The Failure of Meritocracy

I had an interesting brief conversation with a friend who shall remain entirely nameless who complained particularly about the appeal of a presidential candidate who shall also remain nameless, and this candidate’s particular appeal to the Washington DC crowd, who view American life as a series of policy dilemmas to be unpacked in a break out session.
Of course, the irony of this complaint, an entirely legitimate complaint from someone with more policy experience than nearly any friend I know, is that so many of life’s most important questions are solved in exactly that way. The vast majority of problems are solved neither by galvanizing speeches or slogans shouted in a street, but by smart people in conference rooms deliberating in good faith on statistics compiled in good faith by people of good faith in other conference rooms, learning everything there is to know about a subject in their free time, and from all the data learned creating entirely new byways of inquiry for which an entirely new series of questions are formed, which necessitates compilation of entirely new statistics, a process which goes on, year after decade after century after….
The problem is that nobody believes that but the people who know it’s true. People do not like the idea that they can be reduced to units, abstractions, automatons whose actions may be entirely predetermined before it ever occurs to them there’s any decision to make. Every meritocrat is a living reminder to everybody who is not a meritocrat that they can be reduced to that level of trivia, and that compared to the smarter, better accomplished person with power over them in a thousand ways, they’re at best a number or a laboratory experiment, and at worst an expendable, useless cog in a societal machine, whose every advantage in life can be removed with a simple wave of a hand.
I know a lot of meritocrats. I even like a lot of them… the vast majority of them are people of excellent faith who want nothing more than to do some good for the world, the ones I know anyway… If nothing else, knowing that they’ll leave the world a better place than they found it is the only way many of them can square their disproportionate advantages to their consciences. And knowing them, I know in my bones that, at least at this point in history, if we all accepted that we’re trivial enough to be treated as simple bits of data by a bunch of nerds in public service, each of us would probably would find our individual lives a lot more fulfilling to live. And then consider the alternative…. We all know the power of big data at this point. The chance to use data to improve our lives is exponential from what it even was a generation ago. The data is there, and can either be used for good or evil. If we don’t allow our lives to be determined by nerdy public servants in conference rooms, our lives will be determined by data nerds in private board rooms who place no value on service at all.
However true, most people don’t believe that. Whether the other person in a room with a meritocrat is white or of color, most of them have no idea about the good that lurks in the hearts of meritocrats, and yet they know a meritocrat the moment they walk in a room. You see their eyes grow wider and narrower at the same moment as every muscle tightens, they grow completely circumspect in what they say as they worry that every word out of their mouths can forfeit a potential advantage or place them on a blacklist of whose existence they may always be unaware. The very fact that meritocrats are now capable of reaching the top by achievement rather than simple bloodline makes the rest of us all the more scared, because even if the meritocrat seems like a complete dumbass in every way but scholastic and professional achievement, their achievements can be seen as proof positive that these people are, in fact, smarter than the rest of us, more talented, they may even be ‘better’…..
This may shock those who’ve read this far, but life is unfair. Some people really are more talented and capable. Are the people of our generations who go to top schools and make high six figure salaries the most talented and capable of us? Not really, almost all of them are talented and capable (unless their name happens to be Trump or Bush…), but to go from success to success in modern America requires a second skill set which most of us do not possess: the ability to take on every quality your interlocutor wants from you. You have to simultaneously stand out for your achievements and blend in by your personality. You have to be the most knowledgeable researcher for any job, but also be a person whose findings do little to challenge the established way of things. Your personality has to fit the exact contours of the nine dots so perfectly that anyone whose personality goes in a different direction from an exact shape (99% or more of us…) can’t relate to you, and if people can’t relate you, most will therefore think you can’t relate to them, and nothing can convince them that you would ever know how to make decisions in their interests: decisions about their lives whose implications, irony of ironies, you really are much better qualified to make for them than they are for themselves.
Unless they’re a billionaire, a personality too large will be thrown out of the elite. The smartest people I know are, generally speaking, too interesting to achieve too much in modern America. Their thoughts run in too many different directions, both right and left, and to speak them aloud to the wrong people would jeopardize their entire futures, and yet they can’t help but speak them aloud, and therefore the world loses everything it would gain by letting them spread their knowledge and talents, and allowed into an arena where their personalities are large enough for the public relate to them.
