Why do Americans resent upward mobility?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 11 2010 8:00 PM

Start Poor. Work Hard. Do Well. Be Hated Anyway.

Why do Americans resent upward mobility?

Christine O'Donnell ad. Click image to expand.
Christine O'Donnell brags about not going to Yale

In 1958, an English sociologist and Labour politician named Michael Young imagined a future in which the British establishment dissolved itself, abolished all forms of hereditary power, and created instead a meritocracy (a word Young invented) based on IQ. In Young's fable, the academically talented working class happily join the elite. But the less talented resent them even more than they did the old dukes and duchesses. By 2034, this resentment leads to the creation of a violent populist revolution, which sweeps the meritocracy away.

To some, this story has always seemed like a warning to the United States. In 1972, American sociologist Daniel Bell cited it and predicted, with amazing prescience, the rise of an anti-elite-education populism. Bell got one thing wrong, however: He thought the coming attack on universities would take the form of enforced quotas and lowered standards. In fact, American universities staved off that particular populist wave in the 1970s by expanding their admissions to include women and minorities while keeping standards high.

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The result of that expansion is now with us: Barack Obama, brought up by a single mother, graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, is now president. Michelle Obama, daughter of a black municipal employee, graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, is now first lady. They brought with them to Washington dozens more people, also from modest backgrounds, mostly without inherited wealth, who have entered high government office thanks in part to their education. Not that Washington wasn't stuffed with such people already. Think of Clarence Thomas, son of a domestic servant and a farm worker, graduate of Yale Law School, and Supreme Court justice.

Despite pushing aside the old WASP establishment—not a single WASP remains on the Supreme Court—these modern meritocrats are clearly not admired, or at least not for their upward mobility, by many Americans. On the contrary—and as Bell might have predicted—they are resented as "elitist." Which is at some level strange. To study hard, to do well, to improve yourself—isn't that the American dream? The backlash against graduates of "elite" universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies.

Because they can offer full scholarships, the wealthier Ivy League schools in particular are far more diverse, racially and economically, than they were a few decades ago. Once upon a time, you got into Harvard or Yale solely because of your alumnus grandfather. Nowadays, your alumnus grandfather still helps, but only as long as you did well on the SATs, were the captain of your ice hockey team, and in your senior year raised a million dollars for charity. (The last was not a requirement when I got into Yale, but it seems to be now.) If you did all that and come from a broken home in Nevada, so much the better.

At one level, the use of elite to describe the new meritocrats simply means that the word has lost its meaning. As Jacob Weisberg points out, when Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, or—bizarrely—Justice Thomas' wife, Ginni, fling the word elitist at opponents, it often means nothing more than "a person whose politics I don't like," or even "a person who is snobby." But after listening to O'Donnell's latest campaign ads—in which the Senate candidate declares proudly, "I didn't go to Yale. … I'm YOU"—I think something deeper must be going on.

I suspect the "anti-elite-educationism" Bell predicted is growing now not despite the rise of meritocracy, but because of it. The old Establishment types were resented, but only because their wealth and power were perceived as "undeserved." Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on "the system." Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as "deserving." Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it's their own fault—or to feel that others feel it's their fault—even if they have simply been unlucky.

I can see how this is irritating, even painful. But I don't quite see what comes next. When Ginni Thomas tells a cheering crowd of Virginia Tea Partiers that "we are ruled by an elite that thinks it knows better than we know," who, or what, does she want to put in its place? Young imagined a revolution (led, interestingly, by the wives of the high-IQ elites) and a classless society to follow. Unfortunately, this idea has been tried before, and let's just agree that it wasn't an overwhelming success.

In America, the end of the meritocracy will probably come about slowly: If working hard, climbing the education ladder, and graduating from a good university wins you only opprobrium, then you might not bother. Or if you do bother, then you certainly won't go into politics, where your kind is no longer welcome. We will then have a different sort of elite in charge of the country—and a different set of reasons to dislike them, too.

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