I heard a good example of elitism's frailties on public radio recently (at time 46:10 in this broadcast). Several very well-credentialed panelists on NPR's 'Diane Rehms Show' were discussing the recent VP debate involving Gov. Sarah Palin. A listener called in to mock Mrs. Palin for saying that both Iraqi Pres Maliki and Talibani were beginning to recognize the success of the Iraq war, saying she was so dumb she didn't know that the Taliban was one of our primary enemies in the war. Of course, she was referring to Iraqi President Talibani, not the Taliban of Afghanistan. I silently mocked the listener to myself and sat by awaiting the panels members to correct him. No one did. None of these experts - and they were experts - knew this fundamental fact regarding Iraq's government. Instead they agreed with the caller and lamented Gov Palin's lack of knowledge, wondering why anyone would eschew the clear genius of Sen Biden for the back-woods confusion of Gov. Palin.
A common reply to charges of elitism is that it's actually a good thing: don't you WANT the smartest and most capable people leading you? This argument fundamentally misunderstands what people mean when they say someone is an elitist. An elitist is not someone who is simply smarter than average. Sen. Kerry was often seen as an elitist though his college grades were average, slightly below those of President Bush. Conversely, many geniuses aren't regarded as elitist because they aren't involved in social governance. Elitism only has meaning in a societal or governmental context.
An elitist is defined by two closely related characteristics: First, it is someone who thinks they are generally correct on issues because they're better educated, richer, or smarter. Second, elitist believe that because they're smarter, richer, or better educated, they can successfully govern our society, or even the world. People naturally pick up upon and feel resentment at this attitude, and it turns out they're right. The negative reaction to elitism is not just due to class-based resentment, but scientifically supported common sense.
The first defining characteristic of an elitist - smarter or better educated people are more correct on issues than others - seems to make sense but sadly doesn't account for human nature. As Michael Shermer demonstrated in his book "Why Smart People Believe Weird Things" very smart people often believe very stupid things. Ego, gullibility, tribalism (the human tendency to progressively mistrust others the more physically different and geographically separated they are from you) and self-deception are completely independent of IQ. The opposite end of this argument was demonstrated by James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds. Groups of people acting freely usually come to the right decision where individual geniuses do not. The fundamental reality is that a world of 7 billion people is simply too complex for ANY group to comprehend sufficiently to make informed decisions. There are too many unattended consequences, too many variables.
The second defining belief of an elitist - that elite groups should govern the masses - has been disproven by history. The primary lesson of the past 100 years is that a centralized decision making group - even one composed of the smartest people - does not perform nearly as well as distributed decision making. This was labeled as communism versus capitalism, but fundamentally was the ideology of socialism versus freedom. Freedom won, though that has not been recognized by much of mainstream scholarly thought, who being government supported are personally dependent upon government largess. Universities are prime examples of very smart people willing to deceive themselves and others to ensure their own welfare and social standing.
The anecdotal lesson of the NPR Panel of experts is that even very smart people don't know enough to govern others, which is why everyone should be free to make their own decisions as much as possible. You're right to be suspicious of elitists, they simply can't know as much as they think.