On The Term "Elite"

Quite a few people on this thread use the expression "the elite" or "the elites" casually and liberally.

I find that this is generally unhelpful, an even coarser version of the Marxist "class interests" which is too vague to have any explanatory power.

However I would be interested in being proven wrong. Is talking about the elites in general ever useful (outside of large scale historical work like the one of Peter Turchin) ? Is the meaning supposed to be context - dependent?

As a topical example, we could debate the sentence "the elites have sabotaged Brexit".

Let's look to academic literature to see if they find the notion of 'elites' useful. Here's a paper [pdf] of interest. It took me under one minute to find via wikipedia's page on elite theory, a major school of political science that includes Pareto and Putnam (and presumably other people whose names begin with 'P').

In the paper, Gilens and Page (another 'P'...) define 'elite' economically as in the top decile for income (though note that we could use different definitions, such as institutional or status-oriented ones), and find that the preferences of the affluent predict policy changes very well, much better in fact than the median voter's preferences.

Thus, if your point is 'People should define their terms more', fine. If you're saying the notion of 'elite' is unhelpful in general, you're simply wrong. If anything, we're underusing the notion of 'elite' in political discussion, and giving far too much credence to quaint notions of legitimacy and democracy. People continue to think it's all about the median voter, when really that is just about winning elections, and not about what policies actually get put into place. After all, you only need to say you're going to do something to win an election, and then do enough of what you say to look believable next time.

Brexit is a case in point. Both Labour and the Conservatives were elected in 2017 on a promise to deliver Brexit. But we all know (and if you disagree, you could make a lot of money betting on it - even now bookies have revoking article 50 at 7/2, so you can bet against it and make money if you're so sure) that Brexit is by no means a certainty. It is entirely possible that Brexit could get cancelled. If that happened, the public would settle on various narratives of who's to blame, and those parties would suffer in elections (...for a while. Remember, Tony Blair took us into an illegal war. People still vote Labour, and no one brings it up anymore). But the key thing is that the policy issue has not been settled by the largest democratic mandate in UK history, nor has it been settled by the two main parties promising to do something. That tells you something. It tells you that politics is not primarily about who wins elections, and it never has been. We can't make it too obvious, but in general 'money talks' is a very good predictor of behaviour.

I don't think there is a campaign to 'sabotage' Brexit. I think politicians understand that legitimacy is important, and that undermining Brexit has to be technocratic in nature - i.e. we stay in Burger King but get to say that we've left, as Alistair Williams has it. But I'm happy enough with "The elites have sought to undermine Brexit". As a low resolution narrative, it strikes me as fine.