Who are the elite in America, and what’s the problem with them?

A worry about elite status groups in America has become one of the more noticeable aspects of this decade’s criticism. But “elite” itself is a vague term. When progressives talk about the elite they mostly mean America’s richest people, the plutocrats, the one percent. When conservatives talk about the elite they often mean the cultural elite, the very well educated, the people with many credentials.

When people talk about elitism, and destroying it, therefore, the discussion is often curiously limited. What does Harvard law school matter if the top 1 percent of Americans control 43 percent of the country’s entire financial wealth? Who cares where you went to college?

In fact, however, according to a piece at n +1, both kinds of elite are real. And both are trouble:

According to many on the American left, the “elitist” is a right-wing bogeyman sustained by the mendacious organs of the actual elite — the moneyed one — and by the reactionary reflexes of an anti-intellectual public. Working-class whites, we’re told, vote in the interests of billionaires on the mistaken assumption that culture, not economics, is the main political battlefield, and that godless eggheads, not greedy businessmen, are their true class enemies. The 1-percenters bankrolling the Tea Party thereby deflect the attention of “bitter clingers” away from the wealthy and toward the clubby arrogance of the other 1 percent — the fraction of American students who graduate each year from the top tier of colleges.

The eggheads make sensible targets. Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

There are, in fact, two kinds of elite. They’re not necessarily the same, and they don’t necessarily work together, but both are a cancer on our society, and both represent something we should attempt to undermine.

Why are all these master’s degrees good for, really?

Now ultimately this is more of a thought piece than any real call for reform. It’s not even clear it’s possible to reverse these trends and demand fewer credentials of those attempting to influence American policy.

The anecdote that began the n + 1 piece discussed the exam system in ancient China. That system, which looks disturbingly similar to our own standardized test-based admissions process for entrance into institutions of higher learning, was designed to ensure merit and talent in the Chinese bureaucracy. It resulted, in the long run, in exorbitant debt and vast corruption. It ended, ultimately, with the Chinese Revolution.

That ought to be a compelling lesson for the United States, but it’s not clear from the story that there ever could have been a way to reverse the tends of China and preserve an examination system for government positions while eliminating its troublesome parts.

But, well, it certainly might have been worth a try.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer