The United States, a nation founded by a self-conscious elite, is the most anti-elitist of nations. This is one of the paradoxes that has made the nation thrive. Elitism, however defined, is of course coextensive with all political and social life. The classical understanding of the hierarchy of human excellence, as most notably illuminated in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, is what made political life and progress possible.
But the very reference to the classical origins of the idea of human excellence, with its obvious implication of a division between superior and inferior, brings to mind one of the variations on elitism that has long been a pejorative: aristocracy. The common modern meaning of aristocracy suggests the institutionalized elitism of heredity or wealth that tends over time to corrupt both politics and creativity. It is the great innovation of liberal democracy to replace aristocracy with meritocracy; recall Thomas Jefferson's famous correspondence with John Adams about why the United States could dispense with an artificial aristocracy (which Adams desired to have) in favor of a "natural aristocracy" of excellence and virtue.
The flaw of democracy, as Tocqueville (an elitist par excellence) foresaw 150 years ago, is that the idea of equal rights - the central premise of democracy - would dissolve over time into an extreme, levelling egalitarianism. "The ills produced by extreme equality," Tocqueville warned, "only become apparent little by little; they gradually insinuate themselves into the body social." Liberty requires effort and sacrifice, while "equality offers its pleasures free." Neither gentle reason nor ferocious remonstrance seems to dissuade someone who has fallen under the egalitarian spell. "It is no use telling them that by this blind surrender to an exclusive passion they are compromising their dearest interests," Tocqueville warned. "They are deaf."
This background is useful in evaluating these two recent offerings on the subject of elites and elitism, which might seem to represent examples of authors miraculously cured of egalitarian deafness. Both William Henry, a senior writer and drama critic for Time magazine, and Christopher Lasch, a sociologist, have fashionably "liberal" credentials. Henry's plaintive passage boasting of being a Jesse Helms - hating "registered Democrat" and a card-carrying member of the ACLU brings to mind Phil Ochs's parodic tune, "Love Me I'm a Liberal." Lasch's 1978 book, The Culture of Narcissism, was...