The Politics of Pretension

How the meritocracy bred smugness—and drove voters to Donald Trump.

In examining the 2016 populist revolt that gave rise to Donald Trump and Brexit, most observers have focused on two explanations. Some say the uprising was driven by economic dislocation: Voters were angry about rising inequality and felt they were losing out because of trade. Others argue that anger with the establishment stemmed from racist discomfort with immigration, demographic change, and growing religious diversity.

The Tyranny of Merit:
What’s Become of
the Common Good?
by Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp.

In his new book, the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel focuses on a third factor: elite smugness and self-dealing. To Sandel, 2016 represented a rebellion of voters lacking a college degree against a governing class that believes that its credentials, wealth, and power are the products of its merit. These leaders, Sandel argues, have condescended to blue-collar workers, “eroded the dignity of work and left many feeling disrespected and disempowered.” 

Sandel focuses primarily on the left. For three decades, he writes, leading Democrats—including Bill Clinton (Yale Law ’73), Hillary Clinton (Yale Law ’73), and Barack Obama (Harvard Law ’91)—embodied personally, and touted rhetorically, a brand of meritocracy hopelessly oblivious to what he calls the “tyranny of merit.” Sometimes, this is implicit, as when Pete Buttigieg flexes on his ability to speak eight languages and his experience as a Rhodes Scholar. Other times, it’s explicit. Speaking in Mumbai in 2018, Hillary Clinton bragged that she “won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product”—that is, the places that had been successful in the era of globalization. This, Sandel writes, “displayed the meritocratic hubris that contributed to her defeat.” The Democratic Party “once stood for farmers and working people against the privileged. Now, in a meritocratic age, its defeated standard bearer boasted that the prosperous, enlightened parts of the country had voted for her.” 

Sandel isn’t opposed to a system of governance that prioritizes merit. He acknowledges the obvious benefits of meritocratic hiring over decisionmaking based on alternative reasoning, such as nepotism and racial or gender bias. And he knows that skills are important too. As a matter of efficiency, one wants a dentist who can repair a tooth competently. Moreover, after living through Donald Trump’s presidency, marked by shameless race baiting and bumbling incompetence in the face of a global pandemic, a nondiscriminatory meritocratic approach to leadership looks pretty good. 

But Sandel is right to probe the dark things that can come from embracing meritocracy. Liberals have been overemphasizing their credentials and the economic success of their cosmopolitan metropolises. In doing so, they’ve forgotten that these markers are not good indicators of worth. The ability to obtain post-secondary degrees, particularly from elite institutions, is at least as much a reflection of one’s class and race as it is of one’s deservedness. The wealth and success of more liberal places has as much to do with an unequal system that allows existing wealth to concentrate as it does with the merit of those cities. 

Most progressives (especially those conscious of race) know this. But at the same time, they are willing to accept meritocratic trappings—like college degrees—as accurate predictors of worth, enabling the rise of snobbery among the progressive professional class. It allows them to justify self-dealing policies that benefit themselves. It’s therefore no surprise that right-wing populism is on the rise.

The term meritocracy, almost universally praised today, was coined in the 1950s by the British sociologist Michael Young to describe a dystopia. In contrast to an aristocracy, where people on top know they are just lucky and people on the bottom know they are merely unfortunate, in a meritocracy a small minority of winners feel enormous pride in their accomplishments and the majority feel humiliated by their low position. Young’s book predicted a revolt against meritocratic elites in 2034. “In 2016, as Britain voted for Brexit and America for Trump, that revolt arrived eighteen years ahead of schedule,” Sandel writes. 

It’s easy to see why. While meritocracy very appropriately denounces racism and sexism, it has given rise to what Sandel calls “the last acceptable prejudice,” a disdain for the less educated. Social scientists have found that highly educated elites “may denounce racism and sexism but are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.” A 2018 study by five psychologists, for example, concluded that well-educated elites are no less biased than those with less education; “it is rather that [their] targets of prejudice are different.” Media scholars have noted that blue-collar fathers such as Homer Simpson are cast as “buffoons.” 

The term meritocracy was coined in the 1950s by a British sociologist to describe a dystopia. In contrast to an aristocracy, where people on top know they are just lucky, in a meritocracy, winners feel enormous pride in their accomplishments and the majority feel humiliated.

As a result, embracing meritocracy too tightly can be politically disastrous. In 2016, some working-class people were left with “the galling sense that those who stood astride the hierarchy of merit looked down with disdain on those they considered less accomplished than themselves.” The disdain was made explicit in 2016 when Hillary Clinton, speaking at fund-raisers in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard, labeled millions of working-class Americans as “deplorables.”

Sometimes, the meritocratic ethos can be well meaning but nevertheless counterproductive. At a 2017 conference I attended on civics education, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took a series of questions from high school students, and before they each spoke, asked whether they intended to go to college. Each said yes, and she congratulated them all. In attendance was Clifford Janey, the former superintendent of public schools in Washington, D.C., who gently suggested to her during the Q&A that students who did not plan to go to college also had a lot to offer and were deserving of support. As Sandel notes, “Insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job” results in “prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college.”

Trump brilliantly exploited the idea that well-educated progressives looked down on those with less education (and, sometimes relatedly, those who are deeply religious). He rarely spoke of opportunity and upward mobility. A candidate “keenly alive to the politics of humiliation,” Sandel says, Trump feigned respect for working-class people. “l love the poorly educated,” Trump famously said after one primary victory. The gambit worked. Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won college-educated voters, but Trump won voters without a college degree—
a larger share of the electorate—by seven percentage points.

