Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, likes making and keeping New Year resolutions. In recent years he has learnt Mandarin, read 25 books, run one mile every day, and created a robot-butler to organise his home. But this year his New Year resolution is more high-minded than usual. ‘My personal challenge for 2017,’ he writes, ‘is to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year.’
Why should he want to do a thing like that? The reason is that, although only 32 years old, he is one of the richest people in the world and therefore seen as guilty of elitism; and, although through Facebook he enables more people to keep in touch than ever before in history, he is assumed, like all ‘elitists’, to be out of touch with ‘ordinary people’ and incapable of understanding their needs and desires. He clearly wants to dispel that impression.
‘Technology and globalisation have made us more productive and connected,’ he says. ‘This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging.’ It could almost be Theresa May talking when he adds: ‘This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.’
The departing American ambassador to Britain, Matthew Barzun, was openly accused of elitism by a carpenter called Mark in the Midlands (‘a proud Brexiteer who does not want his surname published’ the Sunday Times called him), who objected to the ambassador’s claim that the ‘special relationship’ still thrived despite Barack Obama’s warning that Britain would go to the ‘back of the queue’ for trade talks with the US if it left the European Union.
‘You do not have a clue what the ordinary, average, non-establishment British person thinks of the USA,’ Mark told Mr Barzun in an aggressive email. His Excellency retorted that he had met countless ordinary people throughout Britain during his time here, but also generously conceded that ‘your point is well taken: it is so important that we will engage and not get trapped in within walls of our own making’.
So even people as well-intentioned as Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Barzun accept that both the US and Britain suffer from an unbridgeable gulf between the ‘elitist’ and the ‘ordinary person’. But is this true? What does it mean? James Bartholomew offered right-wing answers in an article in last week’s Spectator. The elite had been brainwashed by their education to support the self-righteous and corrupt European Union in Britain and the equally self-righteous and corrupt Hillary Clinton in America because backing Brexit or Donald Trump would have associated them with what they saw as the narrow-minded, isolationist, racist, anti-feminist views of uneducated ordinary people. These elitists were unshakeable in their distrust of capitalism and belief in the pursuit of equality, in their faith in man-made climate change and in the virtues of recycling, while ordinary people were more open-minded.
This misrepresents both sides. In America, more people voted for Clinton than for Trump in the presidential election and 48 per cent of voters in the British referendum chose to stay in the EU: they can hardly have all been elitists. And if by the elite we mean those who wield political, financial, commercial and media power in London, they are by no means united in their liberal prejudices or generally out of touch with popular opinion. The City, like Trump, is hardly anti-capitalist, the press was heavily tilted in favour of Brexit, and members of parliament depend for their survival on knowing what their constituents are thinking. The anger of working people at feeling neglected and not getting their rightful share of national prosperity is real enough, but it isn’t exactly a rebellion against the pursuit of equality.
The so-called liberal elite is not some privileged caste but includes people as ordinary as they come. They have worries and problems too, and may even be just about managing. The social division that Zuckerberg describes seems to have more reality in the United States than it does here. American friends have told me that they have never encountered a Trump supporter, whereas in Britain every Brexiteer knows every Remainer and vice versa, and usually in his own family. It would be nice if people would stop calling their opponents victims of mindless prejudice but accept that they, too, may have the national interest at heart.