Opinions on meritocracy mostly fall into two camps. In advocating for a certain brand of meritocracy, Thom Tillis seems unabashed in his appeal to a narrow constituency. It appears that Tillis is taking a calculated risk.
Tillis’s ad, titled “Paper Route,” takes place in a conservative, white (every person in the ad is white), upper-middle class setting. The ad makes appeals to hard work, conservatism, meritocracy, the American dream, equal opportunity, distrust of politicians, and real-American-ness. Central to the ad is the idea that white conservative people should have freedom to work hard, achieve success, and live in pristine, white, conservative neighborhoods. The ad seems to imply that Tillis would continue to advocate for lower taxes and less regulation.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (DSCC’s) ad, titled “Black and White,” appears credible, logical, and fact-based. Photos of Tillis cut to video of diverse groups of schoolchildren, all superimposed onto images of newspapers. The choices for the ad’s visual components presumably help the ad seem credible and objective. The ad’s final moments show video of businesspeople walking to what appears to be a private jet, and finally, a photo of Tillis.
To compare the two ads, they seem to focus on Tillis’s priorities and his views on the role of government. Apparent in Tillis’s ad is that he wants to get government out of the way of people creating their successes. The DSCC’s ad casts some of his positions in a negative light. The ad portrays Tillis’s policies as problematic for vulnerable public-schoolchildren, and especially generous to people who are already wealthy.
This all speaks to Tillis’s potential appeal to a specific constituency: white conservatives, who desire low taxes and minimal regulations. In Tillis’s ad, there seems to be a high premium placed on hard work. The ad seems to say that people should be rewarded for hard work, while ignoring those who do not work hard enough to become wealthy. Tillis seems to assert that working class people can achieve what they wish to, if they are exceptional enough, and that these exceptional people should be rewarded. On the contrary, the DSCC’s ad seems to conclude that outsized rewards for the wealthy come at the expense of our vulnerable children and at the expense of our future. The DSCC’s ad, in essence, leads us to believe that Tillis is mortgaging our future for the sake of today’s already-wealthy. People who believe in equal opportunity or in equal outcomes may have a problem with these ideas.
America’s views on meritocracy hold that education can cure all social ills. In most developed nations, policy decisions imply that education cannot, by itself, create full equality. It may seem obvious that the education system alone could not solve all social injustices. Still, it remains that some Americans’ expectations of the education system – to right all social wrongs – may be higher than expectations anywhere else. So one might assume that Americans’ focus on providing a robust education to all Americans should be second to none. But America’s treatment of education is not consistent with the idea that education should be its equal-opportunity-driving salvation. In many ways, North Carolina serves as a model of this sociological disconnect, insofar as North Carolina’s government has been taken over by some among the Power Elite who cynically see education as the fertile land on which the seeds of future wealth and power concentration may be sown.
The Koch brothers’ infamy has grown in recent years, but Art Pope’s name is one that is likely less-recognizable to most people. Art Pope seems like a good analog for current North Carolina politics to what the Koch brothers are to national politics (Moyers, 2014). After diverting millions of dollars to Pat McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign, Pope was named North Carolina budget director, where he earned a salary of $1. Pope operates a network of political fundraising organizations, thinktanks, and charities, almost exclusively right-leaning (Moyers, 2014). His John William Pope Center for Higher Education serves to criticize higher education, but mostly public schools, and mostly for being too liberal (popecenter.org, 2014). The Pope Center has consistently been critical of liberal arts courses and liberal arts degrees (popecenter.org, 2014). Pat McCrory seems to have fallen in line with Pope’s rhetoric, as he recently stated in a radio interview that “educational elite” have taken over colleges, providing worthless courses that offer “no chances of getting people jobs.” (Kingcade 2014) He went on: “So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt.” (Kingcade, 2014) McCrory ended by saying that he would propose legislation to change the education funding formula “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” (Kingcade, 2014) A lot has been made of an education agenda passed by Pat McCrory and Thom Tillis that has shrunken budgets, but these sorts of policies are not new and not unique to North Carolina.
In 1975, the Trilateral Commission produced a report titled “A Crisis of Democracy,” that asserted, in response to Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests, that excessive democracy threatened social order (Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki, 1975). In the estimation of the report, greater dissemination of higher education led to civil unrest and distrust in the authority of the American government (Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki, 1975). Since this time, rhetoric like that of Art Pope and Pat McCrory has prevailed all over the country, and education budgets have shrunken, or at least failed to keep up with costs.
Whether or not education has the power to create equal outcomes for people, the people who make decisions regarding our education system are choosing to pull resources from education. Outcomes for different cohorts are not blind to ascriptions, as some meritocrats may propose. Black males are unemployed at greater rates than they were in the 1960s (Wagmiller and Schultz Lee, 2014). They have more difficulty finding and keeping work than any other cohort, and the data show that these problems are products of their blackness and maleness, and that they are not due to other contributory factors (Wagmiller and Schultz Lee, 2014). No other cohort faces nearly the same sorts of difficulties (Wagmiller and Schultz Lee, 2014); we are moving forward not backward, in regard to creating equality for our black men, and the talents that surely lie among them are largely going to waste, despite meritocratic ethos. Black males are not the only ones getting the short end of the stick, though. In compensation, hiring, housing, credit, and consumer markets, Americans are being discriminated against for being female and/or being people of color (Castilla, 2008; Fryer and Levitt, 2004).
But this all runs counter to the arguments that meritocracy provides equal opportunity and unleashes the as-yet undiscovered talents that lie in a dormant proletariat. In a robust analysis of American meritocracy, Chris Hayes’s book Twilight of the Elites informs us that meritocracy has worn out its usefulnesses, and now serves to do little more than rationalize the systemic problems that our system creates (Hayes, 2012). There is a disconnect between our Power Elite and our poor that leads to justification of bad conditions for the poor, wealth and power concentrations for the rich, and decisions that none in our society but the most wealthy would ever advocate (Hayes 2012). Recent studies indeed show that the wealthy do a bad job of empathizing with the poor (Piff et al. 2012). Similarly, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to advocate for meritocracy (Kunovich and Slomczynski, 2007). And this may have something to do with how people end up where they are.
The average amount of inherited wealth received by those among the top 1% in our society is $2.7 million, while the average for those who make $25,000 or less is only $6,100 (Wolff and Gittleman, 2010). 62% of Forbes’ richest 400 Americans either inherited their wealth or were born to wealthy families, and received all the benefits of a well-connected network, a high-priced education, etc. (Chittum 2012). The rich in America are not an ever-cycling, ultra-competitive rotation of the most talented people from all walks of life; they are more like a foam above the rest of us, sucking up all the benefits of cheap labor and tax breaks, while the poor and middle class are forced to work hard if they want to live lives that have any value. In fact, the inequality is killing us.
Constituent aspects of status, like occupation, education, income, height, etc. all lead to greater achievement, greater rewards, greater happiness, better health, and longer lives (Marmot 2005). On the flip side of that, being sick leads to poorer achievement, lesser rewards, depression, worse health, and shorter lives (Marmot 2005).
Thom Tillis represents a class of people who have managed to create our Founding Fathers’ worst fear: that an ambivalent, greedy, power-hungry bourgeoisie would eschew all concerns for any virtuous poor or middle class, and instead elect to take what they can. The decisions made by our leaders affect everyone, and these designs are the same designs of countless elite who came before our elite. They aim to align society and its institutions so that they might ever gain greater material rewards. They tell us that if we work hard enough, then we can live like they do, and maybe they believe that. It is not true, though, and the election of people like Thom Tillis means the furtherance of policies that ensure greater concentrations of power and wealth, at the expense of the hard work of those beneath them, and at the expense of future outcomes for those who are to come after them. Thom Tillis, like a stubborn old dog, knows well what he intends to do, but risks to our society (and to all who are not assured the success that Tillis ensures to a few) grow greater than the risks of generations before us. New, challenging problems lie on the horizon and at the fore. Can we afford that?
Castilla, E. (2008). Gender, Race, And Meritocracy In Organizational Careers. American Journal of Sociology, 113(6), 1479-1526.
Chittum, R. (2012, September 28). Billionaires made from scratch? Hardly. Columbia Journalism Review.
Crozier, M., & Huntington, S. (1975). The crisis of democracy: Report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission. New York: New York University Press.
Fryer, R., & Levitt, S. (2008). Understanding The Black-White Test Score Gap In The First Two Years Of School. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 86(2), 447-464.
Hayes, C. (2012). Twilight of the elites: America after meritocracy. New York: Crown.
Kingkade, T. (2013, February 3). Pat McCrory Lashes Out Against ‘Educational Elite’ And Liberal Arts College Courses. Retrieved November 4, 2014.
Kunovich, S., & Slomczynski, K. (2007). Systems of Distribution and a Sense of Equity: A Multilevel Analysis of Meritocratic Attitudes in Post-industrial Societies. European Sociological Review, 23(5), 649-663.
Marmot, M. (2005). The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. Holt Paperbacks.
Moyers, Bill. (Jan. 3, 2012). State of Conflict: North Carolina [Moyers & Company]. PBS.
Piff, P., Stancato, D., Cote, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(11), 4086-4091.
Popecenter.org. (2014). Retrieved November 4, 2014.
Wagmiller, Jr., R., & Schultz Lee, K. (2014). Are Contemporary Patterns of Black Male Joblessness Unique? Cohort Replacement, Intracohort Change, and the Diverging Structures of Black and White Men’s Employment. Social Problems, 61(2), 305-327.
Wolff, E., & Gittleman, M. (2011). Inheritances and the Distribution of Wealth: Or Whatever Happened to the Great Inheritance Boom?”. Bureau of Labor and Statistics Working Papers.