In Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Josh Atwater (TD ’24) examines how his left-wing convictions are at odds with American liberalism.
Following Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, I soothed my adolescent liberal angst by poring over the election demographics. Learning the electorate’s breakdown by education level—Trump won nearly two-thirds of white men with no college education, while Clinton won essentially all college-educated demographics—was vindicating. I clung to this correlation to assure myself that, as a supporter of Clinton, I was among good company. Surely, I thought, a college education must signal a special authority for participating in democracy.
Like my 15-year-old self, many college-educated Democrats are quick to dismiss entire demographics (southerners, rural voters, those without a college degree) as unintelligent, unsalvageable, and unworthy of enacting their political will. Upon seeing the misfortune of those who disagree with them (typically generalized as “conservatives”), the most that Democrats usually have to offer is an indifferent shrug: “You made your bed, now lie in it.”
When less-privileged members of their own party face similar misfortunes, these same Democrats tend to decry inequity and exclusionary structures, instead proclaiming the importance of sympathy and equal opportunity for all. Consider one of Obama’s favorite refrains: “Here in America, you can make it if you try.” But the promise that effort begets reward—or, in other words, that America is a meritocracy—has always rung hollow. Regardless of whether or not implementing a perfect meritocracy is possible, meritocracy is not a means of meeting all individuals’ basic needs.
The liberal meritocracy is a fundamentally individualist system: it exalts each person as an autonomous economic agent who is responsible for his own well-being. “Good” choices lead to rewards, and “bad” ones bring consequences. When Democrats see the adverse outcomes that this system allows, they claim that a moderate amount of government intervention is acceptable in order to assuage acute suffering. But Democrats’ primary means of promoting well-being among those who fall behind in the rat race is merely to give them a compensatory advantage—think tax credits and temporary unemployment benefits. While these programs have undoubtedly provided substantial support to countless individuals, they will never advance the cause of disadvantaged groups on a long-term systemic level because they validate the system that renders these groups disadvantaged in the first place.
The problem with our current meritocracy—where each individual must leverage his merits in order to “earn” his living—is that it produces a zero-sum divide between “winners” and “losers.” Though they claim to be empathetic to disadvantaged populations, Democrats are just as responsible for upholding the logic of meritocracy through their insidious elitism. According to Democrats, Republican voters are misinformed because their voter base has a lower education level on average; Republicans’ concerns are disposable because their values supposedly amount to nothing more than bigotry. In scrambling to seize the moral high ground, Democrats have written off the possibility of empathy for the disadvantaged when the disadvantaged do not belong to a blue-voting demographic. Democrats have declared themselves to be the winners of our meritocracy, and they have no interest in engaging the “losers” on any meaningful level—a complex that Harvard Law professor Michael Sandel refers to as “meritocratic hubris.”
Working-class Republicans are smart enough to see that the system is not working in their favor, now more than ever. While this realization might otherwise warm them up to progressive left-wing movements, the center-left is actively pushing conservatives away by ridiculing their intelligence and condemning them as irredeemable bigots. As Sandel explains in his book The Tyranny of Merit, “The hard reality is that Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer.” Centrists vote Republican because they’ve seen the countless times that Democratic politicians have failed them—but also because the Republican party is increasingly hospitable to characters like Tucker Carlson and Ron DeSantis, who successfully channel voters’ frustration with the liberal system towards arbitrary scapegoats like immigrants and transgender people. Most importantly, I think, right-centrists veer further right rather than exploring the left because they see how their Democratic neighbors look down upon them so brazenly.
All the while, the liberal machine churns along, blind to political affiliation; Republican and Democratic elites alike benefit massively from American division, while constituents in both parties suffer equally. This division will not be resolved by convincing Republican voters that they need to admit their wrongs, sacrifice their values, and buy into Democratic band-aid solutions. The left-wing working class needs to engage with the center-right, challenging though it may be, because of the reality that we all share a common fate under capitalism. No matter our cultural differences, we all share the same proximity to bankruptcy—a precarity with which billionaires in either party can never empathize. (See here if you’d like to file a class reductionism complaint.)
“[Meritocracy] diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes,” Sandel explains. In the wealthiest nation in human history, there is no reason that anyone’s basic needs—food, housing, healthcare, education—should remain unfulfilled. Dismantling the meritocracy as a means of ensuring access to basic necessities will allow us to shape resilient communities around a shared investment in each other’s well-being. We can forge a future in which hunger and homelessness do not exist—not because every individual has dutifully earned his keep, but because we as a society have decided that we would sooner swallow our pride and work past our differences than see each other suffer needlessly.