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Author Joel Stein on sticking up for the ‘intellectual elite’
Judy Woodruff: The word elite increasingly has a negative connotation. It's often used as a political attack.
Amna Nawaz sits down with author Joel Stein, whose new book, "In Defense of Elitism," explores how we view privilege.
Amna Nawaz: Joel Stein, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Joel Stein: Amna, thank you for having me. It's the elitist's dream. To be on the "PBS NewsHour"? This as good as it gets.
Amna Nawaz: Let me start with the title of the book.
Joel Stein: Oh, yes.
Amna Nawaz: "In Defense of Elitism." The subhead is "Why I'm Better Than You and You're Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book."
Why does elitism need a defense right now?
Joel Stein: Nobody is admitting they're elite.
Everyone hates the elite right now. And somebody has to stick up for the intellectual elite in this country, before we drive this country into the ground.
Everybody says that they can just operate from their gut and they know more than the generals. And I just want to restore some kind of expertise and some value and appreciation for education.
Amna Nawaz: What does it mean to be elite right now?
Joel Stein: So, I don't mean rich. Let me be clear about that from the beginning.
Many members of the elite are journalists, or they are in nongovernmental organizations, or they're in academia. We're talking about people who have influence and power.
But what I learned in writing this book is, we're now in this fight between these two groups of elite.
This guy Vilfredo Pareto in 1900s, this Italian economist, fascist, came up with this idea of the circulation of the elites, that there's always a battle between two people, and somebody always rules.
And I feel like right now we're in a battle between our people, the intellectual and elite, the people watching this, and the boat elites, which is a term I came up with after watching Donald Trump make this speech last year in Minneapolis, where, after railing against the elites for so long during the campaign, he said, well, we should be the elites. Like, we have bigger houses and we have boats.
And I thought, oh, those are the people that we're against, the people who care about money more than ideas, the boat elite.
Amna Nawaz: I should mention the book actually begins with the election of Donald Trump, right?
Joel Stein: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: That's where this whole sort of exploration of the idea of elitism begins for you.
You write in the book: "The populist revolution succeeded tonight for the same reason it did nearly two centuries ago. The main reason Trump won wasn't economic anxiety, wasn't sexism, wasn't racism. It was that he was anti-elite."
So explain -- again, I want to get two definitions on this.
Joel Stein: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: He's an Ivy League grad. He's a millionaire or billionaire. And he has incredible power and privilege.
Joel Stein: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: Is that what it means to be elite. Why is he anti-elite? When did it become a bad word?
Joel Stein: Well, he doesn't have any respect for anyone who's got any kind of expertise or education.
Like, he knows more than the generals. He operates from his gut. He just says he instinctually knows what's right. So that's the kind of anti-elitist, populist sentiment that we're talking about.
Amna Nawaz: So, you head out on a pilgrimage. You leave your home in Los Angeles.
Joel Stein: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: You go to a town called Miami, Texas.
Joel Stein: And you pronounced it right for a good reason.
Amna Nawaz: I did. I have been there myself. I have reported on the communities there.
And I went there because, in this Panhandle town, they're known as having -- being the county in the 2016 election that had the highest level of support for Donald Trump.
When you had a conversation with them about elitism, what did they tell you?
Joel Stein: You're the only person I can talk to, other than the people there, about this town, because you're the only one I know who has been there.
Joel Stein: It was really interesting.
I went to Miami, not knowing that you were also going there, thinking that I would teach them a lot, and they would teach me a little bit that I could, like, stitch on a doily and keep in my kitchen.
But, instead, I don't know about you, but I feel like I learned a lot from them, and they were so different than what I expected. They were very white, and they were very Christian. But they were also really well-educated and they knew more about my life than I knew about theirs, both from traveling and watching television.
And their anger about what is going on was different from what I thought it would be.
Amna Nawaz: What did you think it was going to be, and how is it different?
Joel Stein: I just thought it would be racist.
And that's the first thing they asked me. They were like, you think we're going to be racist, don't you? Like, three people asked me that, which is weird.
And I found out that what they're upset about is, they feel really discriminated against. These are the people that, if you asked, are Christians discriminated against more than black people, they will say yes.
And I think that's -- it took me a while to figure it out. But I think people feel acceleration and they don't feel speed. So what they have noticed is that white Christians do have less power than they did 10, 20, 30 years ago. And they're panicked about that kind of change.
Amna Nawaz: I got to ask you, a lot of the book is very tongue in cheek, right? You make fun of yourself in the book, too.
But there are times when you make fun of the people you're interacting with too. You're in Miami. You're describing the home of someone you're staying with there as a museum to the 1950s. You make fun of the fact that they have a tube television, not a flat-screen TV, that they're playing "Andy Griffith" on the TV in the local restaurant.
Isn't that the kind of elitism that they would complain about?
Joel Stein: Oh, yes. And they did to me.
Joel Stein: And I think they had a point.
I think elites have a real problem with smugness. I think all of my friends who think, if they could just go to Miami, Texas, and tell people that they're voting against their own interests, and explain to them why Medicare for all is great for them, that they would -- they would just change their minds, as if they're like the unenlightened masses.
And that's not what's going on at all. These people are voting for what they want for the country. I think it's a dangerous vision they have, in my opinion, but it's not ignorant.
Amna Nawaz: So you set off on this journey. You meet with a number of different people.
I will list off a few of them too. Tucker Carlson is profiled in the book. There's Scott Adams, the man behind the "Dilbert" cartoon, as well.
Joel Stein: Yes, a big Trump supporter.
Amna Nawaz: Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, as well.
You bring all these people together to have conversations about elitism. At the end of the day, what is it that you take away?
Joel Stein: You know, I wrote the book hopefully in a funny way, partly because I want to draw attention to how ridiculous the situation we're in is.
Like, there's so many angry books about politics right now. And I just wanted to point out that, like, when I was growing up, if you told me there was going to be a populist revolution in America, I would have thought, oh, there was an economic collapse or there was a war or something horrible had happened.
And, instead, things are going pretty well, despite what people may tell you about corruption and the economy. Like, things are pretty good. And people flipped out. And I want people just to tone it down before we lose democracy.
Amna Nawaz: Joel Stein.
The book is "In Defense of Elitism."
Thanks for being here.