More and more you can find out whether someone is a liberal or a conservative (in the American sense of the words) by getting the answer to a simple question:
Do you think the average person is too stupid to do the right thing?
If you answer yes, you're probably a liberal. If you answer no, you're probably a conservative.
Obviously it's not a 100% truism but in most discussions with people in "real life" (or on-line) the inevitable root distinction between the two philosophies is whether the government is there to rule us or whether the government is there to serve us. Few liberals would agree that the government is there to rule us, because they don't think it is there to rule them just all the stupid yokels who make up the majority of the country.
Here's a conversation I had recently:
Friend: We need to make sure all Americans are ensured a certain basic standard of living.
Me: I support your right to your opinion, but why does the federal government have to be the means to make your belief a reality? Why not work through charities and volunteerism so that those who believe as you do can work towards your goal?
Friend: Because people aren't smart enough to do what's right.
Elitism is a sense that the hoi polloi are simply incapable of governing themselves, let alone a nation, and that a small group of “experts” have to take control of everything they do. That goes far beyond mere matters of state. Elitists see people getting more obese and believe that government has to intervene to remove food choices from individuals, as one rather timely example, as in New York City. They believe that removing personal choices will keep people from making bad decisions, because they — in all their wisdom — will make the right choices for them.
This describes perfectly the policy direction of the Democratic Party, and perhaps even a part of the Republican Party as well. That’s why the charge of elitism sticks so well to Democratic candidates in national elections. Their humble origins are immaterial to the concept of elitism. Candidates who want to grow the federal government in order to increase its nanny-state power are by definition elitists, because they believe individuals cannot make choices for themselves.
For Obama, the trappings of his ego make this even more obvious than perhaps it should be. He can’t understand why a man who makes his own presidential seals before being elected, gins up a rally of cheering Germans in an attempt to impress the yokels back home, and creates a Greek temple to his wisdom can be seen as elitist if he had to struggle in his early life. I don’t think anyone doubts the struggles of his childhood, but part of the problem is that his struggles really aren’t all that exceptional. He came from a broken home; probably half of all adults his age do now, or close to it. He traveled the world, grew up in Hawaii, and got scholarships to Columbia and Harvard Law School. That’s not that tough of a start in life.
Forest de Rothschild notes that McCain has at least one event in his life when he rejected his own privilege in favor of his nation. He could have accepted the North Vietnamese offer of early release, based on his status as an admiral’s son. At the risk of his life and certainly at the risk of more torture, he refused. She believes that’s why McCain can make the elitist argument against Obama, and perhaps that’s true in terms of credibility. However, the real reason it sticks is because Obama and his allies want to govern us as though we were idiots, and McCain and Palin appear more likely to treat us as adults.