Dipping into David J. Garrow’s massive tome, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, I was not struck by the fact that Obama was calculating or willing to sacrifice anything, including romantic relationships, at the altar of personal ambition—Rick Perlstein’s quasi-biography of Reagan, The invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, told a similar story. Nor was I especially intrigued by the fact that the woman he spurned to ensure his political future—the bit that is the lede in the recent Washington Post review making the rounds on the Internet—is an anthropologist. This, I knew already from some of my fellow Haskell Hall denizens (although I was in the field during that period). Rather, the remarkable thing to me is how Obama embodied the principles of meritocracy, including its darker side.
Much like Reagan, Obama rose from humble, troubled roots that led to a series of reinventions. Reagan’s alcoholic father forced him to invent a series of personas for himself (heroic lifeguard, sports star, campus activist, etc.) and, in retrospect, to reinvent his father. Obama’s absent father provided a blank slate onto which he would literally write an idealized one in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and at the same time proclaim an identity for himself. It is telling that both Reagan and Obama went by different names at different points of their lives—Reagan going by “Dutch” in his early years, perhaps to escape stereotypes about the Irish, while Obama in the 1990s rejected his childhood moniker “Barry,” in favor of Barack. At the same time, both men, lacking actual fathers, sought out older men as mentors, as they negotiated new professional and political landscapes.
This is, in some ways, the American Dream: to rise from nothing, to ascend to wealth and, in these two cases, the highest office in the land. For the entire twentieth century, this was considered admirable, and a great improvement over more feudal arrangements, in which wealth and power were passed through family and clan. And yet, as the sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy” nearly sixty years ago pointed out in his “sociological satire,” The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, if you tell people that power and status in society reflect the inherent merit of people, what do you say to those who lack both? It left them in an untenable position, “morally naked,” as Young said. This, I think, explains the situation we are in today, and the results of the last election. Indeed, in 2001, Young, in the Guardian warned Tony Blair to stop using the term meritocracy unironically, as it risked alienating those left out of the prosperity and cultural dominance of “Cool Britannia.”
The rise of the meritocracy coincided with the rise of neoliberalism in the postwar era. Indeed, the two were variants on the same theme: an “audit culture” that assessed, quantified, and tracked over time individual and group productivity and other qualities, sorting out winners and losers (Strathern 2000). Indeed, the idea of meritocracy can best be seen as the ideological, mythical window dressing of neoliberalism, precisely what Roland Barthes meant by the term “alibi.” The university, government, and corporate world have all embraced the neoliberal project. The “deplorables,” surrounded on all sides by the meritocratic hegemony, lashed out in turn at the institutions that embodied it . Of them all, only the universities (especially the public ones) constituted soft targets, so they bore the brunt of the attacks. Even the debate over climate change and peer-reviewed science must be seen in this context.
Since the 1960s affirmative action has piggy-backed on the structures of meritocracy. This, to many, represented its delegitimizing turn, constituting a major theme in reactionary politics since the Nixon era. However, with Obama, you have the perfect storm of a man from humble origins yet possessed of extraordinary cultural capital, and enjoying the presumed benefits of affirmative action as well. Like similar successful minority persons who had seemingly leapfrogged their white co-workers on the way to the C-suite, this was seen as a violation of the basic social contract. Obama was the ultimate affront to working class whites, even as he personified the old saw that “any boy can grow up to be president,” recited as a comforting mantra in elementary schools in the 1960s.
George Lakoff has argued that, while liberals are heirs of the Enlightenment and believe in quantifiable progress, conservatives do not. Rather than see politics as a Madisonian contest among competing interest groups, conservatives view it as an assertion of identity and morality. In particular, he believes that conservatives adopt a patriarchal view of politics, in which men are superior to women, rich are superior to poor, white Christians superior to everyone else. The role of the superior is to mete out just punishment to those who have offended and to reward the faithful. Donald Trump is the embodiment of this metaphor , as was Reagan before him, with his punitive treatment of drug users, minorities, the mentally ill, and, of course, “welfare queens.” Having brought his actual family into government, an act unprecedented in American history, Trump encourages subordinates to compete for his favor. His White House has intrigue worthy of the Borgias.
In the days before the election, when Hillary Clinton was touting her rise from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of American life via the meritocratic express elevator, Democrats were pillorying Trump for his easy life, reliance on inherited money and family connections, his plain ignorance and lack of cultural capital (“short-fingered vulgarian,” in Spy Magazine’s memorable epithet). Indeed, the choice was stark, between meritocracy and inherited privilege. 2033 had arrived early.
Strathern, Marilyn, ed. 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.
Michael E Harkin is a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian at the University of Wyoming. He is editor of the journal, Reviews in Anthropology.
Cite as: Harkin, Michael. 2017. “Obama, Trump, and the End of Meritocracy.” Anthropology News, website, May 18, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.442