From time immemorial, elites have distrusted and often disdained everyday people. Far more egalitarian than most, the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were still generally convinced that We the People were a stupid and, above all, mercurial lot. Hamilton, for example, called the masses “turbulent and changing,” who “seldom judge or determine right.” To guard against the passions of the people, he sought a system of government that would “check the imprudence of democracy.” Various parts of the Constitution, like the Electoral College and the Senate, reflect those sentiments.
In that, men like Hamilton, Washington and Jefferson agreed, at least to an extent, with monarchists. Educated, wealthy, male elites considered themselves simply better able to grasp and deal with the vicissitudes of history and resist the short-term passions that would surely sway those of less wealth and education. Unsurprisingly, those beliefs benefited the elites who held them. If the people can’t be trusted, governing should be entrusted to the upper classes.
But a funny thing happened on the way to forming today’s United States. People moved west. They did so continually and in great numbers from the earliest years of English settlement. In doing so, they rapidly outran the ability of those living near the Atlantic seaboard to govern them. Educated elites in Boston and Philadelphia considered themselves the rightful governors of everyone else, but vast numbers of Americans placed themselves physically beyond their ability to do so in any meaningful way.
Separated from the culture and mores of the eastern part of the country, westerners created their own. Theirs was a culture that, above all, valued competency in difficult circumstances over intellect. People’s value didn’t lie in their manners, speech or education. It lay in whether they proved themselves equal to the hard tasks involved in living beyond Anglo-European civilization and in the face of often hostile natives who themselves were altogether competent at living that life.
Inevitably, western Americans compared themselves to their eastern compatriots and found the latter wanting. Mastery of Milton availed little in the rough and tumble of life on the Mississippi or in the woods of Tennessee or Kentucky. In an amusing reversal, unschooled westerners came to look down their noses at everything they believed characterized life back east. They created their own elite concepts featuring strength, courage, masculinity and hardnosed ability, and sneered at fine manners and good diction. The common man had formed his own elite group.
The qualities celebrated by westerners began to appear, first in story papers and dime novels, later in longer western novels and finally in cinematic and TV western dramas. Again and again in those works we see western qualities and morals as necessary to survival and superior to all else. When asked in the movie Hombre why he’d been asked to protect a party of travelers, Paul Newman’s character replies, “Because I can cut it, lady.” Exactly.
Andrew Jackson could “cut it.” Despite little schooling, he became a lawyer, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice and U.S. senator. Without any formal military training and leading only raw militias and a few regular soldiers, Jackson defeated the largest native confederation ever assembled north of the Rio Grande under Tecumseh, the Spanish in Florida and the British at the Battle of New Orleans, efforts to which the federal government contributed almost nothing. Westerners championed Jackson because he was one of them and the very embodiment of their ideals. That is why his likeness graces the $20 bill of today.
All of that is to say that, even today, we Americans, particularly those of us in the hinterlands of middle America, have an almost instinctual distrust of coastal elites. That can take many forms, some of them healthy, some of them distinctly less so. As just one example, part of the dislike of the theory of evolution and the embrace of “Creation Science” stems from exactly that distrust. Historian Richard Hofstadter captured some of that spirit in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, even though he entirely missed why it exists and its possible benefits to the country.
The core of that unique Americanism is both democratic and egalitarian. It is the belief that common people are the equals of elites, that our wants, needs, values, opinions, etc. demand an equal hearing with those of the moneyed and powerful. Indeed, we may often be superior to those who happily anoint themselves our betters. After all, throughout history, monied elites have a fine track record of incompetence, stupidity, belligerence, cruelty, self-interest, vanity, mediocrity and greed. That the same can be said of the rest of us only means that skepticism of each group by each group is appropriate, that neither has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue, that both need to be carefully watched.
One of the benefits of Americans’ instinctual skepticism of elites was recently on display in the elections of November 2nd. For several years now, elites on campus, in government, the press and the corporate world have behaved very much as our Founding Fathers believed the masses would. They’ve latched onto a set of beliefs that are mostly separated from reality and gone to considerable lengths to impose them on the rest of us. I refer of course to the woke beliefs that all white people are irredeemably racist, everything about American society reflects white supremacy, the police are the cause of most of the violence on the nation’s streets, violent riots are acceptable behavior, men can give birth, climate change will destroy humanity with the next couple of decades, etc.
It's precisely the type of lunacy the Founding Fathers feared, but this time not on the part of the masses, but of educated elites. Over the past years, who were the “turbulent and changing,” who “seldom judge or determine right?” By contrast, who were the ones who eschewed the nonsense and hewed to healthier and more timeless notions of racial equality, biological science and the need to stick together as one nation undivided into warring tribes?
We the People can be like a huge body of water that moderates ambient temperatures and last week the masses of Americans moderated elite extremism and irresponsibility. Ours is a message of hope and decency and sensible behavior. It’s a message that the people won’t be pushed around, at least not by a mob recently released from Bedlam. In the dynamic tension between the few and the many, the many won and the nation is, for now, healthier, happier and more stable because of it.