The Dual Legitimation Crisis: Elitism, Populism, and Political Power


Because liberal Western democracies are ostensibly rooted in the theory of popular sovereignty, elite disdain for the people creates another legitimation crisis—one that many fail to recognize. It is not simply that the people have lost confidence in the elites and their governance, or that the elites struggle to speak for (and even to) the people. Disdain for the people also unmoors elite authority.

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The liberal democratic West is experiencing a legitimation crisis. There is little popular faith that those controlling government and important institutions deserve their power or that they use it for the common good.

The symptoms are varied: Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the successes of post-liberal popular governments in Poland and Hungary, and the rise of formerly fringe political parties throughout Europe. Each much-discussed case reveals an extensive loss of confidence in Western elites and challenges to the legitimacy of their power, influence, and status.

But this legitimation crisis cuts both ways. Just as the people question the legitimacy of elite governance, so too do many elites question the idea that the legitimate exercise of political power should be grounded in the consent of the people.

The Rise of Today’s Cultural Elites

This is a culmination of trends that American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch noted in The Revolt of the Elites, published in the mid-’90s. According to Lasch, the developing elite class was composed of “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate.” They are supported by many middle-class professionals who, like the shabbily genteel of the nineteenth century, are often most insistent on preserving class distinctions. What members of the elite and professional classes have in common is that their “livelihoods rest not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise. Their investment in education and information, as opposed to property, distinguishes them from the rich bourgeoisie.” Lasch argued that the new elite class wanted to separate itself, and it increasingly has, clustering in so-called super-zips, mostly near coastal cities.

However, they have also become more ideologically homogeneous since Lasch’s time, and now they mean to rule. It is not enough that same-sex marriage is legally recognized; every wedding vendor, no matter how small-time or small-town, must be compelled to participate in promoting and celebrating same-sex weddings. It is not enough for contraception to be legal, easily available, and often subsidized; elderly nuns must be forced to facilitate its disbursement. They tried to mandate that every school district in the nation allow males to share bathrooms, locker rooms, and hotel rooms with girls. And they are not just using government power to accomplish their goals. The behemoths of corporate America are increasingly aggressive in pushing a left-wing social agenda.

These uncompromising efforts are rooted in disdain for opposing viewpoints. A representative example is the declaration by Ben Smith of Buzzfeed that there are not two sides to issues such as same-sex marriage. The views of those who oppose same-sex marriage are fundamentally illegitimate and may be ignored. Smith, a leader in new media, simply said openly what many in older media outlets quietly believe: certain positions are irrational, explicable only by ignorance or bigotry, and those who hold them may therefore be dismissed as foolish, morally depraved, or both.

Bolstering this contempt for contrary opinions is the confidence of the elites that their status is deserved. In an essay in First Things, Patrick Deneen argues that the elite classes in our society use their ostensible concern for inequality to mask their privilege and defend their social position. Comparing them to the French aristocracy of the ancien régime, he writes: “much like those who took for granted the naturalness of political arrangements during the medieval ages, today’s elites seldom subject their meritocratic justifications of their status and position to the same skepticism.” No matter how critical our elites may be of historical forms of privilege, they presume that their own status is deserved.

And there is a corollary to this. Except for particular historically oppressed classes that the elites have taken on as clients, those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder deserve to be where they are, too. As Deneen observes,

If elites largely regard their social status, wealth, and position as the result of their own efforts and work (and certainly not of birth or inheritance), then those who remain in the lower classes have, by the same logic, chosen to remain in such a condition.

Because liberal Western democracies are ostensibly rooted in the theory of popular sovereignty, elite disdain for the people creates another legitimation crisis—one that many fail to recognize. It is not simply that the people have lost confidence in the elites and their governance, or that the elites struggle to speak for (and even to) the people. Disdain for the people also unmoors elite authority.

Not Popular Sovereignty—Rule by the Strong

Elites have to justify their rule not only to the people, but also to themselves. But their increasing contempt for the populace undermines what liberal Western democracies consider to be the source of their authority: the sovereignty of the people. At the level of theory, Western elites increasingly reject the authority of the people, many of whom they consider to be intellectually benighted, culturally backward, and morally grotesque. Politically, perhaps no one reveals this contempt more than Hillary Clinton, who has not bothered to hide her loathing for those who did not support her.

