Meritocratic hubris. This is the tendency
of winners to inhale too deeply of their success. To forget the luck and good fortune that helped
them on their way. It’s the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve
their fate. And, by implication, that those on the bottom deserve theirs too.
A lively sense of the contingency of our lot conduces to a certain humility. The idea that
‘there but for the grace of God or the accident of fortune, go I’. But a perfect meritocracy
banishes all sense of gift or grace or luck; it diminishes our capacity to see ourselves
as sharing a common fate. And so, it leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise
when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit
a kind of tyranny. Now, seen from below, the hubris of elites
is galling. No one likes to be looked down upon. But the meritocratic faith adds insult
to injury. The notion that your fate is in your hands – that you can ‘make it if you
try’ – is a double-edged sword, inspiring in one way, but invidious in another. It congratulates
the winners but denigrates the losers – even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find
work or make ends meet, it’s hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure
is their own doing – that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed. This gives
rise to a politics of humiliation. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt.
It’s a potent ingredient in the volatile brew of anger and resentment that fuels populist
protest. To reinvigorate democratic politics, we need
to find our way to a morally more robust public discourse; one that takes seriously the corrosive
effect of meritocratic striving on the social bonds that constitute our common life. Disentangling
the intolerant aspects of populist protest from its legitimate grievances is no easy
matter. But it is important to try. Understanding these grievances -and creating a politics
that can respond to them – is the most pressing political challenge of our time.