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An Analysis Of Political Elitism Essay, Research Paper

An Analysis of Political Elitism

It is easy to believe that the middle-class working individual, whether he or she is white collar or blue collar, wields little political power except for during an election. It is also easy to think that we don’t have true democracy; political representation elected by the people, for the people, and controlled by these people. This is an ideology that is often worn out. Instead, these elected representatives are controlled by political elites: high-ranking political “gladiators”, the media, lobbyists, and, though it may not seem evident, big business. It is, in essence, commonly believed by most. Some reasons why political elites at times dominate government groups will be examined in this essay. Also, there will be an analysis of those who were political elites in Canada over the past centuries. Also, some new discoveries may be turned up that help us have a better understanding of this elitism. Finally, we will discuss if interest groups and minorities have real political power, or perhaps they are just given token compensation. Hopefully, by the end of this essay, there will be a better understanding of who really has political power in Canada.

Though this paper is an analysis of elitism, we must also dissect the concept of democracy. Needless to say, without democracy in a political system, elitism would not exist. Democracy was a concept developed by the Greeks and the Romans during the classical period. It comes from the Greek word “demos”, which means “the people”; and “kratien”, which means “to rule”. In essence, democracy is a nation’s people rule themselves through elected representatives. Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia remind us of an important point though. Though the words “democracy” and “republic” are used together universally, they are definitely not the same thing. For instance, Canada is defined as a constitutional monarchy. It is not a republic; yet, we use a democratic system. Another is China, whose official title is “The People’s Republic of China”; yet, China is far from democratic. Furthermore, democracy is seen as ambiguous. Democracy is not only a concept on which our great nation is based, but also it is a source for which government can use its authority, and it is also a process.

This is where elitism is spawned. Elitism can be seen, from a certain point of view, as people who are believed to important who “vest political power in their incumbents” (Van Loon, Whittington, 1981). From a sociological point of view, elitism deals with class structures. Marx describes these class structures and what makes certain individuals “High Class” or “important”: “The separation of ownership from the management and control of industry” (Penguin Books, 1994, p.58). Marxists see political elites as “bad guys” – theoretically, it is because they represent a small portion of the population and are believed to control most of the political power and money. However, Plato’s Republic offers a different standpoint. In his work, political elites are seen as “good guys” – wise, virtuous, and knowledgeable. It is difficult to define elitism, however. The above definition, first and foremost, deals with financial status. What’s more, Plato’s opinions and definitions of elites are blatantly out of date. Though political elites are predominately high-class and wealthy, it does not explain interest groups and lobbyists. The men and women in these groups are, on the whole, not particularly “rich” or “important”. What makes them truly important or powerful is that they alter public opinion (The media works in the same way, however this will be discussed later). The idea that elites shape public opinion applies to all elites as well. Not to mention the fact that the majority of Canadians have negative attitudes toward political elites. As a common sense definition we see the actual people who are elites as “fat cats”: Rich, privileged, with no concern for the middle-class. Essentially, we see elites as people who can bend the laws, which are the bases of our democratic system.

Who were and who are currently these elite individuals in Canada? We must look back many decades to find out. In the dawn of Canadian political history (early 1800’s), simply due to the military superiority of the British, the head monarch and his or her councilors were the ones who were elite. Elitism was rampant these days. Those who were middle-class Canadians at the time had very little say in the decisions that were made concerning our nation. The monarch had final say in any decision that was made. Next was the King or Queen’s representative – The Governor-General. This person was always appointed, not elected, was always a man, and absolutely had to be British. His council was appointed, and though some were Canadian, all were wealthy, privileged, white men. It is believed these men had little or no interest in the majority of the people. Thus, the Canadian political system at the time was more like a “boys club” rather than a democracy. In those times, the poverty gap was much wider, and therefore an even smaller amount of people controlled political power and all were incredibly wealthy. By the time of confederation, the basis of the way our nation is run had changed. Representatives were elected and they were also Canadian. However, there was no representation by population, the British still had a large influence on the decisions made by the federal government, and those who were rich still wielded an incredible amount of power.

