Maligning the Meritocracy: Elites and Fashionable Assault on Fairness.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, the conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued that part of white America’s turn against meritocracy is caused by what social theorist Peter Turchin called “elite overproduction.” America is creating more elites than it can accommodate, and those who are not accommodated become bitter while those who are currently competing for scarce positions are understandably anxious. Anti-meritocratic rhetoric alleviates this anger and anxiety by providing a justification for defeat: America is not meritocratic and therefore the basic premise of this dread-inducing competition is a lie. Failure is not a reflection of unworthiness, but a reflection of the unfairness of society.
This is an appealing argument, but one that strikes me as implausible, because it almost entirely ignores the most commonly used weapon in the white elites’ war on meritocracy: Race. It is true that Douthat discusses (and attempts to explain the popularity of) “white privilege” and “white toxicity,” but he never seriously contends with the charge that most white elites themselves would forward against America’s “illusory” meritocracy, namely that it discriminates against minorities in favor of whites. He does make the surprisingly cynical (and, I think, too clever) argument that assailing hard work and discipline as outdated relics of whiteness might sap the ability of minorities to compete with whites, thus explaining why white families might be attracted to a kind of ritualized denigration of these bourgeois virtues. But this still does not appear to address the fundamental function of anti-meritocratic rhetoric about white privilege and toxicity nor does it explain why successful white elites who write for The New York Times and Vox would so enthusiastically embrace it.
My hypothesis is that such rhetoric serves two functions: First, as a signal to distinguish educated elite whites (whom I’ll refer to simply as elites throughout) from hoi polloi (relatively uneducated whites); and, second, as a justification for the large disparities in prestige between these elites and hoi polloi. It is not, therefore, as a salve for stinging envy and anxiety that elites have promoted the language of white fragility, toxicity, and anti-meritocracy, but rather as an instrument for public (and perhaps self) justification.
Elites believe that modern society is pervasively racist. Some of this belief is an understandable reaction to large and stubborn disparities between whites and blacks. Most elites are what might be called cosmic egalitarians and believe that demographic groups are roughly equal on all socially valued traits. Therefore, if there are disparities between groups, then the cause or causes must be environmental. One obvious environmental explanation is persistent prejudices against blacks.
But another potential cause of this belief in ubiquitous racism is that it signals a kind of educated sophistication and skepticism about the West, a cultured disdain for simplistic narratives of European righteousness. This would explain why such beliefs are often expressed in an obscure argot imported from postmodern philosophy and why even the understandable jargon and acronyms about race and social justice (e.g., “people of color,” “black,” “African American,” and “BIPOC”) routinely change in ways that are baffling to the uninformed. The more these signals discriminate between the educated who have perfected the intimidating vernacular of critical theory and the ordinary who do not have the time or perhaps the verbal facility to do so, the better.
But this puts elites in a bind. If they believe that society is irredeemably racist and unjust, then how can they possibly justify their prestige? Suppose, for example, that one asks an elite writer at the New York Times, “Why should we listen to you and why do you warrant your status — your pay and your influence and your fancy dinners?” The elite writer cannot feasibly maintain that he or she deserves the pay and prestige while also maintaining that society is systemically unfair, for, if it is unfair, then how do we know that this particular outcome is merited? Wouldn’t that, in fact, suggest that society is fair? Thus, the belief in widespread racism and injustice actually puts the successful elite in an uncomfortable and apparently indefensible position. Fortunately, the language of white fragility and accusations of ubiquitous unfairness also provids the Nietzschean solution to the very puzzle it created.
Elites deserve their status not because they are necessarily smarter or more talented than hoi polloi, but rather because they are fully aware of their own depravity. Like the religiously righteous, their self-disgust and self-flagellation are in fact evidence of their spiritual purity, and their willingness to confess their sins is evidence of their ethical enlightenment. Hoi polloi should listen to them because they are morally superior, not because they are more skilled or educated. The world of progressive institutions, then, is in fact a kind of meritocracy; it is a meritocracy of moral wisdom.
And the reason that people such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi are praised so fulsomely by elites is because they serve an important apologetic function. They, like evangelical religious preachers, provide the moral narrative that explains and justifies the current status hierarchy. Backward and benighted, Hoi Polloi don’t write for The New York Times or Vox and don’t have as much cultural power and prestige as the elites precisely because they are morally inferior to them. Therefore, elites can maintain without contradiction that instruments that measure intelligence or college preparedness are hopelessly biased and are in fact tools exploited by white supremacy to create the illusion of meritocracy, while also maintaining that their own status is deeply deserved.
America is not a skill-based meritocracy. It is racist, sexist, classist. Elites do not believe this because it assuages their own anxieties about possible failure. Rather, they believe it because it is necessary to explain demographic disparities; and they confess it enthusiastically because the more they confess it, the louder they confess it, the more earnestly they confess it, the greater their own merit and righteousness.
Like the religious devotees who maintained that humans were sinful and depraved, elites maintain that humans are blinkered and bigoted; and like those devotees, the elites believe that the only chance for salvation lies in an absolute and unconditional acceptance of the world’s wickedness. This is exactly what progressive institutions such as universities and the New York Times and Vox and Mother Jones do. They document the many iniquities of modern society, and they unveil the fraudulence of the standard story about merit. And because they do that, the people who work for them and who rise through their ranks really do deserve their prestige. In other words, elites malign meritocracy precisely to prove that they inhabit one based on moral righteousness.