What's Dumb About the "Elitism" Debate

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

Yesterday on MSNBC's Morning Joe, the eponymous Joe Scarborough and his colleague Mika Brzezinski were having an intellectual smack-down over Hillary's emblematic gas tax holiday scheme, and whether it grew from the candidate's desire to help the little guy or her own political future. Personally, I think it's the latter, but I was impressed by the heartfelt and persuasive arguments on both sides -- that is, until Scarborough launched into a familiar and tired GOP talking point. People who've gone to "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia..." he lectured -- in other words, "experts" -- think they know so much more than people who haven't. This was an attempt to shut down his co-anchor with a truthiness-rich but fact-poor argument that Hillary, Yale Law Class of '73, has been making a lot lately. It didn't work, and the subject changed, but how I wish someone had said this:

You know what, Joe? There's a good chance that graduates of the best universities in the country do know more than people who haven't. Or maybe they don't. It depends on how well they were paying attention, how hard they worked and how smart they were to begin with. But mostly, it depends on their attitude toward the facts they pick up. Because if there's one thing we've learned over the last seven-plus years, from a Yale and Harvard grad who's made it clear he doesn't believe in them, a supposed real guy who shoots from the hip and decides from the gut, is this: Facts are not bad things. We should not have an aversion to them, or the people who take them seriously when forming policy. And I can't take another day of listening to talking heads championing the virtues of knowing nothing.

Maybe I shouldn't get so steamed about the subject. Maybe it's better just to laugh. Jon Stewart did a riff on this subject last week in a Daily Show segment on the federal government's 11-year-long, $1.3 billion abstinence-only education program, and how it's failed. Inevitably, a Republican Congressman referred to the "people who maybe have degrees in this field" as "elitist" because they think they know more about the subject than parents. To which Stewart added "And I don't like these elitist airline pilots with their locked doors and ability to fly planes. I think I know how to fly my own children through the air!" What more can you say? Snap.

Okay, how about this: Since when did real life experience and education become mutually exclusive? This line of unreason gets trotted out every time a candidate has an unpopular or unworkable idea to sell, or needs to defend a bad plan that predictably didn't pan out. It's a dead giveaway that the policy in question is bull (read: gas tax holiday). When we hear a candidate say that "experts don't know anything," or "I'm not throwing my lot in with the experts," we should vow to do the opposite of what the speaker wants. It's that simple.

But suppose the person making the argument for being uninformed defends it by saying that "Highly-educated people don't know how real people live, because they've spent their lives in ivory towers." In that case, you'd want to know that the candidate backed by the experts understands the concerns of working people. So Sleeping Beauty? Don't vote for her; she doesn't get the pain at the pump. But say the candidate is someone raised by a single mother in the heartland; has worked hard all his life; traveled throughout the world from an early age; and has overcome adversity to gain entrance into one of those hallowed halls of higher learning so decried by Joe Scarborough. No one could call that person "elitist," could they?