Why all that is is for another post, but if one thing is perfectly clear, it’s this: the modern American meritocracy was over before it even began. We’ve never even had a meritocrat president. The closest the meritocracy ever came to capturing the Presidency was Bill Clinton, a candidate who would never pass muster today, not just because of his sexual misconduct, but because his ideological flexibility would cancel his Presidential ambitions from the moment he announced his candidacy. Nobody ever trusted a smart guy before now, but how much less do they trust a smart guy like Slick Willie who espouses every contradictory thing people want to hear from year to year? And Barack Obama? Precisely the opposite problem. No African-American Columbia transfer student who dealt weed and did coke would ever be regarded as a true citizen of American’s top class unless he was foisted into the elite by a grassroots campaign. And then, there is the simple fact that twice in the last twenty years, two of the dumbest men in America sailed over the entire meritocracy to the Presidency, and installed all their dumb-as-a-brick advisors and courtiers as henchmen. No amount of good policy can ever sell America on something without a natural-born salesperson to lead it, and a salesman has to take you into their confidence, make you see the common ground between yourself and they. To most contemporary Americans, high achievers are self-selectingly unrelatable. To many Americans, high achievers seem at best like a combination of wizards and robots, algorithms given human form who always know the exact impolitic thing that should stay unmentioned and the exact nuance of conversation to work to their continued advantage, and at worst like members of a social club that cares about nothing but increasing their privileges and keeping the rest of us away from them.
And this is why Joe Biden succeeded where Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren failed. The Biden Presidency is only a product of his straight white maleness by virtue of how it makes him seem so average. Whether true or false, Americans believe that Joe Biden knows what it’s like to be them, and few Americans believe that either Warren or Buttigieg knows much about what it means to have an underprivileged life.
Buttigieg, the candidate from South Bend, seems like an impersonation of an underprivileged background. Buttigieg is extraordinary in so many ways, he’s already clearly the best orator of our generation, he cut unemployment in half as mayor of South Bend and made his city a serious tech hub, but he was also a consultant at McKinsey – a company who helped Purdue sell $10 billion in opioids to unwitting addicts, and only grew up in South Bend because he is the son of a endowed chair literary theorist at Notre Dame who was an avowed Marxist. This supposed new liberal lion simultaneously benefited from the most radical elements of both capitalism and socialism, and consciously projects an image of liberal decency that is completely at odds with both sides of his background. I have no doubt Buttigieg believes in his heart that McKinsey did colossally evil things and that his father was colossally wrong, but he nevertheless exploited colossal advantages accorded from both radical capitalism and radical socialism, and now is free to write his future in a way that conveniently erases every unsympathetic element of his elite past which allowed him such a meteoric rise.
As for Warren, the shelf of bullshit awards speaks for itself: Bostonian of the Year, Fifty Most Influential Women Attorneys in America, Honorary Doctrates, Oklahoma Hall of Fame, membership in the Order of the Coif (a law society), a five time listee of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world before she was even a Presidential candidate. These are not awards based on merit, they’re awards based on who you know. For every woman who makes it on these lists, just like every man, there are five thousand deserving women who aren’t listed because they were too busy doing the grunt work of social change and not showing up at high profile events that grease the career ladder. Again, there is so much extraordinary about Elizabeth Warren, she is the single most knowledgable and capable policy wonk in public life since… well… both of the Clintons, and she is the best advocate for America’s workers since Ralph Nader. But she is meritocrat to the bone, and people who think part of her persona isn’t showboating are taken in sorely. She’s free to advocate for the most drastic policy reforms precisely because she knows that the class for which she advocates would reject everything she’d like to give them and will never lift a finger to help her. The predominant reason for their animus is not because she’s a woman, it’s because they’re convinced she’s a class traitor, just as they thought Bill Clinton was before her. She left flyover America as soon as she could get out, decades before anybody knew who she was, and they’re convinced she stepped over all of them to get to the top. I don’t doubt the fact that she’s a woman influenced many perceptions of her, but they certainly think no differently of hundreds of high achieving liberal men from Red America. Every person in Red America thinks they knew a person like Elizabeth Warren in every public school class, who knew they were smarter than the rest of them, hated everything about their classmates, did everything they could to get out and if given the chance would dynamite their hometowns.
