Recently I wrote about some policies advocated by the Swedish anti-immigration party (SD) regarding public funding of the arts. I remarked that the party’s suggestions show that their members do not have much education regarding the arts or public debates in the field during the past decades. “They are after all a party for the blue-eyed, blue-collar, disappointed, rural, jobless man.”

One of the comments to this intrigued me. Said Robert Pearse,

As opposed to the consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, self-satisfied, city-dwelling, rich?
My, I haven’t seen such a display of elitism in years.

To begin with the factual matter, it appears that the typical voter who helped give the SD 20 seats in Swedish Parliament is not in fact consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, (self-)satisfied, city-dwelling or rich. With that out of the way, let me examine the charge of elitism.

This word is not common in Swedish political discourse. I know that it’s used a lot in the US, where it seems generally to go hand in hand with distrust of academics, and is a sort of opposite to “populism”. I was really surprised when I learned that the American Left likes to be called populist. In Europe, populist parties offer anti-immigration dissatisfaction tickets on the brown edge of the right wing. If I have to choose between elitism and populism in European terms, I’m an elitist, thank you very much.

According to Wikipedia,

Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight or those who view their own views as so; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

To me, this begins to explain Mr. Pearse’s attitude. Note how he bundles “university-educated” with “rich”, and how Wikipedia enumerates “intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience”. In Sweden, where taxes are high, the public sector is large and a lot of things are free, you don’t have to be rich to get a good university education. You just have to be smart enough to study for your degree. Anybody can get a study loan here. And I certainly think that being smart and well-educated renders a person “especially fit to govern”. Who wants stupid people with no education (these two traits are separate) making important policy decisions? But as to wealth, I prefer my politicians comfortably but not extravagantly provided for.

I can really see why people would be angry with their political class, their “elite”, if the only way to join it was to pay huge term fees at Harvard or Princeton. But in Sweden, that is not the case. “Putting your kids through college” is not an issue here. Nobody has a trust fund. We pay a >30% income tax instead.

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38 thoughts on “Elitism?

  1. I was really surprised when I learned that the American Left likes to be called populist. In Europe, populist parties offer anti-immigration dissatisfaction tickets on the brown edge of the right wing.

    Well, yes, and that’s what American populists want, too. (See, for instance, the Tea Party movement.) When the American Democratic Party calls itself ‘populist’, it’s hearkening back to a time before the ‘Southern Strategy’, when racist, xenophobic, blue-collar workers were the foundation of its power base. The Democrats haven’t fully adjusted to being a wholly urban political movement, and are still stung by accusations of ‘elitism’.

    With that being said: the ‘elitist’ tag doesn’t refer to wealth, exactly. The American Left has mostly given up on class-struggle rhetoric, and the word has been assimilated by the Right (which is, of course, utterly opposed to any condemnation of wealth per se). The implication, when ‘elitist’ is used in American politics, is cultural more than anything else – that the ‘elitist’ thinks themselves too good for American (read: conservative Christian) values and America’s God. Institutions of higher learning are thought to promulgate this worldview, and so are regarded with suspicion. Billionaires like the Walton heirs, for instance, would never be called ‘elites’, because they’re good Republican Christians; George Soros is condemned for his ‘elitism’ not because he’s a billionaire, but because he’s a foreigner with liberal ideas who thinks he knows better than ‘Real Americans’ how the country should be run.


  2. A large part of the problem is that the left and right in the US don’t use the words “elitist” or “elitism” to mean anything like the same thing.

    Generally when the right uses it it tends to mean “He thinks he’s so smart with all his book lernin’s”. When the left uses it it’s to mean either a patronizing or openly superior attitude. The right hurls it at scientists that are speaking on something within their field, the left usually hurls it at people that think that some unrelated attribute better equips them to speak on issues that they may not actually have a superior knowledge of. People using wealth, breeding/name, celebrity status, or religion are the usual targets of the left. People that the right thinks are the “Regular guys standing up to the elites.” on their TeeVee machine like the Kochs, O’Reillys, Dobbs, and Palins, in other words.

