Meritocracy and the “Last Acceptable Prejudice”

Barack Obama showing the rest of us how it’s done in 2012.

I’ve lived in major cities all over the world, I have two advanced degrees, I can out-talk the best of ‘em at any art museum, and on most matters I’m as progressive and cosmopolitan as they come.

But my family background is thoroughly working-class. My grandfather on my dad’s side was orphaned by age 8 and raised primarily by his grandfather, a penniless sharecropper in rural Kentucky. My dad’s mother was shuttled around between perhaps a dozen homes growing up with her ardent church-planting father. My mom’s parents were both raised in low-income families and started working early, one picking grapes in California’s Central Valley and the other tending the gardens of lavish estates in a small town in southern England. My parents are both career K-12 teachers and have done well for themselves on the private international school circuit — the swanky schools I mostly attended growing up — all of which, in addition to being white, straight, and American, has given me the chance to access significant privilege. Privilege my forebears never had.

My point in telling you all this is that I’ve always seen the world from two sides. I’ve always had one foot in the world of scrubby working-class folk and one in the world of highly-educated urban/suburban elites. And I can tell you that there’s not much love lost between these groups. In fact, in my experience, the latter have generally taken quite a lot of collective delight in openly ridiculing and denigrating the former, to the detriment of all.

This brings me to an excellent article I recently read called “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice” by Michael J. Sandel. In my mind, it gets at one of the most important issues in contemporary politics – this destructive form of widely acceptable and taken-for-granted prejudice – and also helps to show us all a reasonable way forward. It’s worth a read. With that, here’s an abridged version of the piece:

Joe Biden has a secret weapon in his bid for the presidency: He is the first Democratic nominee in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university. This is a potential strength.

One of the sources of Donald Trump’s political appeal has been his ability to tap into resentment against meritocratic elites. By the time of Mr. Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. In 2016, two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Mr. Trump, while Hillary Clinton won more than 70 percent of voters with advanced degrees.

Being untainted by the Ivy League credentials of his predecessors may enable Mr. Biden to connect more readily with the blue-collar workers the Democratic Party has struggled to attract in recent years. More important, this aspect of his candidacy should prompt us to reconsider the meritocratic political project that has come to define contemporary liberalism. At the heart of this project are two ideas: First, in a global, technological age, higher education is the key to upward mobility, material success and social esteem. Second, if everyone has an equal chance to rise, those who land on top deserve the rewards their talents bring.

This way of thinking is so familiar that it seems to define the American dream. But… despite its inspiring promise of success based on merit, it has a dark side. Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less-educated members of society, effectively excludes most working people from elective government and provokes political backlash.

Here is the basic argument of mainstream political opinion, especially among Democrats, that dominated in the decades leading up to Mr. Trump and the populist revolt he came to represent: A global economy that outsources jobs to low-wage countries has somehow come upon us and is here to stay. The central political question is not to how to change it but how to adapt to it… The answer: Improve the educational credentials of workers so that they, too, can “compete and win in the global economy.” Thus, the way to contend with inequality is to encourage upward mobility through higher education.

The rhetoric of rising through educational achievement has echoed across the political spectrum… But the politicians espousing it have missed the insult implicit in the meritocratic society they are offering: If you did not go to college, and if you are not flourishing in the new economy, your failure must be your own fault.

It is important to remember that most Americans — nearly two-thirds — do not have a four-year college degree. By telling workers that their inadequate education is the reason for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism — an insidious prejudice against those who do not have college degrees.

The credentialist prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris. By 2016, many working people chafed at the sense that well-schooled elites looked down on them with condescension. This complaint was not without warrant. Survey research bears out what many working-class voters intuit: At a time when racism and sexism are out of favor (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.

In the United States and Europe, disdain for the less educated is more pronounced… than prejudice against other disfavored groups. In a series of surveys conducted in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium… [researchers] found that college-educated respondents had more bias against less-educated people than they did against other disfavored groups. The researchers surveyed attitudes toward a range of people who are typically victims of discrimination. … [T]his list included Muslims and people who are poor, obese, blind and less educated… [and in the U.S. also] African-Americans and the working class. Of all these groups, the poorly educated were disliked most of all.

Beyond revealing the disparaging views that college-educated elites have of less-educated people, the study also found that elites are unembarrassed by this prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism, but they are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.

If the rhetoric of rising and the reign of technocratic merit have led us astray, how might we recast the terms of moral and political aspiration? We should focus less on arming people for a meritocratic race and more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make important contributions to our society — through the work they do, the families they raise and the communities they serve. This requires renewing the dignity of work and putting it at the center of our politics.

It also requires reconsidering the meaning of success and questioning our meritocratic hubris: Is it my doing that I have the talents that society happens to prize — or is it my good luck? Appreciating the role of luck in life can prompt a certain humility: There, but for an accident of birth, or the grace of God, or the mystery of fate, go I. This spirit of humility is the civic virtue we need now. It is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

Let’s just read that highlighted part from the penultimate paragraph again: “We should focus less on arming people for a meritocratic race and more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make important contributions to our society… This requires renewing the dignity of work and putting it at the center of our politics.” That’s really on point. We already confer great dignity upon those who serve in even the lowest ranks of our armed forces. Why not return some of that dignity to the rest of America’s less educated workers? They deserve our respect too.

Nobody likes to feel belittled and condescended to. I get that there are important issues between different factions of our country that need to be addressed and overcome, but we are not on different teams here. America is a Big Tent. We can’t, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, write off large groups of people as “deplorables” who are essentially “irredeemable” (her words). That’s not exactly a good starting point for dialogue, compromise, and finding common ground. And we MUST find common ground to make progress. Did you catch that little statistic above — “nearly two-thirds [of Americans] … do not have a four-year college degree”? The highly educated need the less educated, for numerous obvious and less obvious reasons.

I’m not asking people to go make friends with neo-Nazis; I’m asking people to start thinking more about how they treat and talk about large swaths of the country, the less educated – whether white or non-white, rural or urban, Southern or Northern. Like racist and homophobic jokes, elitist jokes aren’t funny. As the kids like to say these days, check your privilege.

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