Opinion

Why Is Elite Kellie Leitch Railing against Elites?

It’s odd, since any elected politician is by definition a member of that class.

By Crawford Kilian 18 Nov 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is explicitly running against “elites,” who have become a target of choice for right-wing politicians both here and in the U.S. It’s a bit odd, since any elected politician is by definition a member of the elite. It’s also odd that she wants to create an elite of immigrants who endorse what she defines as “Canadian values.”

“Elite” is an old word, and it now has two rather contradictory meanings. One meaning stems from the Latin word eligere, meaning to choose or elect. In this sense it means a small group chosen for its talents and skills. A basketball coach uses her training and experience to choose her best players for a crucial game; they are the team’s elite. (And the rest of the team likely made the cut against some who didn’t.)

In this sense, every single elected and appointed official in any jurisdiction is a member of the elite. Voters, after all, choose their officials just as coaches choose their best players. To become a member of the political elite is the whole point of running for office, whatever one’s personal background. And one’s elite status, whether municipal councillor, MP, Supreme Court justice, or basketball player, depends on someone else’s choice. Fail to perform to that person’s standards, and you’re out of the game and out of the elite.

A self-chosen elite

The other meaning is far more negative, and traces at least back to the American sociologist C. Wright Mills; in 1956 he published The Power Elite, an analysis of U.S. decision makers after the Second World War.

The members of this elite, Mills argued, have relatively easy access to power through their personal connections. They go to the same prep schools, room together at top universities, and find entry-level jobs in the firms and agencies run by their friends’ fathers.

In effect, this elite chooses itself. Most of its members disappear into corporate management, finance, law, and government bureaucracy. They may provide discreet support for the comparative handful who go into the public life of politics.

Such power elites are porous. A talented outsider may sometimes gain access, like Bill Clinton through admission to Yale Law School, and Barack Obama through admission to Columbia. As long as they don’t seriously challenge the status quo, they can rise as high as they like — creating useful connections for their own children, and sometimes forming formidable political dynasties like the Bushes and Kennedys. They then retire to the corporate elite.

With such an attractive career path, it is no wonder so many ambitious people seek office — including, of course, Kellie Leitch. So it’s baffling that she should want to throw out the elite of which she herself is a notable member.

Well, that contradiction didn’t stop billionaire Donald Trump and many long-entrenched elite Republicans from attacking U.S. political elites. They know that “elites” are defined by many voters as “politicians who never pay any attention to us.”

Blaming elites is also a way of personalizing the vast forces that have imposed stagnant incomes and job insecurity on so many North Americans for over 30 years. With the victory of Donald Trump, anti-elitism looks like a winner and supposed elites like the Democrats look like losers.

So Kellie Leitch (MD University of Toronto 1994, MBA Dalhousie 1998, first elected to Parliament 2010) is using anti-elitism as a new peg in her campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party. As she said in her campaign launch speech in October:

“Violence and misogyny are not Canadian values and will not be tolerated. Hate speech will not be tolerated. Mental or any other form of abuse will not be tolerated. On this we all agree. It’s the next part of the conversation that has been particularly troubling to the mainstream media, the Ottawa bubble, the Liberals and even some Conservatives. The world has changed dramatically in the last 30 years and especially in the last 15 years. The world is a much more dangerous place. The values that we hold dear in Canada are not those that are held dear around the entire world. And those who disagree with our values are willing to go to greater and greater lengths to disagree with those values violently.”

Hence her call for more intense screening of immigration applicants, to ensure they have “Canadian values.”

The first objection to her view is that plenty of Canadians seem to value violence and misogyny and engage in hate speech (especially online) more or less with impunity. Bullying and other forms of abuse are routine in school and the workplace.

The second objection is that violent misogynous bullies will rarely admit to their views. No one brags about their violence in a job interview. Leitch is painfully naive if she thinks a face-to-face talk with an immigration official would uncover all the believers in, say, jihad and honour killing.

In any case, Immigration Canada has a full web page on human rights in Canada and another on family violence that explicitly warns about female genital mutilation and honour-based crimes. The message is clear: Don’t approve of our rights and laws? Don’t come.

A true Canadian value

If there is a truly Canadian value, it’s the right to cherish any damn-fool idea you like — so long as you don’t use it as an excuse to hurt anyone else. At that point your values are not the problem — your behaviour is. Very bad behaviour is called a crime, and as parliamentarian Kellie Leitch knows perfectly well, Parliament passes laws to deter and punish crimes.

So why would an elite member attack elites in pursuit of her party’s leadership?

I suspect she sees it as just business. Pollster Nik Nanos recently suggested her anti-elite schtick was only to distinguish herself from her competition, by saying something Trumpishly shocking, something to draw the attention of the scandalized media.

It also suggests that Leitch sees the Conservative rank and file as easily manipulated as Trump’s base. And why not? The Tories fell for her “barbarous cultural practices” schtick in 2015, which Canadian law of course made superfluous. If they’re too dim to notice when they’re being played by an elitist, they’re dim enough to fall for it again.  [Tyee]

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