Today, due to much political and social upheaval, political elitism is different. Those who are middle class wield some power these days, but it is through interest groups and labor unions. Also, Britain has little or no say in our decision-making. However, the wealthy still control some political power through big business. Also, there are some forms of government that are appointed (now by the Prime Minister), and not elected. The Prime Minister’s cabinet and the senate are two good examples. Those who are seen as “popular” or “important” are the people who are appointed to these positions. For instance, to a politician, to hold an election for the Prime Minister’s cabinet or to appoint an average, working class individual to the senate would seem absurd. Though this would make things more democratic, it probably would not work. Nevertheless, a step in the democratic direction would be to make the senate elected, equal for each province, and as effective as the House of Commons. This is an issue clouded by many opinions and will be tackled later on in this paper. Therefore, if these elites do indeed control much of the power and money, and do perhaps have little concern of the less powerful individuals that make up the majority, why hasn’t democracy fallen, with a great “Canadian Revolution”?! It is because, as Van Loon and Whittington describe, the “irony of democracy”, in that only these elites are committed to the values of democracy. “Democratic values have survived because elites and not masses govern. Elites in America – leaders in government, industry, education, and civic affairs; the well educated, prestigiously employed, and politically active – give greater support to basic democratic values and “rules of the game” than do the masses. In short, it is the common individual and not the elite who is most likely to be swayed by anti-democratic ideology; and it is the elite and not the common individual who is the chief guardian of democratic values. This is likely equally true in Canada.” (Van Loon, Whittington, 1981.) In a nutshell, the middle-class is geared to a democratic system because they wish to enjoy each individual freedom to which they are entitled. However, they take on attitudes that at times mirror socialism and communism due to frustration. John James Guy describes our political culture as pluralist, and that the majority of the Canadian people “consist of competing elites: groups of powerful people found in the economy, the political system, the media, and the military.” (Guy, 1995) It is these political elites, those who are politically motivated, who take on every last democratic value. Ironically, the fall of democracy would occur only if these political elites were to be exterminated.

The process in which elites control government is really quite simple. As described above, those who are politically elite are politically active. This idea can almost be measured on a scale – the more involved in politics, a higher status is achieved. It does make sense: Those who are elected are politically elite individuals, who would have to be popular members of their community. Those who are wealthy can afford to put money into politics. This is, of course the entire reason for tax breaks to the rich. Also, those large groups who on the whole share the same opinions can influence a government’s decision. Politicians ultimately, must please the public to receive their vote. One good example is the pay equity issue for civil servants. Members of Parliament and bureaucrats are a special kind of elites. If they are elected or appointed, they are both popular and privileged, and can exercise influence outside of their authority. However, they are puppets to their superiors, and at the same time must please the public in their riding in order to be elected. Otherwise, they will exercise no power at all. “All politicians try to exercise influence, by using personal appeals and persuasive arguments to move others to adopt their political positions.” (Guy, 1995)

This poses a question: How does one become a political elite? Guy uses a simple chart that illustrates, through a process of elimination, how elitism is accomplished. First and foremost, you must be old enough to vote and to participate in politics. At this stage, anyone who is of age can participate in politics. Next, you must be socially eligible: well educated, without a criminal record, well employed with at least middle-class financial status. Next, your participation in politics is evaluated. If you were to be more than qualified for each of these categories, you would be a candidate for a position as a political leader. This can be seen as a way in which the Prime Minister can appoint individuals to the senate. The idea of a “Triple E” senate, however, challenges this. Establishing a senate that is elected by the people, for the people, equally represented by each province, and as effective in the decision making process as the House of Commons would be essential to decreasing the level of elitism in Canadian politics. The Reform party and different interest groups have pushed for this for many years. However, the reality of this ideology is that if the senate was changed so that it mirrored the House of Commons, it probably wouldn’t be necessary to have the senate at all. Finally, there is an issue that deals with our political culture. Though we are a population of pluralist, we are also, as Gad Horowitz describes, Liberalists with a Tory touch. That is, we are traditionally liberalists with a certain amount of conservative values. What is remarkable is that this “Tory-Touched Liberal” idea mirrors the bases of political elitism. The priority of the individual and the freedom to have, better known as capitalism, coupled with democracy. Elitism is where this “Conservative Touch” comes in. This also applies to most nations that are based on a truly democratic system. However, like the aforementioned rule about elitism described by Van Loon and Whittington, it is needed to uphold democracy.

