What is an elite?

It is common in political science to distinguish “elites” from “masses.” Elites are more polarized than masses, for example. We see this when comparing Congress to the public or activists to non-activists. But what is an elite?

I think it is useful to think of them as the folks who do the bargaining. It probably also matters that an elite “commands” some following. This doesn’t mean that they push people around. It just means that what elites say influence our vote choices — or the behavior of other elites elsewhere in the political system.

Looking at the matter in this way lets us see that democracy is a chain of nested coalitions. (Credit for that phrase goes to Hans Noel, who once used it in passing.) Elites might broker deals locally, then statewide, and then nationally. Some of those deals might concern which elites to send up to the next level.

This perspective also lets us add realism to some popular abstractions. I am thinking of social choice, Arrovian cycles, and Condorcet issues. Bargaining gets us to coalitions and therefore majority rule.

Bargaining does sometimes break down. Or the elites cut a deal we don’t like. The good news is that it’s easy for many to become elites (but see).

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