Me Talk Prettier Than You: Elite and Popular Discourse
One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.
Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.
Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.
These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.
The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.
The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.
This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.