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Anti-Democratic Elitism

Privileged White "progressives" have historically demonstrated contempt for the general public and for democracy, attempting to impose their own social vision by pre-empting others' choices.

October 7, 2023

In “The Failure of Progressive Movements,” David Leonhardt of the New York Times observed that movements such as “Occupy Wall Street” and “Black Lives Matter” have fallen far short of their stated goals and have achieved little systemic change.[1] Economic educator Julian Adorney wrote in the essay “Why Are Progressives So Elitist?” that such movements, overwhelmingly dominated by privileged white leftists, are “woefully out of touch” with those they claim to want to “help.”[2] Adorney cites research that African-Americans and Hispanics overwhelmingly disapprove of leftist initiatives to “defund the police” and of race-based “affirmative action” policies, among others. One study found that progressive activists are 80% white, only 3% African-American, and more likely than members of any other political group to earn over $100,000 annually.[3]

African-American economist and Stanford fellow Thomas Sowell similarly observed that overwhelmingly white elites have attempted to impose their “solutions” while pre-empting others’ freedom to choose, and that the policies pushed by radical activist groups are starkly at odds with the concerns and opinions of regular African-Americans and with broader society. These “solutions,” Sowell noted, have typically been grounded in social visions which proponents push axiomatically as societal mandates without empirical evidence of their efficacy and impervious to contrary evidence. He observed that elites in academia, the media, law, administrative agencies, and elsewhere typically pay no cost for being wrong, despite often catastrophic consequences to many others.

While ironically claiming to promote “democracy,” privileged elites have arrogated power to themselves as surrogate decision-makers while undermining individual freedoms. The claim of elites to speak or act on behalf of the masses has been used as a pretense to seek or wield power. Professedly egalitarian “progressive” systems have virtually always been controlled or directed by a privileged elite.

The Messiah Complex

US Climate Envoy, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate John Kerry told delegates at a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos that an "extra terrestrial" force brought them together to "save the planet:"

  • "When you start to think about it, it's pretty extraordinary that we — select group of human beings because of whatever touched us at some point in our lives — are able to sit in a room and come together and actually talk about saving the planet. I mean, it's so almost extraterrestrial to think about ‘saving the planet.’...really, that's where we are."[4]

Even the left-leaning Daily Mail (UK) characterized Kerry’s remarks as “bizzare.” While acknowledging the importance of bona fide sustainable climate policies, there is little evidence that costly political schemes have led to sustainable results rather than symbolic talking points. Nor is there any basis for privileging alarmist agendas to pre-empt others' basic human rights. 

Yet Kerry’s sense of specialness and entitlement to impose an agenda on society is scarcely an outlier among the progressive elite. Nor are “Messiah Complex” delusions benign in their human cost. The U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee found that while engaging in secret negotiations with foreign governments, “Kerry downplayed the CCP’s human rights violationsand its antagonism against the U.S. while promoting climate negotiations that the CCP does not even appear interested in entering.”[5] Human rights groups have expressed alarm at the U.S. elites’ inaction towards egregious human rights abuses by China, Iran, Russia, and other nations, instead offering massive concessions for climate talks with elusive results.[7] Yet vast sufferings of the many have been of little concern to the elite in comparison to the implementation of their social vision.

The Elitist Vision

The high self-opinion of the self-anointed “progressive” elite and belief that they are better than others goes back centuries. In Social Justice Fallacies, Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “To [eighteenth century philosopher William] Godwin, explicitly articulated reason was the source of knowledge and understanding. In this way, ‘just views of society’ in the minds of ‘the liberally educated and reflecting members’ of society will enable them to be “to the people guides and instructors.”

  • “A similar role for the intellectual elite appeared later in the nineteenth century writings of John Stuart Mill. Although Mill saw the population at large as having more knowledge than the government, he also saw the population as needing the guidance of elite intellectuals. As he said in On Liberty, democracy can rise above mediocrity, only where ‘the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.’ Mill depicted these intellectual elites— ‘the best and wisest,’ the ‘thinking minds,’ ‘the most cultivated intellects in the country,’ ‘those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling’— as ‘the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.’”[7]

Yet Sowell notes, the intellectual elites are not those who have made societies great strides forward. Substantive human progress has overwhelmingly been made through the achievements of those with practical knowledge, rather than the intellectual class which produces primarily ideas:

  • “[The] industrial revolution was led by men with practical experience in industry, rather than intellectual or scientific education. Among Americans as well, even revolutionary industrial giants like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford had very little formal schooling, and the first airplane to lift off the ground with a human being on board was invented by two bicycle mechanics— the Wright brothers— who never finished high school.”

  • “Nevertheless, John Stuart Mill’s vision of the indispensable role of intellectuals in human progress has been one shared by many intellectuals over the centuries. These have included intellectuals leading crusades for more economic equality, based ironically on assumptions of their own superiority. Rousseau said in the eighteenth century that he considered it ‘the best and most natural arrangement for the wisest to govern the multitude.’ Variations on this theme have marked such movements against economic inequality as Marxism, Fabian socialism, Progressivism and social justice activism.”[8]

Elitist Contempt for the Public

The purportedly enlightened elite, including proponents of so-called progressive or social justice movements, have often expressed deep contempt for the general public, especially those who do not share their vision. Expressions of animus towards the public they claim to “help” dates back centuries. In Social Justice Fallacies, Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “[Leftist philosopher Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, despite his emphasis on society being guided by ‘the general will,’ left the interpretation of that will to elites. He likened the masses of the people to ‘a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.’ Others on the eighteenth-century left, such as William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, expressed similar contempt for the masses. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx said, ‘The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.’ In other words, millions of fellow human beings mattered only if they carried out the Marxian vision.

  • “Fabian socialist pioneer George Bernard Shaw regarded the working class as being among the ‘detestable’ people who ‘have no right to live.’ He added: ‘I should despair if I did not know that they will all die presently, and that there is no need on earth why they should be replaced by people like themselves.”[9]

These and countless other statements from so-called “progressive” elites convey unmistakably that they are not Albert Schweitzers or Mother Theresas kept awake at night by deep humanitarian concern for the welfare of their fellow man and a burning drive to improve the general welfare. From Rousseau to Marx to contemporary “progressives,” their own statements have often conveyed profound bigotry, hate, and even blatant racism toward others, shallow self-interest, and insufferable conceit. Yet they and others continue to be honored as ideological heroes, immune from the scrutiny of “cancel culture.”

Elites’ contempt for the public contrasts with their supreme confidence regarding the veracity of their own knowledge and opinions, and lack of critical thinking or diversity of thought within the contemporary intellectual vogue:

  • “Such presumptions of omnicompetence have by no means been confined to Nobel laureates. Professor [Milton] Friedman found such beliefs common among prominent individuals and institutions promoting social crusades currently in vogue: I talked to and argued with groups from academia, from the media, from the financial community, from the foundation world, from you name it. I was appalled at what I found. There was an unbelievable degree of intellectual homogeneity, of acceptance of a standard set of views complete with cliché answers to every objection, of smug self-satisfaction at belonging to an in-group.”[10]

Pre-empting Others’ Choice

Elitist contempt for the general public naturally leads to attempts to pre-empt others’ freedom to make their own decisions. Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “In our own times, prominent legal scholar Professor Ronald Dworkin of Oxford University declared that ‘a more equal society is a better society even if its citizens prefer inequality.’ French feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir likewise said, ‘No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.’”[11]

It is a common theme of the elite today that they “know better” than the public, whether in opposing school choice to prevent underprivileged families from taking their children out of underperforming schools, or many other issues. The public, according to many elites, is not allowed to disagree with so-called “experts” – even when the views of cherry-picked partisan “experts” are based on personal agendas and opinions in vogue rather than hard evidence.

“Fatal Conceit”

Dr. Sowell observed:

  • “[Economist] F.A. Hayek regarded the assumptions of crusading intellectuals as The Fatal Conceit— the title of his book on the subject. Although he was a landmark figure in opposition to the presumed superiority of intellectuals as guides or surrogate decision-makers for other people, he was not alone in his opposition to the idea of a presumed concentration of consequential knowledge in intellectual elites. Professor Milton Friedman, another Nobel Prize economist, noted how that honor can lead to assumptions of omnicompetence, by both the public and the recipient: ‘It is a tribute to the worldwide repute of the Nobel awards that the announcement of an award converts its recipient into an instant expert on all and sundry… Needless to say the attention is flattering, but also corrupting.’”[12]

Intellectual Errors

In Intellectuals and Society, Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice, and groupthink—and for those with one percent of the knowledge in a society to be guiding or controlling those with the other 99 percent is as perilous as it is absurd. The difference between special knowledge and mundane knowledge is not simply incidental or semantic. Its social implications are very consequential. For example, it is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires and why so many despots have led their countries into disasters.”[13]

Teflon Prophets

Dr. Sowell refers to the intellectual elite’s “Teflon Prophets,” including environmental alarmist Paul Ehrlich, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and others who have repeatedly made alarmist predictions that have proven to be massively wrong, but who continue to be set forth as credible experts with no accountability for past failures. A contemporary example is Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in a narrow specialization of economics who expounds his wide-ranging extremist opinions in a New York Times column. Each time, these are set forth confidently under the guise of expertise, with no apparent self-insight regarding his voluminous past false claims and predictions. Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “A biographer of [John Maynard] Keynes, a fellow economist who was his contemporary, pointed out another aspect of Keynes’ character that has long been characteristic of some other intellectual elites: He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.”

  • Nobel laureate George J. Stigler stated: “A full collection of public statements signed by laureates whose work gave them not even professional acquaintance with the problem addressed by the statement would be a very large and somewhat depressing collection.” Stigler further referred to “Nobel laureates who issue stern ultimata to the public on almost a monthly basis, and sometimes on no other basis.”[14]

Risks and Dangers

Ill-conceived ideas by “progressive” elites have included social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, communism, and fascism, all in the name of “social justice.” These and other movements have led to the deaths of millions and pose grave dangers to free societies. Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “We have already seen how similar attitudes led genetic determinists in the early twentieth century to casually advocate imprisoning people who had committed no crime, and denying them a normal life, on the basis of unsubstantiated beliefs that were then in vogue in intellectual circles. Given the conception of knowledge prevalent among many elite intellectuals, and the distribution of such knowledge implied by that conception, it is hardly surprising that they reach the kinds of conclusions that they do. Indeed, to make the opposite assumption— that one’s own great achievements and competence are confined to a narrow band, out of the vast spectrum of human concerns— could be a major impediment to promoting social crusades that preempt the decisions of others, who are supposedly to be the beneficiaries of such crusades as the quest for social justice.”[15]


[1] Leonhardt, David. “The Failure of Progressive Movements.” New York Times, September 26, 2023.

The Washington Examiner observed that

[2] Adorney, Julian. “Why Are Progressive Movements So Elitist?” Washington Examiner, October 2, 2023.

[3] Hawkins, Stephen, Daniel Yudkin, Míriam Juan-Torres, Tim Dixon. “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” More in Common, 2018, p. 30-31.

[4] Phillips, Morgan. "Biden's climate envoy John Kerry says an 'extra terrestrial' force brought people to Davos to 'save the planet' in bizarre World Economic Forum speech." The Daily Mail (UK), January 17, 2023.

[5] “Comer Probes John Kerry’s Secret Negotiations as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.” U.S. House Committee on Oversight, February 2, 2023.

[6] Knickmeye, Ellen. “Advocates fear US weighing climate vs. human rights on China.” Associated Press, September 18, 2021.

[7] Sowell, Thomas. Social Justice Fallacies. Basic Books, 2023.

[8] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

[9] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

[10] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

[11] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

[12] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

[13] Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society, Revised and Enlarged Edition. Basic Books, 2012. Kindle Edition, p. 27.

[14] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

[15] Sowell, Social Justice Fallacies, ibid.

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