One of our most enduring cliches is that America is the Land of Opportunity. If America were a religion, that would be the First Commandment, a bedrock of our self-conception.
But now, for the first time in decades, a serious presidential candidate is challenging that ideal—not just the reality of it, but the morality.
America is supposed to be a meritocracy. Unimaginable success is there for the taking. All you have to do is work hard, study a lot, and be smarter and more talented than your peers. Anyone can be the next Steve Jobs, who founded Apple out of his garage, or the next Oprah Winfrey, who grew up in poverty before becoming the most successful TV host ever, or the next Barack Obama.
The Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has been far more bitter and nasty than anyone imagined a few months ago. One big reason is that they have fundamentally different views on what government should do. Clinton believes that government should help create a fair and just Land of Opportunity. Sanders believes that government should work to create a Land of Equality. He is challenging the very idea that a meritocracy is a good and just ideal to strive for.
“Bernie Sanders is running as a social democrat, specifically a Nordic-style social democrat,” Matt Bruenig, an influential writer who focuses on political theory, told me.
“The animating goal of social democracy in the modern era,” he went on, “is egalitarianism for its own sake, which is to say that the economy should be designed to generate outcomes that are as equal as practically possible.”
Sanders obviously doesn’t want to engineer *exactly* the same outcome for everybody. But he has spoken often of his admiration for Scandinavian social democracies where not many people accrue extreme wealth, but there isn’t much poverty, either. Clinton has been more dismissive of them.
“She does not generally propose universal programs that treat all users equally, but instead a long list of heavily mean-tested benefits,” Bruenig told me by email.
She talks about her programs in meritocratic terms, he said, and describes them as ways to help people “live up to their God-given potential.” She also is fond of describing her candidacy a way to tear down barriers, he noted.
“For her, the main injustice in our system is that some people who could have done better in school, in the labor market, and in society more generally were prevented from doing so,” Bruenig said.
Few people predicted that the Democratic coalition, so resilient in the elections that gave Obama two terms, would fracture along these lines. But 2016 is redefining what it means to be a liberal in this country.
The distinction, according to Bruenig: “For the egalitarian leftists, the main goal is to shrink the divide between the top and the bottom. For the meritocratic liberal, the main goal is to ensure the top spots in the economy are doled out more fairly.”
One easy way to highlight the difference is to look at the candidates’ websites.
At BernieSanders.com, the first link on the Issues tab says, “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.”
When you go to HillaryClinton.com and click on the Issues tab, it says: “Hillary believes the defining economic challenge of our time is raising incomes for hardworking Americans.”
One of the most influential recent books on meritocracy is “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy” by MSNBC host Chris Hayes. He argues that “meritocracy represents a rare point of consensus in our increasingly polarized politics. It undergirds our debates, but it is never the subject of them, because belief in it is so widely shared.”
According to Hayes, the Democratic Party’s major recent successes have come when it has tried to make the meritocracy purer and fairer—think gay rights, the inclusion of women in higher education, the end of racial discrimination under the law.
But its defeats have come when the meritocratic ideal is threatened, as in collective bargaining rights and higher taxes for the rich.
So why is this new, egalitarian left emerging now? After all, Sanders has been delivering the same message for what feels like forever.
Hayes argues that for decades we put tremendous trust in our meritocratic elites to Run Things, only to see them fail miserably in the 2000s. He cites the collapse of Enron, the steroid scandal in baseball, the Iraq war, child abuse in the Catholic Church, the financial crisis, and of course the media’s role in allowing those failures to unfold right before their eyes. People are angry and disillusioned, and the fact that the elites who perpetrate these crimes almost never go to jail has shown just how unmeritocratic our meritocracy is.
And according to Hayes, the best evidence that we don’t actually live in a true meritocracy is that social mobility has gone down.
In a perfect meritocracy, great inequality can be tolerated as long as there’s a large degree of social mobility. If the system were working properly, poor overachievers would be lifted into the elite, while lazy and talentless children of millionaires would fall back. This isn’t happening. The United States has less economic mobility than other developed countries. If you are born poor, you are more likely to stay poor if you are an American.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the debate between egalitarianism and meritocracy has been how it has played along racial lines. Racial minorities have tended to support Hillary Clinton, whereas Bernie Sanders has won in states that are overwhelmingly white.
This has puzzled many Sanders supporters who argue that, because racial minorities are likelier than whites to be poor, they stand to gain the most from an egalitarian system.
The two camps on the left side of our political spectrum have talked past each other despite the fact that they surely share many of the same goals and concerns.
The egalitarians believe that economic justice is The Issue. That racism can’t be cured by the government, but poverty can. Many black liberals have criticized this approach. Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that “treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gunshot wound solely with bandages.” In a letter directed at Sanders, Jane Coaston wrote: “The way you formulated your plan to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities is a good start. It’s a good start because you recognized that black issues are just that — black issues, and they needed to be addressed specifically as such.”
To Adolph Reed, a political scientist and race theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, this is nonsense. Reed has been a strident critic of the way diversity is discussed on the left. To him, the focus on identity politics falls woefully short as an organizing political principle.
Identity politics “sorts us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do,” he wrote. “Within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”
An example of what Reed is talking about is the conversation around #OscarsSoWhite. Reed would criticize the focus on #OscarsSoWhite as essentially social justice for elites. Yeah, Will Smith didn’t get nominated for “Concussion,” but Will Smith is a multimillionaire.
A similar but not identical divide has emerged among feminists. Writing at The Nation, Joan Walsh argued that supporting Hillary Clinton was a radical act.
“I came out of the closet as a full-fledged Hillary Clinton supporter,” she wrote. “I’m backing her without apology, as the right and even radical choice … after 40 years of voting for male presidents, I’m supporting Hillary with excitement, even joy.”
We have seen 44 male presidents, an atrocity in a country where the population is over 50% women. Other feminists have made a version of this argument, including Jessica Valenti in the Guardian and Rebecca Traister in New York magazine.
But socialist feminists like Liza Featherstone and Roqayah Chamseddine slam this line of thinking as falling woefully short for women.
Writing in The Nation, Featherstone argues that “Socialist Feminism assumes that redistribution is the best to begin improving life for the vast majority of women, both materially and socially … a broad range of social benefits provided through the state rather than acquired in desperation, as they so often are here, through marriage or a job. … Throughout her long career, Clinton has demonstrated contempt for turning this project into policy.”
In both cases we see broad fault lines between what Bruenig calls meritocratic liberals and egalitarian leftists.
“For meritocrats, lack of diversity in the upper echelons of society is perhaps the most important economic justice issue,” he told me. “And you can see why that would be, since the lack of diversity indicates that some groups are more able to fully live up to their potential and others aren’t, and that’s what meritocrats really abhor.
“For egalitarians, on the other hand, diversity at the top is important just as equal opportunity in general is important, but most people in general aren’t at the top and won’t ever be at the top. For them, only egalitarianism is capable of improving their relative material standing in society.”
In other words, meritocrats want the 1% to be more inclusive to women and minorities. Egalitarians don’t think the 1% should exist at all.
You can make the case that the 2016 election is dominated by the public’s realization that the bipartisan and unquestioned faith in the meritocracy is collapsing. There are still plenty of people in both parties who support the meritocratic consensus and are looking to preserve it (what political pundits refer to as “the establishment lanes” in both parties). Those who are fed up with it are falling into two camps: Bernie Sanders’ call for an egalitarian revolution, and Donald Trump’s authoritarian ethno-nationalist one.