Some Elitist Views Are Pretty Popular

The leadership class isn't a unified bloc. It is made up of factions, many of which draw support from populists.

They don't make them like they used to.

Photographer: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

One popular narrative about Brexit is that it’s a rebellion of the masses against the elites. If you ask me, that seems like a strange way to characterize a vote that was 51 percent to 48 percent. But again and again I’ve read this take, in right-leaning magazines such as the  National Review, business publications like Forbes, and left-leaning outlets like the American Prospect and Huffington Post. The most popular version of the argument is that elites have created a global economy that works for them, but not for the masses -- at least, in developed countries.

That’s certainly plausible. After all, during the past few decades, the benefits of global growth have gone mostly to poor countries and to the rich, leaving behind the middle classes in places like Europe and the U.S.  And in places like Michigan, manufacturing job losses -- some of which were caused by trade with China -- are correlated with support for Republican Donald Trump, whose presidential candidacy is sometimes portrayed as an anti-elite uprising similar to the British vote to leave the European Union.

So it seems likely that anger over the hollowing out of developed-country middle classes is at least one factor behind political upheavals like Brexit, or the support for insurgent candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders. Still, I think the people-versus-elites framing isn't very useful.

First, the numbers don’t support the narrative of a populist wave. The Brexit vote was very close and it's possible a more effective "remain" campaign would have led to a different result. In the U.S., Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won many more votes than her populist rival, Sanders -- about 3 million more, by some estimates, out of a total of about 24 million Democratic primary votes cast. That’s a comfortable margin. Now, Clinton is solidly ahead of Trump in the national polls, and Trump is dramatically underperforming Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 numbers in most red states.

So why are the elites more popular than the populists? Sanders supporters might say that Clinton supporters have been hoodwinked by advertising, paid for with campaign contributions from big financial companies. But Sanders outspent Clinton during the primary race, and lost anyway. As for Trump, his divisive rhetoric has alienated so many segments of the American people -- blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and others -- that his claim to be a populist is on shaky ground in any case.

It’s true that most of Britain’s elites thought Brexit was a bad idea. But so did plenty of the U.K.’s regular, non-elite citizens. It’s a logical fallacy to think that just because elites support one side, anyone who supports that side must be an elite. Elites also are surely against global thermonuclear war -- but that doesn’t mean a pro-Armageddon campaign would be populist by definition!

But actually, there’s a deeper reason why the elites-versus-the people story doesn’t sit well with me. The “elite” isn’t a single unified bloc. There are many different kinds of elites. Politicians, bureaucrats, wealthy businesspeople, corporate managers, financiers, academics and media personalities can all be labeled elites. But there are huge fissures and rivalries both within and between these groups. They are almost never in broad agreement on any issue -- Brexit was the exception, not the rule.

That’s why it’s a little funny how everyone in the U.S. is now scrambling to paint their side as the true standard-bearer of anti-elite populism. By picking the right group of elites, anyone can make this claim. For example, David Dayen of the liberal New Republic thinks of the elite as rich people grabbing all the gains from an unrestrained free market:

Over the past decade, elites broke the world…They created the conditions for the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, and made sure that their elite friends at the top would scoop up the post-crisis gains…They decided their project of globalization and [economic] liberalization mattered more than democracy. Brexit is among the first tangible responses.

Meanwhile, Victor Davis Hanson of the conservative National Review thinks of the elite as bureaucrats trying to stifle free markets with redistribution and regulation:

The rage also arises from the hypocrisy of a governing elite that never seems to be subject to the ramifications of its own top-down policies. The bureaucratic class that runs Europe from Brussels and Strasbourg too often lectures European voters on climate change, immigration, politically correct attitudes about diversity, and the constant need for more bureaucracy, more regulations, and more redistributive taxes.

In one sense, they’re both right -- some elites are more pro-market, others favor more government control. But that doesn’t mean either of these writers, or their publications, represents the masses as a whole. In fact, each one sides with one portion of the common people and one portion of a divided elite.

It’s understandable that everyone wants to make political hay from the shock of Brexit. And it makes sense that in a world divided into a tiny, arrogant elite versus an angry mob, that most people would want to be on the side of those waving the rakes and pitchforks. Nobody, after all, wants to end up on the guillotine.

But we are not living through the French Revolution. It's true that the middle classes of the developed nations have endured some economic setbacks in the age of globalization. But instead of a single, unified aristocracy scoffing “Let them eat cake,” what we have now is a divided elite, with many different prescriptions for reversing the damage. Some elites want free markets. Others want more redistribution. Some want to keep out immigrants. Others want to let more in. There are no easy answers to the challenges of the modern global economy, even for the smartest elites or the most passionate mob.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.