    Mr. Pearce may have thought you were using blue collar and rural as insults, when neither actually is. At least not unless you were using blue-eyed as an insult as well. After scrolling up to your picture, I’m guessing you probably weren’t.


  3. One more point:

    Who wants stupid people with no education (these two traits are separate) making important policy decisions?

    Americans do. George W. Bush was elected (twice) in large part because Al Gore and John Kerry were portrayed as too intelligent and too well-educated, (as well as culturally foreign, arrogant, and contemptuous of ‘real American’ culture, especially in Kerry’s case – but intelligence and education are linked with that stereotype as well). They were portrayed as out of touch with the common man, whereas Bush seemed like the sort of ordinary guy you’d like to have a beer with.

    See also: Palin, Sarah.


  4. I’d really like to think that the elitist tag only applied in countries without easy social mobility. The problem is, I’m not so sure that is the cause of the remarks in this case.

    Perhaps I am being overly negative about my own kind but there is a strong sense of anti-intellectualism that pervades the Anglo-Saxon world (certainly, I have experienced this in England and to a lesser extent Canada as well as the U.S).

    People just don’t like people claiming to know better than they do, even when they actually might and they certainly don’t like it when those they see as ‘the nerdy kid’ that they used to laugh at, have a voice over and above theirs.

    Perhaps I am being a bit extreme but I have witnessed that sort of behaviour.


  5. I think for many on the right fringe it goes considerably further – take the American Teabaggers, for example. Their cries of ‘elitism’ have nothing to do with access to knowledge – in their eyes, just thinking that expert knowledge makes you more qualified to make certain decisions is already elitist. They firmly believe that all it takes is common sense and biblical truth, and so-called experts only needlessly complicated matters or push hidden agendas.

    Every single one of them feels superior to Nobel economist Paul Krugman because they accept the ‘obvious truth’ that tax cuts always help the economy, and he with all of his university knowledge doesn’t. Haha, what a fool.

    Every single one of the believes that their ‘reading’ of the Constitution (which doesn’t involve any actual reading of the Constitution) is superior to that of all those Harvard-educated Supreme Court Justices, because they have the ability to connect to the mystical founding fathers on an emotional level. And when some Federal judge declares some anti-gay law to be unconstitutional, it’s obvious he’s clearly wrong because he just simply didn’t read his bible carefully enough.

    Access to education is the least of their worries – in fact, they’re busy trying to trash public education for good.

    The insidious thing that grants these movements so much political clout is that they are self-sustaining – their stubborn, prideful refusal to give up their ignorance prevents them from realizing how ridiculous their convictions are.


  6. Well, the left hasn’t helped the situation by essentially abandoning the “hicks” in recent decades yet expecting their loyalty anyhow. There is truth to the charge of elitism. Classism is real, and reveals a profound lack of compassion.

    Martin, I’m curious, you always paint a glowing picture of Sweden, so why is the blue-eyed, blue collar rural man disappointed and jobless?


  7. This week we’ve had a reform of the British student loan system and higher education funding so some universities will be able to charge as much a £12,000 per year tuition fees. When I got my BA in 1999, it only cost £3,000.

    It’s difficult to compare Swedish and American / British universities. I always think of Uppsala University as a state run institute for the production of knowledge which serves an ethnocratic society. Each year lots of competent, mainly white, bureaucrats graduate.



  8. I’ve read this blog for some time, Martin, and I recall you making several digs at people who think middle-class values are a universal standard. So I think accusing you of of what I think Roger meant by elitism is silly. Like you say, elitism isn’t a bad thing if the elites are elite at the right things (who would want to be operated on by a mediocre surgeon, or to travel in an aircraft designed by mediocre engineers?)

    It might help if you provided some data on who votes for this SD party though. Since you live in Sweden, you probably have a good idea without approaching it scientifically; but I wonder if Roger thought you were stereotyping SD voters. In American political discourse, that seems to happen a lot, at least more than it does in Canada.


  9. JT, you’re right, I certainly don’t see thw words “blue-collar” or “rural” as insults. I vote for the Social Democrats myself.