But then there’s our President: 1.9 College GPA, D in ROTC (seriously, how do you almost fail ROTC?), the rock bottom of his law school class. In so many ways, Joe Biden really is the archtypal white heteronormative male mediocrity who fell ass backwards into positions he never deserved, and he proved that in every decade of his career. But unlike Buttigieg or Warren, Biden clearly knows what loss is: losing a child and a wife in an accident and nearly losing his other two children in the same. Then losing another son and countless other periods while both of his other children dealt with addiction, during any of which he probably had to worry that he might be left with no children at all. Anyone who believes that obviously smarter and more accomplished meritocrats of long standing like Pete Buttigieg or Elizabeth Warren have dealt with anything like that level of deprivation or suffering needs to imagine losing the people who matter most to them, again and again. If you are not more moved by Biden’s story than the other two, you have a stone heart and dubious character. Those among you who lean further left claim your choices are animated by empathy, but what animates you is an abstract idea of empathy, and you have as much knowledge of empathy as a libertarian budget slasher.
The American people made their choice not because Joe Biden was a non-threatening white guy, and they didn’t make their choice because of any policy Biden advocated, they made their choice because America is in mourning. America made its choice because Biden understands implicitly that what loss is, he knows what dread is, he knows what it means to feel as though the very things which give meaning to every moment of your existence will be taken from you forever. Over and over again, he had reason to walk away from public service, to give something less than the last full measure of devotion, but he always returned because he knew that he could spare thousands, even millions from a fate whose awfulness he knew all too well. It is now clear that whether the candidate was Buttigieg or Warren or Sanders, had Biden not returned, Trump would still be President; 71 million Americans voted for him, and many millions more Americans would die.
Over the course of a lifetime, we all accumulate a long list of terrible faults and mistakes, and we hopefully do the best we can to square them with our consciences in good faith. Biden has shown a willingness to repent, to evolve, to learn, sympathize, take responsibility. There is no such thing as a President who leads by talent, there are only Presidents who lead by good faith, who place the common good as the highest priority, and will often make decisions that fly in the face of their previous ideas of what constitutes a great Presidency. Every President from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson was pulled left of their stated positions because at the time, American policy, soaked in the bloodiest tragedy the world had ever known, was animated by the good faith idea that an equivalent tragedy can never be allowed to happen, but that was before America was overrun with right-wing ideology that put a pause button on every single notion of progress for fifty years.
There has never been a true left-wing ideologue as President (though believe it or not, the closest was Woodrow Wilson, if he seems unforgivably reactionary now it’s because what seems progressive is so fickle from generation to generation that today’s leftist seems like tomorrow’s right-wing dictator), but there have been a dozen or more right-wing ideologues, whom when faced with the obvious common good versus a simple-minded right-wing abstraction, always chose the simplistic abstraction.
Why does right-wing ideology have so much power in America? Two reasons.
1. American notions of democracy and capitalism were so wildly successful in comparison to the feudal/imperial monarchies which ran the world before us because compared to the European models, we were progress incarnate. Why, so conservaives reason, change a thing that works? Conveniently not realizing that because America had been so successful, we’d unwittingly changed everything about the world we ran, and we’ve now become reactionary by standing still while the world around us progressed.
2. The right-wing always has more power than the left. That’s the nature of nearly every society on earth. The right-wing is, by definition, the establishment, and therefore will always have disproportionate power to what they deserve; not only over people’s life-circumstances, but over their minds, and therefore any change at all to the average citizen will seem like radical change, and any notion of progress seems like extremism until it’s enacted. The only modern societies where that wasn’t true so far were in the Soviet sphere, and if you’d rather live there there’s a lot more wrong than your politics.
My mother made a startling admission to me the other day. It wasn’t startling because it was a mystery that she believed it, it was startling because she said it so boldly and pursued it so consciously in retrospect with everything she did. She told me that “I deliberately wanted none of you to be part of the elite class. I think they’re corrupt. I think they’re hypocrites. I don’t think they have anybody’s interests at heart but themselves.” Part of this is politics, longtime readers here know that my Mom is a saint and I brook no disagreement on this, but just between you and I, dear reader, she does have some unsaintly beliefs about the world. But part of this is first hand experience.