Liberals, of course, tend to have policies that are far more helpful to those without college educations than do conservatives. But Democratic governments stacked with well-educated elites have little real understanding of working-class struggles, and, just like Republicans, they can cause problems for the poor. For example, the mostly Ivy League status of Obama’s cabinet helped inform “a Wall Street–friendly response to the financial crisis,” Sandel writes, one that failed to comprehend “seething public anger.” Instead, the too-big-to-jail philosophy seemed to exonerate well-educated Wall Street bankers who engaged in selfish behavior that did grave damage to the country. Timothy Geithner and Rahm Emanuel were happier to bail out financial executives—who shared their pedigrees (and in some cases their former jobs)—than they were to rescue average Americans. In other words, a belief that wealth and education equal merit helped lead to stunning inequality.

Wealth and education obviously do not “naturally” equal merit. But even if we were able to eliminate the immense barriers of poverty, race, and gender—so that we had a society in which people could indeed rise as far as their talents would take them—meritocracy would remain problematic because it would still sometimes reward the merely lucky. The possession of raw talents is unearned. There is a large element of fortune in being born into a society at a time when your particular talents are valued. If LeBron James were a superb arm wrestler, rather than a phenomenal basketball player, he would not be making tens of millions of dollars, Sandel observes.

By failing to recognize these realities, today’s emphasis on creating a “true meritocracy” of talent, something the Democrats’ last two presidents explicitly advocated, allows meritocratic “winners to inhale too deeply of their success,” Sandel writes. It allows them to incorrectly conclude, “If my success is my own doing, their failure must be their fault.” 

What is to be done? Sandel wants to mend, not end, meritocracy. Merit should still play a “role in the allocation of jobs and social roles.” But we should be more forthright about acknowledging the role of luck. Americans should show more humility and, with it, strive for greater equality of condition as well as equality of opportunity. 

To do that, Sandel focuses his policy recommendation in two arenas: higher education and the workforce. He would increase funding for community colleges, which are grossly under-resourced. At selective colleges, he would find ways to boost economic diversity. Citing data showing that selective colleges have 23 times as many rich students as poor ones, he describes American higher education as “an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.” Sandel would provide admissions preferences for low-income students and eliminate legacy preferences for the children of alumni. 

To make sure that Americans recognize the luck inherent in meritocracy, Sandel would admit all students to selective colleges by lottery once they reached a given academic threshold, with the option of giving extra lottery tickets to ensure diversity (all lottery participants, including those who came from groups eligible for extra tickets, would need to meet the same academic threshold). The lottery would make high school less oppressive for students seeking college admission, and would reduce the hubris of those admitted to college. In the Varsity Blues scandal, he notes, wealthy parents weren’t just trying to advance their children’s financial prospects. (They could have set up trust funds for that.) “They wanted something else—the meritocratic cachet that admission to elite colleges confers,” including the ability to look down on others.

Sandel’s other major focus is to find ways to honor “the dignity of work.” Work, he writes, is “both economic and cultural. It is a way of making a living and also a source of social recognition and esteem.” Progressives used to widely understand this. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. told striking sanitation workers that their labor was as important as a physician’s because if they didn’t do their job, disease would become rampant. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, running for president in 1968, likewise understood that joblessness was damaging not only because it meant a loss of income. Having a job, he declared, lets an individual “say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country.’ ” Today, Sandel observes, few progressives speak that way. They instead mostly view individuals as “consumers” who want more income, rather than “producers” who want their contributions recognized. 

To reinforce the dignity of work, Sandel advocates reducing payroll taxes and increasing a tax on financial transactions. Oddly, however, he says almost nothing about the need to revive organized labor in America. Unions are the central instrument for ensuring that workers receive decent pay and benefits, avoid indignities like “just in time” scheduling, and are generally valued by employers and the public. 

To make sure that Americans recognize the luck inherent in meritocracy, Sandel would admit students to selective colleges by lottery, once they reached a given academic threshold. This would make high school less oppressive for students and reduce the hubris of those admitted.

It’s an unfortunate omission, given that unions have waned in the United States far more than in other countries facing similar globalization pressures. This decline is because U.S. laws have failed to recognize that labor organizing is a civil right. Employers routinely fire people for organizing a union because the penalties for doing so are extremely weak. To reverse this trend, Congress should extend the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which provides compensatory and punitive damages to victims of discrimination based on factors such as race and sex, to those fired for trying to create a union.

This reform, of course, will be impossible so long as Republicans hold the White House. But if Sandel is correct that Trump’s election was driven in part by an uprising against the tyranny of merit, it should spell good news for Joe Biden (Syracuse University Law ’68), who comes across as a bighearted politician who doesn’t look down on working-class people. Biden identifies King and RFK as his “two political heroes,” and echoes their rhetoric on the dignity of work and family and country. On the stump, Biden quotes his father, who once said, “Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect.” Biden has taken a strong stand against exclusionary zoning laws, which physically keep working-class people away from the wealthy. As we slowly emerge from a pandemic in which Americans have recognized grocery clerks, truck drivers, and paramedics as everyday heroes, one can hope that the country will—like Biden—embrace the dignity of these professions.

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Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and is writing a book about housing segregation.