Review: ‘In Defense of Elitism’ by Joel Stein

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October 19, 2019

In Defense of Elitism: Why I'm Better Than You and You're Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book is one hell of a title, albeit a bit misleading. Sure, author Joel Stein makes a case for elitism over populism, but, contra what you might expect based on the subtitle, he does so without being condescending, without being smug, without being, well, what that title suggests he’d be. Instead, Stein’s book is one part earnest attempt to get to know and understand those outside of his liberal bubble and one part explaining, rather civilly, the flaws with their worldview and why we actually have it pretty great right now.

To understand both the rise of the populists and the decline of the elite in America, Stein goes straight to the sources. He travels to Roberts County, Texas, the county with the highest percentage of Trump voters in the 2016 election; spends a day shadowing L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti to show that government is best left in the hands of experts; talks to nominal elites who have joined the populist movement, like Dilbert creator Scott Adams and Tucker Carlson; and discusses why meritocratic elitism is important and how to save it with Bill Kristol and Tom Nichols.

The book is not an academic work of sociology or political science, but it still manages to be one of the most nuanced and introspective takes on populism post-2016 election, with Stein’s typical humorous, easy to read style making the subject matter all the more accessible. Stein pokes fun at everyone: populists, the elite, and, most especially, himself, for being a salmon-pants-wearing foodie and writer who fits nearly every preconceived notion populists could have for an elitist. Despite his lighthearted mockery, however, Stein goes out of his way to avoid stereotyping anyone, especially Trump supporters. The residents of Roberts County that he interviews are portrayed neither as the living backwards caricatures of the left’s imagination nor the noble savages, the folksy, down-to-earth simple people they’re so often presented as by the right. He recognizes that Trump supporters are, like everyone else, complex and that a disservice is done to them and our understanding of them in attempting to portray MAGA types as one-dimensional beings.

Through his experiences, Stein comes to a fairly Burkean conclusion about populism: It is a movement of the id that trusts instinct far too much, and that we need institutions to restrain mankind’s primal instincts. As he puts it, "Our awful instincts are why the Ten Commandments are so important to these Baptists [whom he interviews in Roberts County].… Instinct leads us to lie, steal, cheat, covet, and ignore a phone call if it’s from thy mother and thy father."

While Stein makes an impassioned plea against populism, this is not a book directed at populists. Instead, it is intended for an elite whom Stein sees in dire need of reform. Throughout In Defense of Elitism, Stein lays out the case for what he calls Humble Elitism; a class of elite with a sense of noblesse oblige, who don’t disparage blue-collar America and dismiss them as racist and ignorant; an elite who views those outside their bubble not as the enemy and but as fellow humans endowed with dignity with whom they simply have some disagreements. The title seems all the more confusing in light of Stein’s conclusion. But perhaps this dissonance is intentional. After all, the sort of person who would benefit most from reading Stein’s humane exploration of populism is the same sort of person who would be drawn to a book titled In Defense of Elitism: Why I'm Better Than You and You're Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book. Let’s hope lots of them pick it up.

Published under: Book reviews