Elite: Nice adjective, shame about the noun

One of my favourite games these days is Elite: Dangerous, a reboot of the 1980s space simulator Elite. You start off with a rank of Harmless, then progress through various descriptors until you eventually attain the coveted title of Elite. Obviously in this game, elite isn’t just a good thing to be; it’s the best thing to be. Why then, when we examine the rhetoric surrounding the British referendum and Donald Trump’s election campaign, does the word “elite” come over so negatively?

“Elite” seems to be one of those odd words whose sense changes along with its grammar. When it’s applied as an adjective, the sense is overwhelmingly positive. You wouldn’t mind studying at an elite university or an elite music school. If you were a hostage, you would have no objections to being rescued by an elite commando force. You might not want to fly with an elite pilot, but that’s only because he might go all Top Gun on you. And of course for a long time in geeky subcultures, 1337 was the thing to be.

When I think of “elite” as a singular noun rather than an adjective, I tend to think sociology or political science, though I could just have read too many of certain kinds of articles. (It was apparently Vilfredo Pareto, of 80/20 fame, that first used the term in a political context.) The word is particularly common when writing about post-colonial politics, where the “urban elite” are the descendants of colonial-era functionaries, national liberationists or both. They dominate the state apparatus, national culture and business. This doesn’t make them bad people, of course, but there is a critical edge to the description; they are assumed to be out of touch with the rural population and the urban poor.

Next, the word started getting other words tagged on to it to give us compounds like “liberal elite” and “Hollywood elite”. The discourse shifts from left-wing academics to right-wing talk radio hosts, and not surprisingly it gets nasty in the process. The sense of being chosen because of your ability has diminished, and the word is used more like “clique” or “cabal”. Rather than meaning that someone is in a certain group because they’re outstandingly good at something, it means they have certain privileges as a result of being in with the right people and mouthing the right (“politically correct”) opinions.

Finally, the word morphs into a plural and becomes “elites”. These elites, we are told, are to blame for everything that is wrong with the US and UK. They are the people Trump despises and the people that get blamed for Trump’s existence. The Brexit campaign targeted them, and the left-wing opponents of Brexit blamed them for Brexit. As populism spun out of control, it even became a crime to know what you were talking about, hence Michael Gove’s infamous comment “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” (Incidentally, they haven’t — a MORI poll showed that academics came second only to “friends and family” on who to trust about the referendum). To be one of these elites is to be hated by both the left, who smell privilege, and the right, who hate the idea that brains might trump money (no pun intended).

Although I don’t subscribe to the view that the original meaning of words is somehow truer than the way they’re used today, I got curious and looked up the etymology of “elite”. It’s from medieval French, and simply means someone who has been elected to a post. So in an ironic sense, once populists like Trump win, they automatically become elite.