Hatred of “elitism,” with its inherent suspicion of anything that seems to imply a standard of human superiority, follows inevitably from long immersion in political and moral egalitarianism. Democracy, the political product of the principle of equality run amok, is the fertile soil of egalitarianism’s most spiritually invasive weeds, gradually fostering a general, almost instinctive anti-elitism. In practice, this anti-elitism constitutes a most destructive example of throwing out the baby with the bath, as it entails a distrust and disdain not merely for illegitimate authority or false claims of superiority — a disdain shared by genuine “elites” from Plato to Paine — but in principle for all manifestations of human “betterness”: for lofty thinking, for immaterial and long-range goals, for the love of beautiful and impractical things, and, in general, for evidence of spiritual excellence and a nobler way of life.
The human need for objects of admiration, sources of guidance, and models for living is innate and inextricable, as is obvious from the most cursory observation of every child’s imitative attitude toward his parents and older siblings. Imitation, contrary to the assumptions of modern scientific materialism, is never merely the mechanical repetition of what one sees, as though there could be actions without motives. Imitation is nature’s most basic education method, and in fact the most basic and universal expression of the life principle itself: the incomplete creature’s desire for being. Children — and of course adults as well — imitate what they desire to be. More directly stated, imitation is nothing but a behavioral expression of desire.
Deprived of permissible objects of admiration by egalitarianism’s continuous rhetorical assault on “elitism,” and the resulting rejection of the salutary humility imposed by the awareness of a spiritual aristocracy, in favor of the ego-comforting democratic relativism of “self-esteem,” “authenticity,” and “lifestyle choices,” the natural human need for something to imitate or admire seeks its paltry substitute in the shallow pool of egalitarianism’s one viable stand-in for genuine excellence: “success.” For success, understood in democratic terms, means preeminence in those areas that egalitarianism can appreciate: money, popularity, youthfulness, sexuality, and of course the most virulent expressions of anti-elitism itself. These are the categories in which one is permitted to excel in an egalitarian world, and according to which people may, without incurring a charge of elitism, be judged as “better” than others, for the simple reason that these apparent goods — unlike the true goods that distinguish the genuinely superior soul — are nothing but various certifications of social acceptance. That is, in the democratic world the mediocre mass of “equals” demands the right to choose its own “best men,” by way of popular vote. Therefore, predictably and characteristically, they elevate to revered status precisely those individuals who make themselves most pleasing to the crowd — almost the definitional opposite of any classical account of “best men,” who would typically, by virtue of their intrinsically abnormal forms of excellence, be largely incomprehensible to the crowd, and therefore incapable of being judged on any standard of social acceptance, i.e., any democratic standard. Egalitarianism, being loath to admit a standard of human life higher than popular consensus, implicitly rejects any such higher standard.
Hence the democratic substitution of the wealthy for the wise, of the indignant rashness of youth for the sober skepticism and irony of the learned, of the pop star for the priest. Thus, the right idolizes greed, technical efficiency, and mindless displays of physical prowess, while the left idolizes the “passion” of the activist, the smug self-certainty of the scientific “expert,” and the nihilistic self-absorption of the sexual deviant. Meanwhile, both sides fetishize their drugs of choice, with which they actively assist the democratic regime’s own elite in its efforts to weaken both reason and desire among the general population, in the name of suffocating real exceptionalism and curtailing the kind of patient, disciplined obsession required of the highest kind of life.
Consider how easy it is today for every snarky teenager to mock and belittle his grandmother for regarding her bland parish priest with reverence, even as that same teenager and his “friends” spend six hours a day at the shrine of mindless corporate products with dyed hair and garish make-up singing computer-generated jingles about adolescent sexual drives or pre-adolescent progressive slogans. Or how easy it is for every professional crank of the Christopher Hitchens sort to bluster against the irrationality of religion, while spending his own entire adult life in thrall to the two most transparently ludicrous of all materialist religions, intoxication (whether by alcohol or other drugs) and Marxism.
Consider how much power and status is granted in democratic society to the most successful businessmen, no matter how trivial or socially worthless their products, as though the mere fact of their having struck it rich — often by exploiting ordinary people’s emotional weaknesses and gullibility — is evidence of great intelligence, or even, most absurdly, of political insight. Or how much satisfaction our age derives from every instance of a young person spewing self-righteous anger at “the wealthy” or “the older generation,” as though every teenage activist spouting the establishment-prescribed propaganda, or every cynical pop singer ringing the cash register by pretending to be a poet of the anti-capitalist revolution, deserves more respect and adherence than James Madison or Dante Alighieri.
Anti-elitism in all its forms is a democratic illness, one which is actively fostered by the democratic world’s own “elites,” those patronizing profligates of power and progressivism who have supplanted a nobler, more rational world’s standards of a natural and truly human elite: the holy man, the thinker or sage, the world-changing artist, the soul-elevating teacher, the great warrior-hero, the political founder. Working the angles, playing the crowd, raking in the cash, spraying indignation at past norms and old virtues, being “a hit” — these various forms of petty self-seeking and pandering to the irrational mob have barged onto the stage of late modern life, shamelessly pushing aside so much of what a society most needs if it is to grow in civility, freedom, and self-knowledge.
The instinct of democratic modernity, when faced with perplexing questions or spiritual challenges, is invariably to respond by denying the existence of truth and the soul, i.e., hiding from the difficult. But the fact that so many men who elevate themselves to the top of the heap are illegitimate and false is no rational grounds for denying the possibility of the legitimate and true. And falling into this democratic error, egalitarian relativism, only ensures that the illegitimate and false will continue to reign unchallenged — and worse, that today’s young, desperate for something solid and cosmically meaningful to imitate, will be left instead only with ephemeral idols and the aimless “authenticity” of cynical nihilism.