By the time Mom was thirty, she was an economist one job away from reporting directly to the Mayor of Baltimore. She was a Phi Beta Kappa at Goucher, she interned on Capitol Hill, she may never have known just how smart she was, but she literally could have done anything at all yet decided she was happiest as a homemaker and a mother. Dad? PhD at UChicago, Pentagon funded scholarship to study Eastern European history in Romania right after the end of the Prague Spring. Both skipped two grades, both had bachelors degrees in Hebrew by the time they were sixteen, both grew up bilingual in English and Yiddish and both learned at least two other languages (Dad learned five more…). They literally could have the entire storehouse of every gift America offered its elite boomers, and yet by the mid-70s they elected to come back to Baltimore, get married, start a family and live their whole lives purely by the Jewish values with which they were raised, and they never looked back. When their ostensibly ‘brilliant’ oldest son was diagnosed with some of the severest learning and emotional conditions on earth, Dad told me they were in mourning, but it wasn’t because of what their son wouldn’t achieve, it was because the day to day difficulties of his life would be colossal, which is exactly what they’ve been…. Rather, dad told me that when he encountered a kid whom when very young literally seemed as though he might be a Mozart or Einstein, he dreaded the nightmare of going through the endless compromises they would have to make to their lives for the opportunities offered a son like that. Fortunately, they seem to have gotten that son’s opposite…….
Pikesville MD, Jewish Baltimore, is practically the Millennial Meritocrat Capital of the Nation. All my close friends growing up, most of my acquaintances even, have long since relocated to DC or New York, where they climb a long ladder in the private or public sector whose top rung seems nowhere near as high as it did when we were eighteen. They are the American elite, and yet even the elite opportunities are not what they were. Gradually, the pool of American opportunity drains – first a million, then a hundred-thousand, then ten-thousand, then…
Like so many American promises, the promise of better lives from joining the American elite was never worth the paper on the deed we thought we read. It was a fiction. Left-wingers now tell us the meritocracy is just a fiction by which the white patriarchy perpetuates itself. Right-wingers now tell us that meritocracy is a fiction by which the public sector keeps a stranglehold on real individual achievement. The truth is simpler: the meritocracy is a fiction because nobody knows what real merit is. Are intelligence or talent merits in themselves? Maybe it’s a merit to be kind and decent? But how do we measure kindness and decency in an era when the country can’t even agree on what it means to be kind or decent?
Whatever the meritocracy is, two things are obviously true. One is that a meritocracy will exist in every time and place: everywhere, everywhen, some people will be at the top and some people will be at the bottom. The other is that the reasons for people falling into the top and bottom will be entirely arbitrary, and every new era will correctly find fault with how the last era rewards merit. It used to be a given that merit ought to be determined by birth, and we correctly think that’s ludicrous, but before merit was determined by birth, merit was determined by the spoils of war. Which was preferable? One day, perhaps when intelligence and talent and even tact can be acquired with a simple pill, future generations will marvel that societies can build their future on the accidental characteristics of a person’s genetic makeup.
The only solution, the solution by whose health we can tell any society anywhere, is how willing the elite meritocrats are to part with privileges that are very difficult to cast aside even with the best intentions. You can’t simply give away privileges that were given to you, because that implies that you ever deserved them to begin with. The way to do it is to chip away at the elite level, policy meeting after policy meeting, committee after committee, report after report, and always knowing that at any moment, a bad faith actor can stymie fifty years of work. The world will not be saved by faith, but it will be saved by good faith, the trust that there are some smart people out there who care about you sufficiently that they’re fighting the good fight for you. But they are not the showhorses, they are the workhorses, they are the people you barely if ever hear about, who stay in policy rooms and do not have ambitions of higher office which require the salesmanship on which their particular skill set is wasted. Leave the salesmanship for good policy to the Bidens and Roosevelts of the world (and the Sanderses. 2.5 GPA), because the Dukakises will inevitably be tripped up by the Bushes, and we will know that this is a more equal society not when the Buttigieges or Warrens become candidates, but when mediocre Biden-like equivalents from their demographics rise up from the middle of the pack to earn our trust through decency and shared struggle.
The point of the world is not to achieve in it, but to live in it, and to live in it means struggle in it. Whether true or not, the rest of America has the sense that our elite has not struggled, and no amount of good policy will ever convince them what their intuition tells them, especially if data shows their intuition is wrong, which it inevitably seems to.
About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #17. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, but it will return.
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