The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

From the Editor

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Whatever lies at the end of this surprise-filled electoral season, most observers would agree that it has already exposed a widespread distrust of those whom we selectively call our elites. Even before this election season, the word elites had become one of the nastier epithets hurled back and forth across America’s cultural and political divides, each side having its own catalog of particularly loathsome nabobs. In his 2012 book on the subject, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, pundit Christopher Hayes named many of the reasons Americans have come to doubt the ability and integrity of the “best and brightest” in fields ranging from politics and the media to sports and business. “We now operate,” Hayes writes,

in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from authorities, and the consequences of this simple devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low dishonest decade. Elite failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society…. It connects the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the Tea Party and MoveOn, the despair of laid-off autoworkers in Detroit to the foreclosed homeowners in Las Vegas and the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: nothing seems to work.

If that verged on authorial overstatement four years ago, today, in the midst of the current political circus, it seems nothing more than a straightforward statement of the facts.

The truth is, whichever part of it is selected for excoriation, today’s leadership class inspires remarkably little confidence. Explanations for this abound, from the anecdotal to the systemic. Elites are distant, aloof, and increasingly selfish. They are deracinated. Their orientation is global, not local. They have no loyalty to their nation or their fellow citizens. In a winner-take-all economy, they are grossly overcompensated for the questionable services they perform. They are condescending toward, even contemptuous of, the poor, the working stiff, the small-town provincial, or anyone else who lives outside their narrowly circumscribed socio-economic ambit. Seeing themselves as winners in the meritocratic contest, they lack the humility to acknowledge the advantages or good fortune that helped paved the way to their success and exalted station.

As much as there is to be said against them, this pervasive low regard for our elites is hardly cause for celebration. Disenchantment with our elites speaks, after all, to a deeply unsettling distrust of the meritocratic system that produces them, a system that we have long viewed as an indispensable feature of our democratic republic. Although not given the formal name meritocracy until 1958 (and then, in the spirit of satire), the meritocratic ideal was broadly embraced by America’s founders, most of whom believed that offices of leadership should be open to all “men of merit” (and only men, and white ones at that) regardless of background or birth. To be sure, some founders feared that even a “natural aristocracy” might prove a challenge to democracy’s promise of equality, but they were realistic enough to know that absolute equality was a utopian impossibility. As long as the republic could identify and cultivate virtuous as well as talented leaders, and as long as various checks and balances could prevent any one set of elites from becoming too powerful, meritocracy seemed a natural handmaiden to democracy.

How, then, have elites and the system that selects and forms them fallen into such disrepute—or at least become the objects of widespread calumny? That is the question that lies at the heart of our thematic essays in this issue. In “The New Ruling Class,” Helen Andrews suggests that we may find some answers in the debate that took place more than 150 years ago in England in response to civil-service reforms proposed in the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. Those who opposed an examination-based system of selecting civil servants did so, Andrews writes, “not just because they did not think it would work in practice, but because they disagreed with it in principle.” We need not agree with the conclusions of those critics to benefit from their insights into problems that may, in the end, be insoluble but at least may become more manageable if they are frankly acknowledged and reckoned with.

One of those problems lies in the concept of merit itself. In “A Distant Elite,” Wilfred McClay shows that the ways we have defined, evaluated, and rewarded merit have undergone significant changes during the lifetime of the republic. Those changes have given rise to a system that tends to reward aptitude over demonstrated accomplishments and cognitive skills over a range of other competencies. This system, moreover, with its heavy dependence on higher education as the primary screening mechanism, is more easily mastered—some would even say gamed—by the children of privilege than by those with fewer social and economic advantages. “Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification,” wrote journalist Thomas Edsall in 2012. Even more so now, our system of elite formation is one of elite self-replication.

There are those who argue that our meritocracy can be fixed by making it more purely meritocratic. (We reprint the argument of one of them, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, who makes the case that universities should rely even more exclusively on standardized tests to determine admissions.) Perhaps. But beyond such systemic tinkering, the elites themselves need to take more honest stock of their privileged position—of how they got there, of how fairly they are rewarded in relation to others in society, and of just what they may owe to their fellow citizens because of their good fortune. As Robert Frank points out in “Just Deserts,” extensive social science research shows that “normal patterns of human cognition cause most people to underestimate luck’s role in their success, which significantly reduces their willingness to support the public investments that made their own success possible.” But if that’s the bad news, the good news, Frank reports, is that research also reveals “that prompting people to reflect on their good fortune makes them not only happier and more attractive to others, but also more willing to pay forward for the common good.”

The fault of meritocracy, in other words, may lie far less in the system than in the attitudes it fosters among our meritocrats. Such attitudes may be harmful not only to the larger society but also to the successful achievers themselves, who often sense a moral emptiness at the heart of all their striving. As columnist David Brooks recently observed, “The meritocracy has become amoral. We ask students to work harder and harder while providing them with less and less of an idea of how they might find a purpose in all that work.” Achievement without a sense of purpose or calling may have its rewards, but it is unlikely to be fulfilling—or to make leaders who inspire trust in their fellow countrymen.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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