Who Exactly Are the ‘Elites’ Rich Populist Politicians Are Complaining About?

It's not you. It's them.

by Cassie Aylward
25 November 2016, 12:00am

Photos via Twitter, Facebook

This article originally appeared at VICE Canada.

We hear dozens of bullshit political buzzwords in the media every day. Boots on the ground, wedge, unify, patriot, extremism, grassroots. Politicians and pundits use them so often it's easy to not even notice just how often we hear them.

"Elites," is a recent favourite of populist candidates. On the right, Donald Trump used it, Rob Ford used it, Brexit leader Nigel Farage used it, and on the left, Bernie Sanders used it. Now Kellie Leitch, the alleged frontrunner for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, seems to use it more than almost any other word. When two prominent Conservatives withdrew their endorsements of her citing their concerns about her controversial immigration policies, she wrote them off as "party elites."

It's been pointed out that Leitch—and most politicians who use the war on the elites as a campaign strategy—isn't exactly disenfranchised. Leitch was a paediatric surgeon (translation: rich person) at Toronto's SickKids Hospital before she became a Member of Parliament for Simcoe-Grey in the Muskoka region of Ontario.

She had more explaining to do when a Postmedia report revealed there was a $500-a-plate campaign fundraiser for her set up by downtown lawyers in Toronto. When she was questioned on CTV's Question Period about having such an expensive event while campaigning against elites, she said working hard and having "an elite education," doesn't necessarily make someone part of the "elite" she refers to.

So who exactly is an "elite" these days? VICE spoke with some experts to find out.

Those Already in Power

While Leitch herself has repeatedly tried to distance the meaning of "elites" from those who make a lot of money, it's difficult to completely extract wealth from the word's definition.

"It's kind of a way of saying, people who somehow are in a privileged position or getting something that average people should be getting too but they aren't getting for some reason," said Chris Waddell, a journalism and communications professor at Carleton University. He calls the use of the term by populists like Trump and Farage—who were photographed together in a golden elevator at Trump Tower last week—"completely disingenuous."

Stanley Hartt, the right-leaning commentator and Toronto lawyer behind the controversial, expensive fundraiser for Leitch's campaign, disagrees. "It kind of means everybody in the establishment who wants to keep doing stuff the way they always have," he said.

"Anybody who thinks that the people who are angry at the current state of affairs in public policy and government are 'deplorable,'" he told VICE. "The elites are the people who think: we mustn't say that, we shouldn't go there, that isn't something that will gain you votes."

The Out of Touch

While Hartt explained that he doesn't agree it's disingenuous for a financially privileged person to rally against the so-called elite, he still doesn't like the term. He pointed to a phrase former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney often used—'The chattering classes, meaning the people who get together for symposiums and you see them on CPAC all the time," he said.

"They sit and they listen to each other spout nostrums about the general direction in which the economy is going to go and this policy and that policy and how the election south of the border will make a difference and they talk to each other in terms that are intellectual and respectful and they basically recycle the same ideas," he added.

According to Waddell, this perception that politicians, academics, reporters, and pundits, are all living in some kind of detached reality from the concerns of the average person gives politicians an easy campaign strategy.

"You need to vote for me because I understand your issues and I understand your concerns and I can represent them and be sure that something is going to happen to benefit you," he said.

Whoever You Want Elites to Be

While the politicians using the term can throw these definitions around, ultimately the term is used so often because it can have so many definitions and can mean whatever the voter wants it to mean.

"It's a game being played by politicians to try to make the suggestion to voters ... that somehow they're with them rather than the people who have been in charge of the system," Waddell said. "It also plays to an idea of there being conspiracies and conspiracy theories which really most conspiracy theories are not really worth very much."

That game can have particularly damaging consequences when it stokes fears of some lurking other, a boogeyman threatening your safety and livelihood. Exit polls after the US election showed it wasn't just working class economic anxiety that drove people to vote for Donald Trump as many initially assumed; It was whiteness and the promise of protecting white supremacy that fuelled the upset win. If a candidate can find a single scapegoat for all of the electorate's problems and say they'll eliminate that using language they understand, voters will listen no matter how poisonous the language is.

They soon realise, of course, the world is much more complicated than that. While this kind of rhetoric may help a politician more popular during election season, Waddell says it's likely they'll be set up for failure by the time they actually reach office. Realistically if you promise some kind of sweeping systemic overhaul and are given a mandate for only four years, there's little you'll actually be able to accomplish. Both Waddell and Hartt point to Trump's successful election win followed by very quick backpedalling on key campaign promises and appointing Washington insiders to influential roles after promising to "drain the swamp." A similar scenario is playing out in Britain, where politicians are finding the Brexit will likely be much more complicated than the quick snip from Europe they promised it would be in their campaigning.

While Brexit and the US election were stoking xenophobic disquiet, Canadians boast of a popular left-of-centre prime minister and government. And yet the morning of Nov. 9, Leitch shared a memo calling Donald Trump's message of rallying against elites "exciting."

Us vs. "them" politics has worked all too well over the past half-decade—Rob Ford, Brexit, Trump—and Hartt says there's little reason to think it can't work on the federal level in Canada either.

Follow Cassie Aylward on Twitter.

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