The 2016 Election: Meritocracy and the Illusions We Believe

Written and finished at Los Gatos Starbucks with a light roast coffee at my side and Hitler’s favorite composer in my ear: Wagner. This essay was inspired by recent readings of Thomas Frank, and personal contemplation of the 2016 presidential election.

These are some questions that have been on my mind as of late:

  • How did the current era of American meritocracy begin? And who started it?
  • What changes should liberals make to become relevant with more people?

Before addressing the questions, there is a current context that needs to be exposed. It’s interesting to sit back and listen both to the laments and rejoicing of the 2016 Presidential election. Given that I live in California, there is much more lamenting. What has been most noticeable, is the psychological manifestations that pervade both camps of liberals and conservatives. It’s as if both camps have chugged the cool-aid of their respective ideologies and dwell solely in the echo chambers of their media outlet of choice. Confirmation bias rules the day with both camps. Liberals tune into CNN and devour their daily dose of fear mongering; inculcated with the implications of a Hitleresque President elect Trump, in all of his racist, sexist, authoritarian ways. Conservatives, on the other hand, have been spoon fed the idea that a billionaire business man actually cares for the poor and disenfranchised. Astonishingly, middle America believes that a Republican congress will bring more jobs and economic freedom. So, what if the best solution is to step away from both camps and expose the deeper problems?

During this election, I have become more of a dissident rather than a ‘team player’. I have no party, I have no team. Taking the stance of a dissident, affords me the opportunity to critique both sides of the election, candidates and policies from a (more) neutral perspective. I was not wedded to Hillary’s presidential persona or her ability to discuss policy, or her legacy as a successful policy maker. Moreover, I am not lured to the Republican rhetoric of anti-establishment, nationalistic, and protectionist talk. Rather, I choose to take on the philosophical responsibility of deconstructing and identifying the political power systems that lay insidiously under the duplicitous marketing of both “stronger together” and  “Make America Great!”.

What we see in the 2016 election is millions of working class people voicing their distrust in political institutions, Wall Street and the Clinton dynasty. Perhaps most notable is that both east and west coastal urban regions, in all their blueness, have shown almost zero interest in the economic inequality that many red states have been facing. What has become clear is that while liberals have been pushing for progressive ideals for gay marriage and a multi-cultural America, they have completely ignored the fact that we have a bigger problem: a financial sector that increases the wealth of the top ten percent of the country while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Welcome to the age of meritocracy.

This is the era in which you get what you earn, and you earn what you get. It’s the professionals and managerial class of affluence and education that are the winners. And if you don’t like that you live in an impoverished area of Oklahoma, then stop whining and get an education. Meritocracy is about winners, so we celebrate the innovation and entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley while forgetting the dustbin of the Rustbelt. The meritocracy credo is the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best. It is an ideology that tells the Ohioan who has lost their house while making minimum wage: you have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.

The age of meritocracy was ushered in during the 1972 Democratic convention. The tumultuous 1972 convention gave birth to the McGovern-Fraser Commission which shift the Democratic party from a representative of the working-class to representing the professional class. In Thomas Frank’s recent book, “Listen, Liberal,” he describes the result: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.” A different set of issues mattered to younger Democrats: the rights of disenfranchised groups, the environment, government corruption, militarism. In 1971, Fred Dutton, a member of the McGovern Commission, published a book called “Changing Sources of Power,” which hailed young college-educated idealists as the future of the Party. Pocketbook issues would give way to concerns about quality of life. Called the New Politics, this set of priorities emphasized personal morality over class interest.

McGovern’s campaign manager were two young intellectuals who shared little interest in the working class. One was a young Yale-educated lawyer named Gary Hart and the other a Yale law student named Bill Clinton. As George Packer states in the New Yorker, “The McGovern rout left its young foot soldiers with two options: restore the Party’s working-class identity or move on to a future where educated professionals might compose a Democratic majority. Hart and Clinton followed the second path. Hart emerged as the leader of the tech-minded ‘Atari Democrats’, in the eighties; Clinton, the bright hope of Southern moderates, became the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a position that he used as a launchpad for the Presidency in 1992.”

And there you have it; the Democrats pivot from the working class to the educated professional. No longer would the Democrat advocate for the laborer in Toledo Kansas, rather, the liberal would give all the power to Ivey leaguers on Wall Street. These are the men and women that would fill the cabinets of both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama: highly educated professionals who would jump on the globalization train headed straight towards profit. Having laid a quick foundation, it is here where we can proclaim the credo: the successful and educated deserve their rewards. What about everyone else? Well, who cares.

