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The American Dream Is Sick But Not Dead

Americans have risen up, not against the meritocratic “rhetoric of rising,” but in defense of it.
March 7, 2021
The American Dream Is Sick But Not Dead

President Trump’s inaugural address—which presented a vision of the United States as a country in an advanced state of political and cultural decay—has become known as the “American carnage” speech. Trump spoke of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives,” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” “This American carnage,” he declared, “stops right here and stops right now.”

Trump sought to unite his supporters with a common language of grievance and marginalization—they were the Americans who had been overlooked for too long, and he was going to change that. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Trump promised. “Everyone is listening to you now.”

Last year, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, which examines the social and economic forces that have left millions of Americans feeling alienated and, to use Trump’s word, forgotten. Since 2014, Case and Deaton have been studying the uptick in “deaths of despair”—deaths caused by alcohol, drugs, and suicide—among white Americans, particularly those without a four-year degree (38 percent of the working population). When they discovered that the mortality rate for middle-aged whites was increasing, they were shocked: “Constantly falling death rates were one of the best and best-established features of the twentieth century,” they write. “All-cause mortality is not supposed to increase for any large group.”

Deaths of Despair discusses a wide range of factors that may have contributed to this alarming trend: an economy that increasingly emphasizes the possession of a college degree; declining marriage rates and a larger number of children born out of wedlock; the decline of unions; the collapse of manufacturing and the rise of the service industry; and lower levels of attachment to work, family, faith, and community. Case and Deaton also implicate the political and cultural attachment to the idea of meritocracy in the United States, both in the despair they chronicle in the white working class and the anger that led to Trump’s election. They write:

Those who do not pass the exams and graduate to the cosmopolitan elite do not get to live in the fast-growing, high-tech, and flourishing cities and are assigned jobs threatened by globalization and by robots. The elite can sometimes be smug about their accomplishments, attributing them to their own merit… The less educated are devalued or even disrespected, are encouraged to think of themselves as losers, and may feel that the system is rigged against them.

When Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he claimed to understand “firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens,” argued that special interests had “rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit,” and condemned the “elites in media and politics who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.” Trump recognized that this sort of rhetoric doesn’t just resonate with Americans who feel like the status quo no longer works for them—it also reassures them that they aren’t, in fact, losers. Rather, they’re the victims of an unfair system, created and sustained by powerful elites who are hostile to their interests. Although white, working-class Americans have experienced a decline in status in recent years, Trump allowed them to maintain their firmly held belief in meritocracy while providing an outlet for their frustrations.

Case and Deaton believe in meritocracy, albeit in a qualified way. They cite the late British sociologist and Labour party research director Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy” in 1958 and worried about its social and political consequences, noting that Young “presciently referred to the left-behind group as ‘the populists.’” However, they also acknowledge that “America (like Britain and other rich countries) has built a meritocracy that we rightly see as a great achievement.” The two economists just want to make that meritocracy as fair as possible.

Case and Deaton’s answer to the suffering of the white working class in America isn’t to feed their resentments, incite hatred against other groups, or promise the return of dying industries. Nor is it to indulge the fantasy that an authoritarian strongman can restore the dignity and place of forgotten workers (“I alone can fix it,” Trump told voters when he accepted the Republican nomination). Instead, they express their optimism that meritocracy can be made to work for more and more Americans by reforming healthcare, expanding the social safety net, reigning in corporate influence, and increasing economic opportunity.

Others aren’t so certain about the merits of meritocracy, even if its benefits could be spread more evenly. For example, the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel recently published The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, which goes far beyond calls for a stronger social safety net and the other reforms mentioned by Case and Deaton. Sandel calls into question the entire concept of meritocracy, which he believes has underpinned our economy, society, and political culture for decades.

Sandel condemns what he describes as the “rhetoric of rising,” which has pervaded American political discourse since President Ronald Reagan, but particularly in the post-Cold War era. According to Sandel, “Political argument between mainstream center-right and center-left parties in recent decades has consisted mainly of a debate about how to interpret and implement equality of opportunity so that people will be able to rise as far as their efforts and talents will take them.” He cites instance after instance of Republican and Democratic presidents assuring Americans that they can succeed as long as they work hard and play by the rules—an uncontroversial idea to most Americans, but one Sandel regards as deeply corrosive to our civil society.

Sandel believes the commitment to meritocracy leads those at the top to arrogance and complacency, convinced that they deserve their success despite the many advantages they did nothing to earn. Meanwhile, it leads those at the bottom to attribute failures to their own shortcomings, which makes them feel resentful and disempowered. Sandel repeats these arguments often in The Tyranny of Merit, but the polls he cites suggest that Americans believe in meritocracy, even if they haven’t benefited from it. While Sandel insists that meritocracy has been bad for the country (particularly the “forgotten” Americans who are the subjects of Deaths of Despair), the country doesn’t agree.

Sandel cites a survey conducted after the 2016 election which

asked Trump supporters and opponents to agree or disagree with several statements about how well the United States conformed to meritocratic principles, including the following: “Overall, U.S. society is equitable and fair.” “Individuals are personally responsible for their position in society.” “Opportunities for economic advancement are available to anyone who cares to look for them.” “Society has reached a point where white Americans and racial/ethnic minority Americans have equal opportunities for achievement.”

Despite the fact that Sandel believes meritocracy leads to feelings of discouragement and resentment among the “losers,” he acknowledges that “independent of class status, Trump supporters agreed more strongly with each of these statements than did non-supporters” (emphasis added).

