Since the seminal studies of Stouffer and McClosky it has become accepted that political elites are markedly more committed to civil liberties and democratic values than is the public at large; so much so that political elites should be recognized, in McClosky's words, as ‘the major repositories of the public conscience and as carriers of the Creed’. The argument of this article is that previous analyses have erred by focusing on the contrast between elites taken as a whole and the mass public. The crucial contrast is not between elites and citizens, but rather between groups of elites that are competing one with another for political power.
Drawing on large-scale surveys of two modern democracies, Canada and the United States, this article demonstrates that differences among elites in support for civil liberties eclipse, both in size and political significance, differences between elites and citizens. The fallacy of democratic elitism, as this study shows, is its indifference to which elites prevail in the electoral competition for power.