If elites reject the authority of the people and no longer claim to govern on their behalf, how can they legitimate their rule? Their answer seems to be by appealing to their own superiority—moral, intellectual, and cultural. The sneering disdain for ordinary persons that Western elites and their supporters increasingly display is tied to this aspect of the legitimation crisis. They believe that they deserve to rule not because they represent the people, but because they are better than the people, as demonstrated by their status and their (mostly rhetorical) solicitude for client groups they identify as historically oppressed.

This justification is self-reinforcing. Elites’ belief in their own moral superiority causes them to lose confidence in the people, and their loss of confidence in, and increasing disdain for, the people necessitates an even firmer belief in elite superiority to justify their power and status. This attitude is passed down to those who support elite policies and mimic elite culture. For example, Jon Stewart and his many imitators throve on encouraging a sense of smug superiority among the elite and its supporting classes, especially in media, education, and entertainment.

We are witnessing the rise of a new theory of political sovereignty, or the resurrection of a very old one: rule by the strong, justified by their supposed superiority.

It is revealing that this new basis for sovereignty is largely unnecessary. While the elite claim to concern for the common good has weakened, they can still claim many electoral victories over their populist challengers. There is still substantial political support for elites, which is magnified by their outsized power and influence throughout institutions like the academy and the media. But the shock of successful challenges to the elite consensus seems to have unnerved them enough to look for a new source to legitimate their power, and they have settled on the flattering supposition that their natural superiority entitles them to rule.

Not coincidentally, this frees them from accountability and responsibility toward those they govern, especially their populist opponents. Elites and their allies have become comfortable deeming certain views fundamentally illegitimate, even if the majority of the people hold these views. On some issues, there is to be no debate. If the popular will turns against them, then the popular will is not just wrong (which every political minority must believe), but illegitimate as a source of political authority.

Populist Backlash

This disrespect has understandably fueled a populist backlash. Writing in the Washington Post, Megan McArdle observes, “What most consistently motivates the Trump supporters I’ve met is not jobs or racism but anger at a culturally powerful elite that veers between ignoring them and disrespecting every facet of their lives.” And populist movements—whether of the right, the left, or the radical center—can be ugly. However, elites could defuse their worst impulses by addressing the reasonable concerns that give rise to them, rather than suppressing them or dismissing them as beyond the pale.

A case in point is the way European elites have treated all criticism of their preferred immigration policies as illegitimate. This attitude culminated in the German chancellor’s unilateral decision to remake the population of Europe. The repercussions have staggered the European order and may yet shatter it, but the European elite still cling to their belief that opposition to their immigration policies was fundamentally irrational, motivated by racism and xenophobia, and therefore unworthy of being heard. This dismissive response to popular concerns has fueled the rise of populist parties and movements, which in turn intensifies elite efforts to reground political legitimacy in themselves.

Similar dynamics can be seen in the escalating elite hostility to the bedrock liberties of political liberalism, such as the freedoms of speech, religion, and association, all of which elites increasingly see as enablers of bigotry that must be carefully limited. Thus, free speech is limited to prevent “hate speech,” and protections of religious liberty are dismissed as a “license to discriminate.” To defend the liberal order that they dominate, Western elites become illiberal in both theory and practice. Whatever commitment they had to liberalism was weaker than their commitment to their own power and status. And so, just as the people question the legitimacy of elite authority, the elites question the legitimacy of popular sovereignty, preferring a polity grounded in their own supposed superiority and expertise.

In the United States, this is perhaps most pronounced and persistent in our legal system, where the dominant legal theories elevate elite opinion above statutory law and even the Constitution. The words of the law mean what the legal elite want them to mean. For example, there are many different views of what constitutes human dignity. However, when judges and legal theorists discover a right to dignity lurking, unwritten, in the Constitution, they mean dignity as understood by the latest elite fads, not dignity as, say, a tradition-minded Catholic philosopher would understand it. When judges interpret the Constitution through the lens of “evolving standards of decency,” they mean evolving elite standards, not the populace’s standards, or those of dissenting scholars who disagree with the elite consensus.

When rights to same-sex marriage and abortion were favored by elite opinion, they were found lurking in the Constitution. If enumerated rights are out of step with elite views, grounds will be found to limit them. If the elites want sex to mean sexual orientation or even gender identity, it will. From judicial opinions to law review articles, elite legal writing attempts to obscure this exercise of raw power, covering it with a counterfeit patina of legitimacy. But the reality is unmistakable, and it has become the model for elite rule.

For our elites, who fancy themselves sovereign by virtue of their superiority: La loi, c’est moi.

Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

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