Three Suggestions for Reflection  

First, it’s time that Democrats stop putting all their eggs in the civil liberties basket. Issus of multi-culturalism and gay rights are important, but when it becomes the end-all-be-all, the result is a fractioning of a vast part of America. It’s difficult to ignore the pervasiveness of economic inequality, especially how it penetrates most families no matter their race, creed, or religion. As economist Joseph Stiglitz notes, “A young male in his 30s today has an income, adjusted for inflation, that is 12 percent less that what his father was making 30 years ago.” Some 5.3 million more Americans are living in poverty now than were living in poverty when Bush became president. America’s class structure may not have arrived there yet, but it’s heading in the direction of Brazil’s and Mexico’s. Perhaps there are some concerns that are weighted much heavier than current battles that the liberal wants to fight. A tolerant America, even with all the civil liberties, is still a scary thought if it continues to be wrought with increasing economic divide.

Second, it’s time for Democrats to stopped relying on band-aids such as education, job training and infrastructure. This was the rhetoric of Hillary in 2016, but it’s a ruse. Hillary was in full support of her husband’s polices during the 90s in which the same rhetoric was employed but went a different direction: in the direction of Wall Street. She supported Bill’s policies on deregulating derivatives and telecom, repealing Glass-Steagall, and ramming NAFTA through congress. A 2010 report showed almost 800,00 jobs lost due to NAFTA. Most devastating of all, the Clinton’s pact with Wall Street helped America snowball into the 2008 recession, all the while duping American’s into thinking that the Clinton’s are the voice for the disenfranchised.

The problem is much deeper than education, job training and infrastructure – it’s deeply economic. Pumping money into education and job training will not assuage the current system that hands all the negotiating and bargaining power to corporate interests. In 2012, the United States spent $11,700 per full-time-equivalent student on elementary/secondary education, which was 31 percent higher than the OECD average of $9,000. At the post-secondary level, the United States spent $26,600 per FTE student, which was 79 percent higher than the OECD average of $14,800 (National Center of Education Statistics). Democrats need to move away from band-aid solutions and shift to the systemic problems that plague our society. The systemic problems revolve around a concentration of power at the very top filled with corporatists and lobbyists that rig the system for themselves. If you don’t believe me ask yourselves two questions: (1) Why is it that the median income (when adjusted for inflation) has plateaued since the 1970s and (2) why is it, that since the Great Recession of 2008, the top 5% have become wealthier and everyone else is still stagnate (or poorer)? Education, job training and infrastructure will not solve these problems that are deeply rooted in a rigged economic system.

Lastly, liberals need to admit the huge failings in policy with the Clinton’s, rather than the perpetual genuflecting before the Clinton dynasty. It is paramount that liberals accept the history and facts that surround the Clinton regime. Besides the economic policies already mentioned, she supported her husband’s 1994 crime bill that created the largest gulag in the world. Astonishingly, 8.7 billion dollars was spent on constructing numerous prisons that would house a criminal population caught in the Clinton vortex. Furthermore, besides the abysmal three strikes initiative, Hilary supported Bill’s signing off on in the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The former drug was thought to be scourge of the planet – and 88 percent of the people arrested for it were black – while the latter even though it was essentially the same thing, was regarded as just another harmless yuppie crime. Handing down prison sentences of many decades for one drug but not the other was both racist and insanely cruel.

Do liberals possess the wisdom to admit these egregious acts by the Clinton’s? When it comes to the 90s, it’s as if Liberals highlight the Clinton’s banning assault weapons, balancing the budget, and (phony) economic growth – and that’s it! Open-minded liberals have a duty to possess the cognitive fortitude to pull the wool from their eyes.

I’ll conclude this section with the Clinton’s 1996 repeal of welfare. The welfare system was deeply unpopular in the 1990s. Its centerpiece was a 1935 program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) that dispensed case assistance to impoverished single mothers. AFDC was one of the basic guarantees of the American Welfare State, but it was also a program hated both by resentful taxpayers as well as by the poor themselves, because it made no provision for employment or training. As Thomas Frank notes, instead of fixing the system, Clinton deleted the AFDC and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) that leaves welfare up to the states – and gives the states plenty of incentive to kick people off the rolls. What’s more, it bars hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants—including many who have worked in the United States for decades and paid a considerable amount in Social Security and income taxes—from receiving disability and old-age assistance and food stamps, and reduces food-stamp assistance for millions of children in working families. What was the result of all this? The continued attempt to keep the ceiling low for minorities and the poor.

