We’ve all heard this story before.
Our Founding Fathers possessed a disdain for British rule, which led them to detail their grievances in the Declaration of Independence, fight a war with a global superpower, and establish a nation that set a revolutionary precedent for democratic governance.
One of the critical points of contention between the American colonists and the Crown was Great Britain’s aristocratic society. So when the colonists sat down to draw up the Constitution, they replaced aristocracy with meritocracy.
Our young nation began to set itself apart from the rest of the world as a moral leader. You could come to America and have a shot at success. With the arrival of Lady Liberty a century later, that idea was cemented in the world’s consciousness. Our country became a beacon of hope for those across the globe facing discrimination and persecution, giving them a chance to make it big.
While meritocracy seemed genius in theory, it turned out to be deeply flawed in practice.
The adherence to meritocratic values ignores the biases that influence our recognition of work ethic and talent, accepts the false premise that everyone begins life at the same starting line, and underestimates the role luck and circumstance play in success.
Race, class, and gender have been inequitably stratifying American society since 1619, granting some people benefits that are unavailable to others. With research showing the importance of wealth in social outcomes for families, those with the earliest access to wealth in our country gave their families a leg up for generations, while historically disadvantaged groups have seen shrinking access to resources over time.
We have, in effect, created the very aristocracy our country’s founders worked to avoid. But if meritocracy is so flawed, why do we still embrace it?
Because it’s an alluring concept.
Meritocracy convinces people at the bottom of the social and economic ladders that they can be successful if they just work hard enough, despite the fact that social mobility has largely stalled over the past few decades.
The embrace of meritocracy is not beholden to party lines either. You have probably heard countless political candidates talk about their “humble beginnings” and the hard work they put in to be successful, even if it’s not always true. In 2016, the median wealth of all members of Congress was $511,000, quintuple that of the median wealth for the average American household. Past presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have embraced “personal responsibility” in their political rhetoric to appeal to working-class constituents’ hopes and ambitions while simultaneously eviscerating social support programs.
These stories extend beyond politics. Justification for meritocracy also abounds in professional sports leagues, partly because their chief beneficiaries come from impoverished backgrounds. Yet stories of success in sports, while inspiring, are the exception and not the norm. The NCAA estimates that among all draft-eligible Division 1 men’s basketball and football players—sports whose most successful athletes are often low-income people of color—only 4.2 percent and 3.8 percent of players were drafted, respectively.
That is precisely what makes meritocratic rhetoric so enticing and dangerous. Inspiring stories of triumph in the face of adversity are paraded across media platforms, creating the illusion that more people experience social mobility than actually do.
Thus, efforts to expand assistance to disadvantaged groups are met with vehement opposition; “I’m not going to subsidize laziness” has become a common refrain among those against welfare expansion; political caricatures of people believed to be stealing government handouts—like Reagan’s welfare queen and Trump’s illegal alien—are popular tools for propaganda.
Meritocracy ultimately becomes a cop-out for powerful people attempting to avoid the work of addressing inequalities ingrained in society.
The COVID-19 pandemic is case in point. Millions of Americans have found themselves unemployed, facing increasing financial pressure, and living under the threat of eviction. Meanwhile, Congressional talks for a new coronavirus relief bill have stalled, with conservatives claiming that the $600 per week benefits Americans have been receiving over the past few months have been a disincentive to return to work, even though there is evidence to the contrary.
In the face of government stagnation, regular Americans have responded. COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on Black Americans coupled with the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has brought people into the streets to protest racial inequality. Activists have championed calls to “defund the police,” demanding that government money used for law enforcement be redistributed to community-centered social support services, like schools, drug treatment centers, and affordable housing.
These protests are just the latest in an expanding progressive movement driven by young people, grounded in egalitarian principles and underpinned by a desire to abandon meritocracy. Climate change, social equality, expanded healthcare access, and generous public assistance programs are among the top priorities for this political coalition, and the social and economic pressures of the pandemic have prompted more people to join their ranks.
The mainstream adoption of these progressive policies, however, still seems a ways away, given how the Democratic Party and many across the country have favored moderate politicians like Joe Biden.
Nevertheless, the progressive movement has the potential to grow considerably, but only as long as we account for the inevitable failings of our meritocratic system. We must acknowledge that there will always be people who catch bad breaks and that there will always be inequality in the distribution of scarce resources. As a response, we must affirm the intrinsic value of every human life and support the progressive policies that reflect those sentiments. We can no longer allow poor and disadvantaged communities to go without assistance.
Proposals like those outlined in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations, which includes expanding government healthcare and addressing racial inequality, are a step in the right direction. Though not without its flaws, we can also look to Denmark’s welfare state as a model of a strong social support program.
There is no catch all policy solution to the problems that have arisen from our centuries-long attachment to meritocracy. However, by reevaluating our nation’s values, we can begin to forge a new path and reimagine our democracy in a more equitable fashion.
Ultimately, America must to renew its commitment to the beliefs expressed in the document that started a revolution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”