He enters the room with a confident stride, chin up, back straight, and a smile that almost reaches his eyes. And those eyes! They are bright and intelligent, we are told, imparting a small glimmer of the mind behind them, cultivated by the best institutions the United States (and maybe Europe!) has to offer. The other people in the room observe these features closely, noticing each movement, each twitch, any potential uncouth words or odd facial expressions. No one knows why they like him; their ideas were fully formed upon first viewing and now is just a chance to validate that opinion. His words are vague, like various strings of properly enunciated phrases tightly woven into a linguistic rope, brilliant not for its ability to hold up weighty ideas but for its tendency to lasso his audience in an opaque knot. In this way, he pulls in success and the position is his!
And what is the position? It’s the spot at the Harvard or Yale undergraduate class; the internship at Goldman Sachs; the full-time position at McKinsey or Boston Consulting; the mayor of a city; the office of President of the United States. This is how the most prestigious positions in U.S. society have been doled out: not primarily for merit, technical knowledge, or past effectiveness but through a class-based cultural framework interpreted through body language, appearance, and membership in a club restricted to our nation’s most powerful institutions. In other words, they are signifiers of elite membership, of upper and upper-middle-class status. However, such straightforward descriptions are not usually featured in public discussion; media pundits would prefer to call these signals not of class identity but of a functioning “meritocracy.”
Meritocracy began its etymological life as a satirical indictment of a common capitalist trope that says that anyone can achieve great wealth with education and grit. In a recent episode of WYNC’s On The Media, entitled “The Myth of Meritocracy,” Wayne State University professor John Patrick Leary describes the origin of the term in Michael Young’s 1958 novel, The Rise of Meritocracy, which details a dystopian future where “merit” is assessed and used to stratify society into a merited elite and unmerited underclass. Young appears to have written an oracle’s tome because the term invented as satire has entered the mainstream lexicon and is now understood in literal terms. The meritocracy is held up high as a state of society that we have achieved, a dream we must manifest through effort. In this way, the ideological belief in meritocracy is used to justify the economic bludgeoning of the working class and poor, placing personal blame on those individuals who had not achieved the financial or social prestige reserved for the elite.
Recently, this myth has started to melt away in reality’s bright light. The Great Recession taught the U.S. working class that small wealth built through hard work can evaporate into a mortgaged mist due to the actions of banking capital in Manhattan. Indeed, black households pulling themselves out of the wealth pit formed from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow - hardly examples of meritocracies - saw their households hit hardest by the financial collapse. In terms of intergenerational income, Harvard’s Opportunity Insights found that black American men have a lower rate of upward economic mobility than their white counterparts and a significantly greater rate of downward mobility, even when controlling for young men from the same neighborhoods. Such evidence is hardly in support of meritocracy in any but the most ironic sense.
Although actually attending an elite private university can improve one’s life outcomes, such education hardly proves a panacea toward equal opportunity for the working class. The recent college admissions scandal, in which wealthy entertainers, lawyers, and financiers bribed their children’s ways into the most elite universities, laid bare the nonsense that is “meritocracy” in our current socioeconomic system. However, such illegality is not the essential mechanism by which the already advantaged are conferred more advantage. It is a much more subtle, completely legal system, and it is so ingrained in our class-based society that merely signifying one’s class culture can propel or brake ambitions.
Lauren A. Rivera, a professor of management at Northwestern University, described this phenomenon clearly and succinctly in her book, Pedigree, How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs. In the book, Dr. Rivera conducted a series of qualitative studies to uncover the pathways through which the most elite in our society enter the workforce into what she calls “elite professional services” firms, which include top law firms, consulting agencies, and financial services firms. In the book, she describes an inverse “labor” market compared to the rest of society, one in which elite companies with alumni ties to the various Ivy Leagues and other private universities actively court students on campuses. In this way, these campuses that are largely cut off from working class and poor students become fertile islands for privileged hiring surrounded by a salted sea where working sons and daughters must fight for flotsam.
