our government, and that an individual’s rights are not compromised based on where we live, what we look like, or how much we earn. It’s why Supreme Court decisions like the now-infamous Citizens United case rub so many the wrong way; when you start equating wealth with power – and those who have the wealth automatically assume they deserve that power – that the whole idea of what makes America America starts to feel infringed upon.

Do you see the distinction between being elite and being elitist? Are they in tune with America’s founding?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke