Anne Applebaum takes on the topic of anti-elitism in the Washington Post today, and gets it exactly wrong. While it may be true that the view of what constitutes the elite has changed a bit over the years, the constant has been that those who wish to be part of the elite value credentials, while those who deride the idea of elitism believe in accomplishment.
Take Applebaum’s assertion that affirmative action expanded the “meritocracy.” To the contrary, the opening of Ivy League doors through affirmative action is, instead, expressive of a Wizard of Oz view that all you need to prove you are smart – indeed, to actually be smart - is a fancy piece of paper. Recall, the Scarecrow does not receive a brain at all, he only gets a diploma. Affirmative action only replaced the old legacy system with a different system, but one which still enables the elites to choose their own successors. They are the Wizards of Oz, deciding which hapless Scarecrows shall be deemed worthy of their diploma – their mark of approved intelligence.
The outcry against elitism was never against education per se, or even against particular schools. "Yale" and "Harvard" are figures of speech to the meritocrats, while "University of Idaho" and "community college" are evidence to the elites.
It is important to note that Yale and Harvard, while used as symbols of elitism to those who deride the elite, are equally marks of superiority to those who consider themselves to be the elite. The difference between the two is that meritocrats believe you go to Harvard or Yale because you are smart; the elites believe you are smart because you went to Harvard or Yale. The university names become figures of speech not to question the educational merits of the institutions themselves, but to mock the shallow credentialism that they too often represent.
Recall, as Applebaum points out, that Clarence Thomas graduated from Yale Law. Yet Tea Party activists never decry Thomas’s elitism. At the same time, the left sniffs derisively that he got there by affirmative action. In other words, he ought to be grateful to have had his empty Scarecrow head bestowed with this honor.
George W. Bush must cause the greatest distress for all. A third generation national political figure, scion of East Coast wealth and a graduate of both Yale and Harvard, he was nevertheless derided as an idiot by the elite. Because, you see, he only got in under the old rules for "legacies," not the new rules for today's favored groups.
The reason some (like Applebaum, apparently) get so confused by criticisms of the elite, is that they are so completely caught up in their own credentialism fetish. It isn’t about the school you attended. When Christine O’Donnell says “Yale” it’s just a figure of speech.
To the elites, though, there are no figures of speech, and even if there were, Yale and Harvard could not possibly be “just words.”