    Isabel, most of Sweden’s blue-eyed, blue collar rural folks are neither jobless nor disappointed, as Sweden was not heavily hit by the recent global recession. But those who are were unusually willing to vote for the anti-immigration party in the recent election.

    SM, according to Swedish state television’s website, five traits that characterise SD voters are:

    1. Thinks refugees and immigration is an important issue.
    2. Jobless.
    3. Member of the main trade union for manual workers.
    4. Aged 18-29.
    5. Male.

    Oh, and I’m beginning to feel elitist here, because I cringe every time I see a single person called “an elite”. It’s like calling a football player “a team”.


  10. Aus also has a bad case of tall poppy syndrome. There is a strong tendency to tear down anyone who does better than average in business/financially. A fairly common question is “who’s he to have all the luxuries that the battler’s can’t afford?” A common assumption is that someone who is well off must be a crook – not as in a house burgler, but corporate corruption, bribery, political favours, etc.

    Here “elite” is not used as an insult, I think because it is generally applied to physical achievement (which is something Aussies worship). Aussies tend to talk about elite sportsmen, elite banches of the armed forces, elite forces of the police, fire brigade, etc.


  11. I’ve come to believe that those who decry “elitism” in American politics are really railing against (perceived) snobbery. While that certainly exists, muddying the vocabulary mainly helps certain segments push their own agendas. Ironically enough, those who benefit are, themselves, the economic elite.


  12. “But those who are [jobless] were unusually willing to vote for the anti-immigration party in the recent election.”

    Is there any justification for this? Have immigrants specifically been brought in to keep wages low as in the US?


  13. It happens that Mike the Mad Biologist gives his perspective on elitism in America and specifically identifies two American professors he feels are elitist because of their views on taxes, including a professor of economics named Mankiw, who wrote an article in the New York Times in which he says he could afford to pay more taxes but that higher taxes would discourage him from working more than he otherwise might. Years ago a Swedish friend living in the USA mentioned cases in which some Swedish physicians would stop working at the point where their annual incomes had reached the point where almost everything went to the government. I do not have any way of knowing whether there was any truth to this, but this friend, who returned to Sweden upon retirement, believed it to be true.


  14. I might be less cynical about the American left’s opinion on elitism if I heard even an occasional word of sympathy for the worsening situation of American working class people in the last few decades, under BOTH Democratic and Republican rule. How exactly IS the liberal agenda going to help American workers? Why didn’t it help them in the past, say through the Clinton years? Humor me here please, I know the Democratic party is not equivalent to the liberal progressive agenda in all facets.

    I wonder, if the liberals were NOT such snobs, if they could accomplish more, as far as expanding the Democratic Party. What would it take?


  15. I’m really confused now. What you guys are talking about has nothing to do with elitism as I understand the word. It has to do with what we in Sweden call ekonomiska klyftor, an economic gap. It’s what the progressive taxation system is designed to combat.


  16. Oh, and Isabel, I really couldn’t vote for either of the main US parties. My opinions are considerably left of Ralph Nader’s, which translates to the centrist end of the Swedish Left.


  17. Have immigrants specifically been brought in to keep wages low as in the US?

    Nope. Immigrants take a lot of low-end jobs that aren’t really worth your time if you’re on unemployment benefits. They also like to start small businesses, a behaviour that has pretty much been lost from the native Swedish repertoir. And Swedish wages are not low.


  18. I’m really confused now. What you guys are talking about has nothing to do with elitism as I understand the word.

    Well, if you and Mike the Mad Biologist are using the term on ScienceBlogs in completely different ways, perhaps the term is not a very useful one. As for Isabel’s wish to hear even “even an occasional word of sympathy for the worsening situation of American working class people in the last few decades” I thought that to be what Mike’s post concerned. This morning, I happened to catch a glimpse of Robert Reich hawking his new book, Aftershock, on network TV, wherein he was lamenting the fact that, when inflation is accounted for, wages of workers have remained stagnant or declined over the last thirty years. Whether any measures that Reich might propose for improving the lot of the average guy will work or not is one question, but does Isabel expect that the conservatives would offer any solution, yet alone a better one?


