The Neoliberal Myth of Meritocracy
I wrote this essay nearly a year ago, and I am recycling it because it explains why those in the seats of power refuse to do anything to help the average citizen. It is more than just greed. It is more like a religious belief that they are better than the rest of us. It infects both parties, but it has been exposed for the rest of the world to see just how deeply embedded this philosophy is within the Democratic party. Meritocracy forms the bedrock of neoliberalism. I hope JtC won't mind that I republish this essay with a few small updates.
As many of you may already know, Thomas Frank has a book out titled, Listen Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People. In this book, Frank examines how the Democratic Party abandoned its traditional commitments to the working class, the poor, and those in the greatest need.
In an April 26, 2016, New York Time book review, Beverly Gage noted that Frank's book, Listen Liberal, is a scathing indictment of the liberal class and particularly the Democratic party.
Echoing the historian Lily Geismer, Frank argues that the Democratic Party — once “the Party of the People” — now caters to the interests of a “professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class. In the book, Frank points to the Democrats’ neglect of organized labor and support for Nafta as examples of this sensibility, in which “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.”
This mindset of the neoliberal class based upon meritocracy is a major contributing factor to wealth inequality in the United States and yet most Americans fail to see the linkage. As Thomas Frank so deftly pointed out in his book, there is a real arrogance of the neoliberal class toward the rest of us and such was clearly demonstrated in the words of Larry Summers who has served as Treasury Secretary, President of Harvard, and former chief economist for the World Bank.
“One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.
“Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes. From this mind-set stems everything that the Democrats have done to betray the masses, from Bill Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform policies to Obama’s failure to rein in Wall Street, according to Frank.
This belief in "meritocracy" forms the core basis for neoliberalism. Meritocracy theoretically rewards individuals with power and wealth based upon their merit only while ignoring the structural reasons why some individuals can more easily succeed due to family wealth and or connections. Such connections can result in legacy appointments to the right schools and family connections to facilitate success. The belief in meritocracy is widely accepted in the United States despite much evidence to the contrary.
Americans are more likely to believe that people are rewarded for their intelligence and skills and are less likely to believe that family wealth plays a key role in getting ahead. And Americans’ support for meritocratic principles has remained stable over the last two decades despite growing economic inequality, recessions, and the fact that there is less mobility in the United States than in most other industrialized countries.
In a December 2015 article in the Atlantic, The False Promise of Meritocracy, author Marianne Cooper examines how skewed the idea of meritocracy is within the real world and why it has greatly contributed to the exacerbation of income inequality in the United States. Studies of hiring and promotions in companies has shown that there is nearly always a bias toward white males when compared to minorities and women.
The paradox of meritocracy builds on other research showing that those who think they are the most objective can actually exhibit the most bias in their evaluations. When people think they are objective and unbiased then they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate. Yet, studies repeatedly show that stereotypes of all kinds (gender, ethnicity, age, disability etc.) are filters through which we evaluate others, often in ways that advantage dominant groups and disadvantage lower-status groups. For example, studies repeatedly find that the resumes of whites and men are evaluated more positively than are the identical resumes of minorities and women.
In a recent article for In These Times, author Thomas Frank looks at the city of Boston as microcosm of neo-liberalism and the culture of meritocracy. Boston stands out as an example of a once strongly blue collar liberal city that has abandoned its working class in favor of high paying medical and academic industries. What has resulted is a class of people who are doing very well while the rest of the population is stagnating or losing ground financially.
To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage—with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.
The big problem here is not that income inequality is due to a myriad of neoliberal excuses such as lack of training for the new economy or that unions are the causes. But in reality, it is the greed of the rent seeking neoliberal class that is defining aspect of the neoliberal ideology and that somehow meritocracy should be rewarded when the deck is stacked against most of the American workforce.
No where did we see the way that the meritocracy thinks than in the Hillary Clinton campaign. Hillary Clinton simply could not grasp populism. Populism is for people outside her own class and it was beyond her ability to either understand it or grasp the impact of it upon the Presidential campaign.
In "Shattered," a new autopsy of Hillary Clinton's campaign, authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes say Clinton failed to understand the rise of populism surrounding candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Here is a link to a short video in which the authors discuss Clinton's reaction to populism. The members of the meritocracy such as Hillary Clinton and most of those running the Democratic party are so far removed from real people, they can not even understand the electorate.