Earlier this year, Sarah Palin told Chris Wallace, “I’m never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I’m not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I’m going to fight the elitist, because for too often and for too long now, I think the elitists have tried to make people like me and people in the heartland of America feel like we just don’t get it.” Back in 2004, John Kerry ’66 was labeled a “rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a man of the people.”
These anti-elitist statements are swipes at all of us, regardless of our political leanings. We are at Yale, an elite university by any definition, in order to learn more than the next person in our chosen fields, and we take pride in this endeavor. When we leave Yale, as I must do quite soon, many of us hope to use our knowledge to benefit society, including “people in the heartland of America,” the majority of whom have fewer years of formal education from less prominent institutions than we are privileged to have.
What, then, should we make of the former governor’s criticism? If she really speaks for the heartland of America, should we “elitists” stop trying to use our knowledge to improve society? If many of those we are trying to help don’t want our help, should we stop trying to help them?
These questions are not merely academic. In March, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that non-college educated whites were less likely to support the health care bill than were whites with a college education, even though whites who haven’t gone to college are significantly more likely to be uninsured. If the people who stand the most to gain from a policy don’t support it, is the policy worth implementing? Is it an act of elitism to do so?
A reasonable answer is to delegitimize the opposition. If they only knew better, we might say, they would support the bill. There is evidence to suggest that this might be the case. Another Kaiser survey found that more than 70 percent of Americans favored ending lifetime benefit limits and exclusions based on preexisting conditions and supported creating health insurance exchanges and tax credits for small businesses — all key aspects of the bill.
But when people expressed opposition to the bill, they often didn’t know what they were opposing. Just 52 percent were aware that the bill would provide tax credits to small businesses, 44 percent knew that it would move to close the “doughnut hole” in Medicare Part D and only 42 percent understood that it would end lifetime benefit limits. It is highly possible that if people were informed that the bill included these provisions that they support, many would abandon their opposition.
In making this argument, I have done exactly what Sarah Palin accuses elitists of: I have unequivocally asserted that a portion of the people in the heartland of America doesn’t get it. Is this wrong?
I don’t think so. It is important to point out that many people are misinformed precisely because Republican leaders like Sarah Palin have been trying to misinform them. (I am still awaiting the demise of my grandparents at the hands of death panels.) But even if they were misinformed for other reasons, it would still be important to try to provide accurate information and, in some circumstances, to enact legislation in accordance with their interests even when it might conflict with their preferences.
Imagine if Palin took the same approach to medicine as she takes to policy-making. Does she not want doctors to know more than the average person about how to treat diseases? Of course not; we want our doctors to be the best. We want to be seen by someone who went to the best medical school and is up to date on all the best new treatments. We want our doctors to be elite.
Why should we not want the same attributes in our policy-makers?
I would think that most of us would want those in charge of setting national policy to know more about setting national policy than everyone else. Policy-making may be more subject to legitimate ideological disputes than fields like medicine, but this fact need not imply that everyone knows as much as everyone else about what policies are best for the country.
This is not meant to be a defense of arrogance or paternalism, and I would not advocate new Yale graduates going out and proclaiming that our newly acquired degrees give us any sort of superiority. We obviously still have much to learn to become effective doctors, policy-makers or whatever else we want to become.
This is meant, however, to be a defense of a version of meritocratic elitism free of the negative connotations frequently attached to it. I want to live in a society where the people are the best in the world at what they do. And it has been an incredible honor to spend the last four years with others who share this idea. We have the potential to be elites in the best sense of the word, using what we’ve learned to help those in the heartland, the inner cities and everywhere in between.
Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.