PUBLIC debates in Australia have always been shaped by the contributions of the foreign observer. We aren't alone on this. Who, after all, but Alexis de Tocqueville was able to distil for America the virtues and vices of its nascent democracy?

Students of politics would know we had our own Tocquevillean visitor in Albert Metin. At the turn of the 20th century, the Frenchman set foot on these shores, memorably christening the social laboratory of Australian egalitarianism as a form of ''socialism sans doctrine''.

In Metin's view, ours was a working man's paradise achieved not through socialist theory but through pragmatic reform. It was a verdict that did much to shape our understanding of Australian political culture.

Of late, we have tended to look more to American experience for intellectual guidance. Thus, when political scientist Charles Murray recently visited the country, some moved quickly to extrapolate from his latest book, Coming Apart, a thesis about Australian society.

Murray argues in his book that America has been divided into two classes. A new upper class, typically educated at Ivy League universities, now controls the nation's economy, politics and culture. Tending towards Democrats rather than Republicans, this new elite has supposedly cut itself off from the ordinary Joes who are members of the old blue-collar working class. Worse still, it is perpetuating its power through the myth of meritocracy. While preaching that society should distribute its careers according to merit, the best and brightest marry only among themselves, send their children to the best schools, and end up defending an aristocracy based on talent.

There is naturally much in this story that has appealed to those on the centre-right.

One editorial in The Australian, for example, observed that Australia, like America, was seeing the creation of a new, politically progressive class that was increasingly segregated from a supposed mainstream. The ALP and the Greens were battling ''for the hearts and minds of the inner-city educated elites - where the received wisdom on border protection, climate change and gay marriage produce furious agreement - while it struggles to connect with its traditional working families whose common sense on these issues is unfashionable''. It was time for the ALP to get in touch ''with the calloused hands and modest tastes of their mainstream base''.

Well, there's nothing like replaying the culture war waged during the Howard years to get the Tory adrenalin pumping. Nothing like the bogymen of cosmopolitan, politically correct, left-leaning elites who loathe middle Australia and control our public institutions.

Too bad it's fantasy. There isn't, of course, a singular elite in Australia that controls all the levers of power.

Indeed, we aren't governed as the British are by Etonians, as the French are by the graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, or as the Americans are by their Harvard alumni.

Ours is one nation whose leaders have never been drawn from an identifiable meritocratic elite - let alone an inner-city progressive one that is set against suburban battlers.

In so far as there is elitism, it is plural in character: we have political elites and economic elites, but there is no one group of elites that dominates both arenas. So-called cultural elites arguably don't even warrant a category of their own.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of Murray's thesis that deserve further consideration. While American class structures are very different to ours, Murray is absolutely correct to insist that a vocabulary of virtue and an ethos of stewardship are necessary to discipline the self-interest of elites, however they may be defined.

In more unapologetically aristocratic times, this was summed up by the idea of noblesse oblige. Honour made moral demands of the noble. Privilege was accompanied by responsibility.

A democratic age has seen the demise of this honour code. Ideally, civic virtue must take its place.

The health of any polity depends as much on its leaders and citizens as it does on its laws and institutions. Its members must be prepared to think beyond themselves and to make sacrifices for a common good.

It is now hard to articulate a sense of common ground in this country, however. Politics as it is currently being practised offers few openings for consensus or compromise. A bitter adversarialism has closed off any chance of this - at least for a while.

If there is a problem with elites in Australia, it concerns this abandonment of civic decorum. Parliament this year has demonstrated, in its brutal ugliness, that the ethic of partisanship has become all-consuming. The question now is whether it will destroy the ethic of public service.

You don't need to be a Metin to know that it's one thing to do politics without doctrine - but another to do it without either class or purpose.

Tim Soutphommasane is an Age columnist, a political philosopher at Monash University and the author of Don't Go Back to Where You Came From. Twitter: @timsout

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