Concluding Remarks

There is a myth and meme that believes that Democratic ideals are for the poor and disenfranchised, contra to Conservatives. My contention, however, is that both Conservative and Democrats on Capitol Hill are for the banks and Wall Street, while the poor and disenfranchise are left out of the conversation. I’ll conclude with highlighting the past eight years of the Obama administration, and you tell me if Obama’s compassionate and eloquent speeches match his policy – or rather, lack of policy.

Ask yourself this: what did Obama do to help resuscitate America after the 2009 financial collapse? He was able to get a $800 billion stimulus package through congress, but it was the tax payer who paid the debt of the banks! Moreover, the biggest single part of the stimulus was wasted on tax cuts designed to lure Republican votes. Another chunk was wasted on coaxing state governments to embrace charter schools and to open their education systems to consultants and entrepreneurs. For fear of frightening the men of lower Manhattan, the Obama team dared undertake none of the serious measures the times obviously called for. No big Wall Street institutions were put into receivership or cut down to size. No important Wall Street bankers were terminated in the manner of the unfortunate chairman of General Motors.

The classic and most direct solution to an epidemic of corrupt bank management and fraudulent bank lending is to use the authority that comes with rescuing failed banks to close those banks down or to fire those banks’ top managers. This was evidently never seriously considered by Obama’s team of geniuses. When it came down to people or Wall Street, Obama choose the ladder.

Obama could have done something, but he didn’t. As Thomas Frank notes, the most notorious example was a Democratic proposal that would have allowed judges to modify homeowners’ mortgage debt when they filed bankruptcy – a process called “cramdown” that would have been extremely helpful for millions of homeowners but would have been unpleasant consequences for whoever it was who owned the mortgages. In 2008, Obama had announced he was in favor of cramdown, but when it came up in the Senate in April of 2009, the president and his team, in the concise description of Obama biographer Jonathan Alter, “wouldn’t lift a finger to help.” With the banks lobbying energetically against it, the measure naturally failed.

And what did Obama do for the average worker? Workers got the same treatment. As a presidential candidate, for example, Obama had loudly denounced the still-unpopular NAFTA; as president, he let such talk drift away. In Obama’s early days, labor’s highest priority in Washington was a legislative proposal called the Employee Free Choice Act., which would have made it easier for workers to bargain collectively with management, and might even have reserved the long slide in the unionized percentage of the workforce. Again, Obama declared himself in support of the measure; he had even voted for it as a Senator. Again, though, as Wal-Mart and the Chamber of Commerce mobilized their lobbyists against the measure, the president’s audacity seemed to disappear. The White House simply chose to let it go. One detail that was astonishing at the time, was the amazing number of liberals that business interests had hired to their lobbying on this matter: former assistant John Kerry, to Rahm Emanuel, to several Democratic senators, even to the secretary of labor.

I’m simply wondering if the average Democrat is even willing to critique and scrutinize their own beloved President and party? Of course, the Democrat will always go back to the wonders of Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) as the crowning jewel. With all the problems of Obamacare, we can hardly call it a success with its ever-rising costs for the poor. This is hardly a success for America. The past eight years have not been a success. Since the recession, the situation for working class people has continued to deteriorate. Since the recession ended in 2009, the country’s gross domestic product has grown by 13.8 percent; in that same period, salaries and wages have gone up a mere 1.8 percent. The economic clout of labor unions has continued to shrink, as the percentage of private sector workers who were members of a union has dwindled form 7.2 percent in 2009 to 6.6 percent in 2014. The “labor share” of the nation’s income declined sharply from its old postwar average; during the Obama presidency it has stumbled along at or near its all-time lows.

We need to stop making excuses and look at policy. We need to stop bifurcating Conservative and Democrat politicians as ‘evil versus good’. The truth is, both parties on Capitol Hill are advocating for Wall Street, while the lower strata sits and waits for its turn at the table. The proof is in the pudding, and the continued growing inequality in America is all the proof you need. Perhaps it’s better to avoid picking a team, thus the blinders of your own bias and prejudice is a bit freer. Perhaps stepping back, looking at history, and scrutinizing both sides will yield a clearer picture of reality. Or we can continue being duped by empty rhetoric, from both sides.

-Wes Fornes