President Joe Biden has been an elected official for more than 50 years, and has a law degree, a multimillion dollar vacation home and a net worth estimated at $10 million. But on Monday, he complained on a national TV show about the “elites” trying to convince him to drop out of the presidential race.

“I’m getting so frustrated by the elites — now I’m not talking about you guys — the elites in the party, ‘Oh, they know so much more.’ Any of these guys that don’t think I should run, run against me. Announce for president, challenge me at the convention,” Biden said to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.”

On one hand, the remark was in keeping with a long-standing image that Biden has cultivated for himself, emphasizing his working-class roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and repeatedly calling himself “one of the poorest men in government” — a statement that PolitiFact rated as “mostly true” in 2019, although it’s been reported that he has made millions in the years since then.

Still, it was jarring to hear those words coming from someone as entrenched in the political establishment as Biden is, having been elected to Congress in 1972, the year that Richard Nixon beat George McGovern. Biden’s use of the “e” word has prompted comparisons to his opponent, former President Donald Trump, with one headline saying that Biden had gone “full Trump.”

So, who, exactly, is an elite?

It’s a word that is bandied about casually, as if everyone knows the definition as plainly as they know what the words “apple” or “car” represent. Yet there are sharply different meanings attached to the word in different contexts. “Elite athletes” or “elite performers” are widely admired, while the “cultural elite” or “ruling elite” are often spoken of with disdain, sometimes by people whose resumes and bank accounts would seem to qualify them for the label.

In her new book “Second Class,” Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon defines elites as the top 20% of wage earners — both Biden and Trump would certainly qualify by this standard. Ungar-Sargon told Deseret’s Suzanne Bates, “The data shows the reason the elites don’t realize they’re elite is because they don’t think of themselves as rich. There’s a lot of class resentment in the top 20%, top 10% toward the billionaire class — they love to rail against the billionaires.”

Being an elite, however, isn’t just about wealth; Ungar-Sargon says that a college degree is the bright line that divides social classes in America. And even more, it’s about having power.

In his 1956 book “The Power Elite,” the late sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote that three groups comprised the powerful elite — military officers, owners and leaders of major corporations, and high-ranking political leaders. These groups were “commanders of power unequaled in human history” because they were interconnected, Mills said.

Since then, however, elite status in America has been conferred on the media, academia and Hollywood — groups that are seen as wielding power over the culture at large. There is also an element of geography among the powerful — there are “Beltway elites” and “coastal elites” whose values often differ from those who live in other parts of the country.

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In his 1995 book “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” historian Christopher Lasch argued that American elites were “dangerously isolated” from much of America and had come to believe that they had more in common with their counterparts overseas than with their fellow Americans in, say, the heartland. The elites’ disdain of their fellow Americans was matched and raised by the disdained, leading to our current culture in which elite-bashing has become something of a blood sport.

The elites to which Biden was referring, however, goes beyond the definitions of the elite that have been given to us in books and headlines on Fox News, and they are more evocative of a word with sinister connotations: cabal.

In this definition, there is a club-level feel to elites, the sense that important decisions are being made out of sight, in places that aren’t accessible to ordinary people. The sense that decisions affecting us don’t include us. It is the stuff of conspiracy theories, but also how the world often works — from parents who make decisions affecting their children after the kids are asleep, to adult children who gather in secret to figure out how to tell an elderly parent that they can’t drive anymore.

To Democrats who are genuinely worried that the president can’t effectively communicate the party’s message in a crucial campaign.


It’s worth noting, too, that while Biden groused about “elites in the party,” it’s not just an array of Democrats saying he shouldn’t run, but a chorus of media outlets once friendly to him, including The New York Times, The Economist, The New Yorker and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And a smattering of “Hollywood elites,” too, for that matter.

James Carville doesn’t look or sound like an elite, making the rounds of cable news shows this week to urge Democrats to move on from Biden, with his trademark baseball cap and thick Louisiana accent. Maybe Barack Obama or some shadowy, unnamed, big-money donors more fit the part. But in the end, for most of us, an “elite” is just someone we’re not, someone we can’t get on the phone no matter how hard we try, and yes, like Biden said, someone who thinks they know more than us.

Humility requires that we acknowledge the possibility that they might indeed know more than us.

But there is a gratifying takeaway from all the “elite” discourse this week, and also the publication of Fredrik deBoer’s book “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement” last year. Elite bashing — it’s not just for conservatives anymore.

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