These days, one political elite whose strength is comparable to a hydrogen bomb is the media. The media shapes public opinion in an incredible fashion. Shockingly, the media almost has the power to completely destroy the public’s trust in government. Vietnam and Watergate are two good examples. A good Canadian example is how the media exploited former Solicitor-General Andy Scott when he was in quite a bit of trouble last fall. As such, the media is an incredible force in politics. Also, it seems that the media can some exploit individuals, distort the news, and judge individuals as guilty without fair analysis. The recent “APEC Summit Affair” demonstrates this to a tea. For the purpose of this essay, two forms of the media are used: The newspaper (Evening-Times Globe), and television (CBC). The banner headline of the October eighth issue of the Evening-Times Globe read, in large bold letters: “He lied. Let him sue.” Whereas a subhead line in the October seventh issue reads: “Talk Not Cheap: Solicitor General Andy Scott’s chat with a Saint John man has him fighting for his political life.” When the CBC reported on the incident, reporters were, at times far from objective, using buzzwords like “The Forces of Darkness”. And clips of question period in the House of Commons was all over the news, most of which were scenes of opposition members “grilling” the federal government, Andy Scott, and the Prime Minister. Thus, The PMO sent a long and detailed letter to the CBC. “We have learned that CBC News, through lead journalist Terry Milewski, may from the beginning have had a specific and one-sided agenda on this issue.” (PMO Press Office, 1998). George Bain describes the power of Canadian journalists well. “Canadian journalists have always tended to pooh-pooh their influence on public opinion in matters of politics, not out of modesty, heaven forbid, but so as not to have too much invested in case something or someone whom they incautiously endorsed earlier turns out not quite as expected.” (Bain, 1994). In short the media will never be the “bad guy”. They are a kind of “indestructible elite”, in which they can both shape public opinion and make or break a politicians career.

However, who controls the media? By far it is “Big Business”. This is today’s answer to the wealthy aristocrats who were political elites in centuries past. It is quite simple; through the power of the almighty dollar big business can both influence and manipulate public policies. For instance, Irving Oil Limited used the media to shape public opinion about New Brunswick’s clean air laws. Big Business also is able to manipulate laws in order to spend the least amount of money as possible. “Without regulation, Canada’s corporate barons have played fast and loose with tax and security laws, and sometimes their actions have bordered on theft” (Francis, 1986).

There is one last group of elites that must be discussed: certain groups of the Canadian people. Through interest groups and labor unions, the Canadian people can both influence government and big business. They can be seen as both pesky and incredibly powerful, due to the fact that they ultimately choose some of the people who will represent them in the legislature. It all depends on their size. Though it does slightly go off topic, Qu?bec nationalists can be seen as a type of interest group. It has come to the point where this interest group has its own political party. Their goal is simply to break up the country, and therefore they have a purpose. The Canadian people are as diverse as this nation’s physical geography. Though when they unite with a common purpose they can be just as powerful as the government itself. For the Qu?bec nationalists issue, if it hadn’t been for the conflicting opinions of other English, French, or ethnic residents of Qu?bec, our nation would have been broken by now.

In conclusion, the middle-class needs elites almost as much as the elites need the middle-class. It is an unwritten rule of democracy that both undermines the teachings of Karl Marx and confuses our beliefs of what is democracy and what is right. It is simple: for democracy to strive we must obey its rules. The implications of the statement that our nation is run by elites is clear – these elites are a small percentage of the population but can also be a small part of the majority. Finally, to exterminate all political elites is not the answer. The answer is to exterminate those who are not necessary. Most political elites matter to our nation, those that don’t must disappear the same way others did in centuries past.

1. Author Unknown. “The Decline of Democracy” CBC Radio Transcripts (December 19, 1994).

2. Bain, George. Gotcha! How the Media Distort the News. 1st ed. Toronto: Key Porter Books Ltd., 1994.

3. Dunn, Christopher. Canadian Political Debates. 1sted Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995.

4. Filemyr, Anne. “Conflict and Mainstream Reporting.” Canadian Business andCanadian Affairs. 28.3 (August, 1996): 97-101.

5. Francis, Diane. Controlling Interest: Who Owns Canada? 2nd ed. Toronto: Scorpio Publishing Ltd., 1986.

6. Funk & Wagnalls. “Democracy” Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. 4th ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Inc., 1983.

7. Guy, James John. How we are Governed: The Basics of Canadian Politics and Government. 1st ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company Canada, Ltd, 1995.

8. Jackson, Robert J.; Jackson, Doreen. Politics in Canada. 4th ed. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1998.

9. Letter to the CBC ombudsman from the Prime Minister’s Office. Dated October 16, 1998. (www.tv.cbc.ca/cgi-bin/extlnk.cgi?/national/pgminfo/apec/pmo2.html)

10. Penguin Books. The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.

11. Van Loon, Richard J.; Whittington, Michael S. The Canadian Political System: Environment, Structure and Process. 3rd rd. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Publishing Ltd., 1981.

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