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.
Since Sanders uttered these words, last May, his message hasn’t changed. Day after day, he has spoken in terms that haven’t been heard from a serious major-party candidate since William Jennings Bryan, the great prairie populist, who famously accused his opponent, William McKinley, and the moneyed interests who supported McKinley, of trying to “crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” (Bryan was referring to the gold standard, which he opposed.) In much the same way that Trump has labelled Sanders a Communist, the Republicans of Bryan’s day called him a fanatic who would wreck the American economy. Even some Democrats depicted Bryan as a dangerous radical with impractical policy proposals.