What we're talking about, and not talking about, when we talk about 'elites'

Pity the poor elite, so dismissed and scorned these days by the righteous politician. In 2016, they're an easy target for blame and a handy tool of distraction.

Conservative leadership rivals are focused on the same target

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has focused her campaign on attacking the elite — a strategy that proved successful for Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election. (CBC)

Pity the poor elite, so dismissed and scorned these days by the righteous politician.

"The media and the elite don't care about your values," the Kellie Leitch campaign declared this week.

Leitch has made the elite the central focus of her campaign for the Conservative Party's leadership. But her competitors have expressed similar disdain.

In a speech Thursday, Lisa Raitt took a hard line on the elitists in our midst.

"If you think it is good fun to look down your nose at the simple folk from other places, like Cape Breton, to traffic in stereotypes, to seal yourself off in a bubble of your own superiority, to declare yourself to be part of the elite and to look down with contempt on those who don't share your values, well, there is a party for you," she said. "But it's not the Conservative Party." 

Maxime Bernier has warned that "political elites" would oppose his views on the telecom sector and he invoked Brexit to explain how his success would send a message to the "bureaucratic elites" in Ottawa.

Popular displeasure with society's elite has been linked to the year's greatest political upheavals, including the U.K.'s referendum decision to leave the European Union.

Brad Trost has suggested that within the Conservative Party there are "party elites" who aren't willing to sell the CBC.

In 2016, the elite are an easy target for blame, a rallying cry and a handy tool of distraction.

From Ford to Brexit to Trump to ... Leitch?

Popular displeasure with society's elite has been linked to the year's greatest political upheavals: the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Years earlier, there was Rob Ford's triumph over the "downtown elite" to become mayor of Toronto.

Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto after attacking the 'downtown elite.' (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

"I think what the message was that was delivered was that there's this growing gulf between the average guy and gal on the street and what's happening amongst media and political elites," Leitch said on CBC Radio's Sunday Edition two weeks ago, speaking of Trump's victory.

"What I want to do is I want to make sure that every average Canadian out there, every guy and gal on the street in Collingwood or Alliston, Abbotsford or Fort McMurray, Alberta, my hometown, knows that they have someone that will be their voice."

The elite apparently don't reside in such places (or at least don't deign to walk the streets there).

The non-elite, meanwhile, are most easily identified by their use of relatable terms like "guy" and "gal."

Leitch's reference to the elite is not to be understood as a measure of status, success, schooling, social circle, power, influence or skill. 

If it was, the word would almost certainly have to apply to Leitch, an accomplished doctor and former cabinet minister whose official biography describes her as "among the best of her generation."

Rather, for her, "elite" is a matter of attitude.

"I define elite as an individual who is out of touch and seems to think they know better how someone should think," she told Sunday Edition.

Ms. Leitch, a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative party, says immigrants to Canada should be questioned to see if they hold "Canadian values".

Meaning of elite attacks

On a basic level, this seems merely a way for conservatives (those who believe government should have as little involvement as possible in the affairs of man) to criticize progressives (those who tend to think the government can use policies and social programs to have a positive influence).

As rhetoric, there is an obvious appeal to stand against a domineering class that would impose its tastes on the public and mock any who dare question its judgment.

But, as a social construct, the suggestion of a divide between elites and non-elites might go to real questions within modern Western societies about identity, class, dislocation, inequality, inclusion, globalization, social and economic change, and the effectiveness of public institutions.

I define elite as an individual who is out of touch and seems to think they know better how someone should think.- Kellie Leitch

And progressives, who want to do more with public resources, might need to be particularly concerned if large numbers of people are feeling alienated or cynical.

But invoking "elites" can also mean employing the same kind of dismissive stereotyping that Raitt decries. 

"You worked with your hands. You needed to get dirty. Not a lot of snowboard jobs or drama teacher jobs," Raitt said on Thursday, invoking her upbringing in Nova Scotia while taking a swipe at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"I never forget that Canada's success, although I've been in the corporate boardrooms, was not built in those boardrooms, it wasn't built at celebrity galas, it wasn't built in a faculty club," she said later.

Lisa Raitt announced her bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party last month. She, too, has tried to build support by attacking those whom she calls the elite. (CBC)

Raitt also explained that, to her, "the promise of Canada is rooted in one simple fact ... that here nobody gets to look down on you."

Unless you're a drama teacher.

Sidestepping important questions

In a speech eight years ago, Stephen Harper offered a notably direct version of the sort of anti-elite appeal that is now casually made.

Canadians, he said, were worried about "unacceptably high levels of crime." 

But "the ivory tower experts, the tut-tutting commentators" and "the out-of-touch politicians" made excuses for criminals and denied crime was even a problem. "Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong," they apparently told Canadians.

Stephen Harper attacked the 'the ivory tower experts,' 'the tut-tutting commentators' and 'out-of-touch politicians' in a speech about his government's crime policy eight years ago. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A member of the elite might be expected to denounce this as anti-intellectual demagoguery that ignores the long-term decline of crime in Canada and the relative security of individual Canadians.

But those complaints would have sidestepped the real questions about Harper's approach to justice policy: Why were Canadians scared? What was he proposing to address the concerns of Canadians? And would those measures significantly reduce the threat of crime?

Raitt has condemned Trudeau's climate policies — specifically a national price on carbon and an accelerated phase out of coal-fired electricity — as arrogant and implemented without regard for the people who will be impacted by higher prices.

But without a climate change policy of her own, Raitt isn't offering a complete answer.

Meanwhile, Leitch has somehow made it this far without quite explaining how her signature policy — screening all visitors and potential immigrants to Canada for "Canadian values" — would work or what problem it is meant to address.

Asked two Sundays ago to explain what questions would be asked, Leitch, who first floated this proposal 2½ months ago, said it's a long campaign and she didn't want to get into "process conversations."

That, oddly enough, sounds like something an elite might say to avoid having to explain herself.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.