Commentary: In Praise of the Elite

Buffalo, NY – After the United States failed to win the Olympic gold medal in basketball in 2004 the decision was made to field a team of elite players from the world's elite league and coach them to become the elite team in the world. The plan worked. A team of elite basketball players - players who were among the best basketball players in the world - won the Olympic gold medal in 2008 in China.

Oh wait! Did I just use a bad word? I said elite . But is elite bad or good?

According to my dictionaries elite refers to the best part of a larger group . That sounds good, not bad.

So, how can it be that if I call a basketball player one of the elite it is a high compliment, but if I call a candidate for political office elite it means I shouldn't vote for him - that he's not a good choice?

I'm sure that an elite basketball player remembers full well when he was not among the elite and remembers that he had to work hard to reach elite status. He knows how ordinary players feel. He's been there. He empathizes with them. And because a political candidate has worked hard to become educated and to understand what's going on in the world, to improve herself or himself and prepare for office, does that mean that she or he doesn't understand the problems of the ordinary citizen? Is being one of the nation's elite something that makes a candidate unsuited to lead us?

I'll ask you to think back to the founding of the United States - the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The people who were deeply involved - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock - they were among the elite of their time - and we appreciate their involvement, their leadership, their judgment, their wisdom. To say they were among the elite is to recognize a truth. It recognizes their excellence - that they were among the best. It doesn't say something bad about them.

Our Founding Fathers did something new. They were open to new ideas, they were open-minded enough to challenge each other and debate and break new ground in leading a people to become a new nation - a new kind of nation. They were not only our elite, they were liberals.

Oh my, there I go again. I said a bad word: liberal . My dictionary defines liberal as being open-minded. So, is it really bad if a person is open-minded and willing to consider issues and problems on their merits? How can it be that to call someone liberal is to damn him?

We've had a guy in the White House for almost eight years who was praised as an ordinary Joe and as a conservative. He is both. But look where that's got us! Now 80% of us agree that our nation is on a seriously wrong track.

Do you think I am in some way misguided because I think we should respect the elite among us for their achievements and honor the liberals among us because they are able to keep their minds open to well-reasoned ideas, to rational discourse?

Liberal elites - that is, the open-minded of the best among us - it seems to me that those are the people we need and should choose as our leaders

Listener-Commentator Paul Reitan is an emeritus professor at the University at Buffalo.

Click the audio player above to hear the commentary now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.