One may be tempted to say that these private universities are elite precisely because they recruit the best and brightest among the general student population, and, therefore, the elite companies that hire from them seek to gain these valuable human resources. Some of this may be true, but through her observations and interviews, Dr. Rivera details how class culture and class perception hang predominantly over this elite propulsion system. A set of class signifiers, what she calls “polish” in Chapter 7, play a key role in advancement. Polish is described as a set of behaviors that “show well” in front of executive clients of capitalist firms, making polish an essential class-based form of perception. Indeed, it was not enough to learn these amorphous symbols of class belonging: “... Job candidates… had to perform [polish scripts] in a way that seems natural and effortless.” (emphasis mine) That is, a working class person who was able to grasp the coveted spot in the elite university through actual merit was at distinct disadvantage when interviewing for top firms. That is, merit itself is not the operative variable here, but class identification and culture are. Along those lines, I think it is informative to quote at length a banker interviewed on page 180 of the book:
Does class matter? Of course class matters. It comes through in the way you speak, the language you use, the way you dress, the general impression that you give off when you talk to someone. You learn how to carry yourself when you’re growing up. You know, my dad was the president of a bank… So I grew up living and breathing the business… As a result, I not only understand how the business works but how to live it because I grew up surrounded by it. I know how to talk to CEO’s and CFOs confidently because we had them to dinner all the time at the house and I grew up doing it. (emphasis mine)
Class signifiers, therefore, play an essential role in the availability of opportunities given to those from the upper-middle and upper classes. Merit and competence are not here defined in an objective way; they are funneled through a class lens that, like a misprescribed pair of glasses, improves the sight of the capitalist-born and obscures it for the working-class.
This class-based rigidity that infects elite universities and firms is also reflected in politics, in which media coverage biases in favor of the affluent. One need look no further than the entry of the comically out-of-touch Starbucks CEO, Howard Shultz, into the 2020 presidential race, in which the CEO made the rounds of the major television news platforms. It is preposterous to assume that a presidential run of a hypothetical Howard Shultz, the Starbucks barista, would have received even a fraction of the news coverage his actual run has garnered. Likewise, these media class biases have been on full display in the media coverage of the 2020 Democratic primaries, exemplified in the sudden interest in Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Buttigieg has seemingly taken to the media circuit by storm in recent weeks, but the coverage began as early as 2014. A Washington Post article from that year was titled “The Most Interesting Mayor You’ve Never Heard of.” Nothing apparent in this article makes Buttigieg objectively interesting. He revitalized an abandoned factory, something hardly unique to his mayoral tenure in South Bend. The primary focus of the article, however, is on Buttigieg’s cultivated “training in politics”, from Harvard and to becoming a Rhodes Scholar to quantitative consulting in McKinsey, that led to his administration’s use of open-source data for planning. The article mentions the creation of an app to identify vacant homes and a 311 city phone line for dealing with non-emergency issues. What isn’t mentioned is how these things are actually effective or if they are just more McKinsey-type technological solutions seeking problems.
More recent profiles speak in even vaguer terms about Buttigieg’s rise. A New York Times article from March 2019 avers that the candidate is “making waves” without a drop of policy specifics but nonetheless soaking the reader with references to Rhodes Scholardom, Harvard, McKinsey, his “friendship” with Obama Administration officials, and his marriage. Bill Maher in his interview of Buttigieg asked “Why are you suddenly rising in the polls?” only to be answered, again, with zero policy specifics. What we are treated to in the media narrative is a young mayor who is inexplicably affable and charming, but it is never mentioned why. We are told he is “blowing up,” but we are not told from whom he is drawing his support.
This media attraction to Buttigieg is the political parallel to the class biases that exist in the elite university-to-firm pipeline. The discussion around Mayor Pete focuses on his resume, one dripping with the same “polish” examined in Pedigree: from professorial parents to elite universities to the most elite consulting firm. His merit is, ex post facto, legitimized by this resume, allowing him to boldly deny the necessity of articulating a coherent policy vision. Instead he opts for a “values-led message.” His campaign website reflects this: It contains no policy propositions, preferring rather to focus on his resume with insipid phrases like “WE CANNOT FIND GREATNESS IN THE PAST” and “Our country needs a fresh start.” What any of this will translate into policy-wise under a President Pete is left to interpretation. Yet if the classist insularity of the Harvard-McKinsey world are a guide, it’s likely that he will use his ample consultant training to pump life into a stagnant capitalist class that is devoid of new ideas.
My argument here is not to solely attack Buttigieg or Shultz on personal grounds. They are part of a larger phenomenon in U.S. cultural discourse that privileges a set of experiences and traits that are interpreted as merit, beyond any real policy value that a candidate brings to public debate. “Meritocracy” in this sense sheds its socially refractive veneer and fully dons its original satirical meaning: political coverage and success are determined by professional experience that, in turn, is derived from cultural structures that advantage individuals on the basis of class. Merit, therefore, in this case is largely a product of culture rather than objective competence.
The goal of those broadly on the left should be to promote a system of equitable and effective representation in government. Media coverage should not be influenced by the class background of the candidate but rather be based on the coherence and appropriateness of the candidates’ policies. Unlike Buttigieg, I believe that policies provide the clearest insight into the values of a candidate. True political merit is born from one’s ability to articulate and enact the policies one wishes to see in government. One who refuses to stand for any particular position cannot be trusted to stand for any particular values. We on the left should be clear about ours.