  19. Martin, I understand it is different. And I did ask you to humor me as far as considering American democrats as liberals!

    “but does Isabel expect that the conservatives would offer any solution, yet alone a better one?”

    No. So neither major party offers a solution, but one appears more sympathetic and aware of workers concerns and at least talks to them and about them. The other party keeps its distance, mocks workers as racist morons and further mocks them for not joining their party and for not being sophisticated enough to understand that the other party is using them.

    Meanwhile, nothing is accomplished.


  20. Also, I would be cautious about saying conservatives are selling “elite” as a condition of acquiring expertise, and that it is unrelated to money as it is in Sweden. The “elite institutions” really have fostered a cultural elite of sorts. The working class do not generally have access to ivy league institutions for example. And most intellectuals do tend to come out of those institutions.

    The true “economic” elites may be crafty, but it isn’t only because the people they are reaching out to are “stupid” – working people, of all races, are ignorant for many valid reasons.


  21. Meanwhile, nothing is accomplished.

    I remain cautiously optimistic that the health care legislation will help some who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford health care. Sure, I was disappointed, as I expect you were, by the lack of a public option. But I still hope that what we did get is better than nothing.


  22. I come from a small rural place, so I can criticize the SD without any “elitism”.
    They recruit voters (but not necessarily leaders) from people who are unemployed, or afraid of getting unemployed, but lack the background to see the economical and political forces behind the recession.
    The immigrants become a default lightning rod for their discontent, even though the immigrants do the low-paid work few “ethnic” Swedes would do. there is a lot of noise about criminality, but immigrants do not commit more crimes than Swedes in the same social group (in regard to income, unemployment etc.)

    As for U.S. Tea Party congressional candidates being some kind of grass-roots people, apart for one single token blue-collar candidate*, they are all relatively wealthy with a good education.
    The desperate blue-collar people who turned to the Tea Party in hope of some kind of salvation will get ripped off as the movement is sequestered by ultra-conservatives with campaigns financed by billionaires like the Koch brothers.
    — — — —
    *= The token blue-collar candidate is famous for her “I am not a witch” ad, but this has nothing to do with the relative smarts of blue-collar workers. It merely means the Tea Party is run by people who ignore what the majority of Americans would call common sense.
    I just learned that another congressional candidate is a wealthy businessman with a hobby of re-enacting battles by the Waffen-SS “Wiking” division. Since nobody in the movement reacted to his hobby before his nomination, I rest my case. 🙂


  23. “The immigrants become a default lightning rod for their discontent, even though the immigrants do the low-paid work few “ethnic” Swedes would do. ”

    Makes one wonder – who did the work in the past?

    Will their children and their children’s children do the same shitty jobs? This would not look good, would it?

    Therefore there must be constant immigration from relatively poor countries in order for modern “first world” societies to function.

    This is weird.


  24. as a moderate social democrat, I am far to the left of the US Democratic party. They get my vote only by default, as a corporate hegemony with a vague sense of shame is slightly preferable to one that only exults in its power.

    The Tea Partiers like to think of themselves as a populist movement, but really they are just the latest in a long line of know-nothings, puppets of their corporate masters. Actual support for TP policy, inasmuch as it can be determined, tends to be under 10%. Support for liberal progressive policies is high. It is true the US left is the real populist organization, but few people self-identify as ‘liberal’ due to the success of the corporate media in turning that into a swearword.

    “We pay a >30% income tax instead.”
    Add up FICA, state and local taxes, and so do we. The difference is, our taxes pay for military adventures, the profits of a grossly inefficient healthcare “industry” via Medicare and Medicaid, and interest on the public debt; rather than actual benefits for the taxed.


  25. Isabel, I can put your fears at rest: the indigenous Swedish working class is alive and well and still doing a lot of the shitty jobs. Despite the odd ambition in recent decades, even among Social Democrats, to make every Swedish citizen an academic.


  26. What you guys are talking about has nothing to do with elitism as I understand the word. It has to do with what we in Sweden call ekonomiska klyftor, an economic gap.

    I’m late to this conversation, but I’m not surprised that Martin is confused by American usage of the term “elitism”. This is because “elitism” is one of many words (along with “conservative”, “liberal”, “socialist”, and others) that have been subject to a misinformation campaign being driven primarily from the right (with some help from corporatists, a group which overlaps but is not identical to the right) in order to push the terms of political debate in their direction. The process has been going on since at least the 1970s; recall Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” (from the 1979 album Breakfast in America), which includes a list of undesirable political traits consisting of “radical, liberal, fanatical, criminal”. The result is a rather through-the-looking-glass world where people who ought to be considered radical are labeled “conservative” while genuine conservatives are labeled “socialist”. Couple that with the anti-intellectual tendencies in American culture, and you get the usage of “elitism” described in the post.

    I’m also not surprised that the SD power base consists of un(der)employed rural native Swedes. The most anti-immigrant constituencies in the US tend to be un(der)empliyed rural people whose families have been in the US for at least three generations, and for the same reasons.

    For the record, both left and right in the US try to claim the mantle of populism. It’s almost never genuine.


  27. Oh, and Isabel, I really do think that it’s a weird political goal to have everyone get a college degree. Particularly for a Labour party. The idea should surely be to improve the lot of the workers, not to exterminate them. And society’s need for manual labour wouldn’t go away even if all workers did.


  28. “, and for the same reasons.”

    what reasons? Oh yeah, they are stupid racists, like all “uneducated” people.

    “both left and right in the US try to claim the mantle of populism. It’s almost never genuine.”

    Okay, let’s critique the left for a change. They are supposedly the most genuinely compassionate, caring about social justice more than money, etc. Why do they (case in point-all the comments except mine on this thread) have such contempt for the workers?

    Martin, I’m sorry. It sounds like the workers are still getting a raw deal in your progressive country (and the dole pays more than jobs, or barely more). It sounds like an unsustainable system, that relies on having poorer immigrants arriving each generation. That doesn’t sound especially progressive to me.


  29. I don’t think our social-legal-economic system is perfect. But pick almost any measure of a decently working society, and Sweden’s in the top-10. Have you considered migrating here? (-;


  30. “Putting your kids through college” is not an issue here. Nobody has a trust fund. We pay a >30% income tax instead.

    Well….living as I do in a country where income tax is >40% and post-secondary education is paid for (or not) by the individual…you must be doing something right.


  31. I hear it’s cold and dark up there. My ancestors spent enough time in the cold north. We did our time, and I’m not in any hurry to go back!


  32. Yeah, November and December are bad here. I wish I could find a masochistic New Zealander who wanted to swap houses with me every 1 April and 1 October and thus live in constant gloom.


  33. > Doug, indeed, the last time Swedish tax payers were called upon to
    > fund an invasion was in the 18th century. (It went really badly.)

    The last time Swedish soldiers fought in a foreign country was actually Katanga in 1962/63, although this was part of an UN force, and therefore, from a legal standpoint, not an invasion. Anyway, Sweden is a nation of some nine million people that builds its own jet fighters, stealth warships and other high-tech weaponry, usually half a generation behind the US and half a generation ahead of the rest of the world, so whatever might be the reason that Swedes get more for their taxes than Americans, Germans or French, less military spending probably isn’t the answer.


  34. I have read this blog quite a few times, and I’m constantly surprised by the differences between Sweden and the US. First that Sweden funds the arts, second that Sweden has religion taught in public school, and now that Swedish people generally aren’t anti-intellectual (this is really big in the US). Not that these are necessarily positive.
    Also I’d like to point out that, in general, the working class was quite a bit better off during the Clinton years. This is mostly due to the fact that the 90s were a boom decade, and there was a lot of jobs and money circulating compared to the US since the recession (the economy is making a comeback now, but it’s still worse off than it was in the 90s). Still, however, the fact that Sweden wasn’t hit as hard by the recession means that probably their policies were more sustainable, or at least that they were doing something right.


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