Meritocracy and the decline of the Democratic Party

Meritocracy, Franks argues, is the ideology that allowed Democrats to self-consciously claim the mantle of social justice and egalitarianism while subverting both. In this framework, one’s race, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation shouldn’t matter when it comes to achieving success in America; what does matter is having the talent and ability to graduate from a place like Harvard Law. But at the same time, meritocracy demands inequality—not everyone, after all, can go to Harvard Law or become a doctor or a high-tech executive. In fetishizing meritocracy, therefore, the Democratic Party has embraced an ideology based on inequality.

Frank contrasts this ideology with the GOP’s more traditional plutocratic one. In the United States, as elsewhere, having a lot of money gives you power. But this “hierarchy of money,” as he puts it, is rivaled by another: a “hierarchy of merit, learning, and status.” The lawyers, doctors, and academics who compose “the liberal class” (to use the journalist Chris Hedges’s term) have erected their own edifice of power—one that has also come to ignore the interests of working-class people and reproduced structures of extreme racism, particularly in the prison system.

According to Frank, this meritocratic ideal marks a stark break from the origins of the Democratic Party, which was founded as the “party of the people,” in open rebellion against the political and banking elites. But starting in the early 20th century, progressive politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties began to turn to this emerging class of educated elites to help run the country from the top down.

The writer and editor Herbert Croly, who inspired Theodore Roosevelt and helped found the New Republic, as well as left-wing intellectuals like Thorstein Veblen, were instrumental in building an ideology for this progressive aristocracy. Veblen called for an overthrow of the country’s price system, but one led by a monopolistic “Soviet of engineers” rather than the industrial proletariat. If this sounds a bit like the philosophy behind Google, that’s because in many ways it is. Meritocracy offered itself as a fairer alternative to the rapaciousness and inequality of laissez-faire capitalism, but it didn’t just tolerate inequality; it demanded it. “Professionals are,” Frank notes, “life’s officer corps,” and one cannot issue orders without status—in this case, the status conferred by the professional class’s monopoly over education. By the 1970s, he argues, this ideology had become a way of life for Democrats; and today, the professional managerial class has become the party’s lifeblood.

After the Fumble