The word elite had a different meaning when I grew up during the Great Depression. For those from my lower middle class origins it elicited a low-grade envy of those it described, not much more. Further, the word almost always had a modifier, such the “financial elite”—presidents of local banks or those who owned a second home, preferably in the mountains or on the seashore. Then there was the social elite (often doubling as members of the financial elite as well), whose faces appeared on the local daily’s “Society” pages, their rites of passage reverently recorded with full proper names carefully checked for spelling, accompanied by black and white photos of the handsome subjects in their Sunday best. We might have occasionally heard of an “intellectual elite,” but they dwelt in a far distant land, their names about as familiar to us as a stele of Egyptian Pharaohs.
I mentioned that this word “elite” elicited in us only a mild envy. Let me correct that slightly. For some, it was more than that. The elite tended to be our employers, after all, and our livelihoods were subject to their whims. Often as not, they were our landlords as well, and eviction could turn on a fickle turn of fortune, like getting laid off from your job, or a death in the family.
Who were these elites? Their provenance? Upper middle class...or aspirants thereto. WASPS mostly, largely from the higher sects from the Calvinist legacy, self-disciplined hard-working descendants of driven Puritans who bore at least some internal doubts about whether they were among “the elect.”
In retrospect, and in sum, I remember them as relatively gentle masters and mistresses, committed to good and clean government, intellectual inquiry, science pressing forward, and at least a hesitant tip of the tri-cornered hat to those wayward arts. Their women saw to city beautification, ran the libraries, anonymously sent food baskets to the needy in holiday seasons; the men served on philanthropic boards, supported the local symphony orchestra by buying the expensive choice seats, then doubled their generosity by passing along the tickets to “those who like that sort of thing.” Inner-directed good citizens all, largely eschewing the sensual pleasures—even the showy display of wealth—for a steady rigor, their essence encapsulated in Calvinism and Chautauqua. Yes, they were Republicans, believe it or not, heirs of Lincoln and TR and Ike and...well, more recent names fail me.
In their place we now have Gauleiter von Trump (AKA John Miller or John Barron), the Tea Party (Babbitt’s children?) and Evangelicals impatient for End Times, all apparently united in their opposition to science and social progress.
I kinda miss the old Republicans.