According to Sandel, “For decades, meritocratic elites… did not notice that for those stuck at the bottom or struggling to stay afloat, the rhetoric of rising was less a promise than a taunt.” But how is this the case if the people being “taunted” were disproportionately likely to say American society is equitable and fair? Sandel’s argument rests on the fact that Trump supporters regard meritocratic rhetoric as “more insulting than inspiring,” but it’s clear that they don’t. He offers a few arguments to address this problem with his thesis:

They [Trump voters] embraced meritocracy, but believed it described the way things already worked. They did not see it as an unfinished project requiring further government action to dismantle barriers to achievement. This is partly because they feared such intervention would favor ethnic and racial minorities, thus violating rather than vindicating meritocracy as they saw it. But it is also because, having worked hard to achieve a modicum of success, they had accepted the harsh verdict of the market in their own case, and were invested in it, morally and psychologically.

Sandel doesn’t cite polling data, interviews, or any other evidence to back up his speculation about the real reasons Trump supporters continue to embrace the idea of meritocracy. And he ignores the ways in which Trump did, in fact, promise “government action to dismantle barriers to achievement.” For example, he constantly inveighed against trade agreements like TPP and NAFTA, which he regarded as unfair to American workers. Within three days of taking office, Trump withdrew the United States from TPP, which he described as a “rape of our country.” Trump didn’t just promise to bring back manufacturing jobs in the United States—he promised to revitalize entire industries like coal and steel.

Speaking to a group of Shell workers in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2019, Trump told the crowd, “No one in the world does it better than you. Nobody. Nobody does it better. There’s nobody in the world that does it. And we’re unleashing that power again like we’ve never seen before.” He went on: “And we are doing well and we’re fighting against a lot of countries that have taken advantage of us for many, many years. But they’re not doing it so much anymore. And in a little period of time, they won’t be doing it at all.” Trump seamlessly blends the language of meritocracy with the language of grievance, which gives American workers ample targets for their frustration—global elites, unfair trade practices, etc.—while celebrating the dignity and quality of their work.

“With your help,” Trump told the workers in Pennsylvania, “we’re not only unleashing American energy, we’re restoring the glory of American manufacturing, and we are reclaiming our noble heritage as a nation of builders again.” The crowd erupted in applause, and Trump repeated himself: “A nation of builders.” This sort of rhetoric has been a mainstay of Trump’s campaigns and his presidency. The narrative is simple: American workers are the most talented and productive in the world, but their efforts have been frustrated at every turn by onerous regulations, unfair trade agreements, and other obstacles (created by a disconnected elite in Washington) that his administration has been working to dismantle.

In his inauguration speech, Trump explained that “We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.” But he said this couldn’t happen without government action: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” In other words, Trump supporters were attracted to precisely the message that Sandel believes they were repelled by—the idea that we live in an imperfect meritocracy that can be made fairer through policies implemented by Washington. While it’s true that Trump’s hostility toward free trade (an integral part of what his former adviser Steve Bannon referred to as “economic nationalism”) was a break from previous administrations, this doesn’t change the fact that his core message was still a celebration of meritocracy—he just argued that the status quo was corrupting that meritocracy by putting American workers at an unfair disadvantage.

Trump’s election led to a fundamental reconsideration of the political status quo in America, which was in many ways long overdue. Powerful social and economic forces have been reshaping the United States in the post-Cold War era, and populist anger (fueled by the Great Recession and evident in movements like the Tea Party and the rise of Bernie Sanders) had been surging for years before Trump’s election. The fact that the data cited in Deaths of Despair come as such a shock is a reminder that Trump wasn’t wrong to direct his message at Americans who feel forgotten and ignored.

But it’s difficult to see how these Americans will suddenly feel valued and empowered if politicians drop the language of meritocracy and replace it with the much more sympathetic—and frankly more condescending—rhetoric in The Tyranny of Merit. Sandel often emphasizes the “humiliation” of working class Trump supporters, which is borne of the fact that they’re among the “losers” in a meritocratic society. This is why he condemns policies and institutions that have produced these results—for example, “market-driven globalization” which has “consigned working people to the discipline of foreign competition.” According to Sandel, one of the reasons Clinton lost in 2016 was that the “rhetoric of rising had… lost its capacity to inspire.” Sandel presents Trump’s “blunt talk of winners and losers” and his promise to Make America Great Again as the antithesis of the rhetoric of rising. But he doesn’t consider the possibility that Trump’s rhetoric offered voters what they saw as a different way to rise.

Trump didn’t tell his supporters that they had failed to measure up in the American meritocratic system—he said they had been denied their rightful place in that system. He didn’t say, “Sorry you’re the losers in a globalized and automated economy,” but instead, “the globalized economy has been rigged against you.” Trump told his supporters they were the hardest-working, most deserving members of our society who had been betrayed by an elite that actively sought to undermine them. As he put it in a 2017 speech in Phoenix (which Sandel cites), “You know what? I think we’re the elites. They’re not the elites.” When Trump promised to bring back dying industries and “rebuild our country,” declaring that “American will start winning again, winning like never before,” he was using his own rhetoric of rising.

It’s a mistake to assume that Trump supporters are “less interested in promises of upward mobility” than other voters, as Sandel puts it. In Trump, many saw a president who would restore the dignity of their work and give them an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families. When he was inaugurated, Trump announced: “We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.”

According to a survey conducted eight months after Trump entered the Oval Office, 82 percent of Americans said their families had either achieved the American dream or were on their way to achieving it. Among Republicans, this proportion was even higher: 86 percent, with just 12 percent stating that the American dream is “out of reach” for them. For Americans who didn’t complete a four-year degree or had a high school diploma or less, the proportions were 84 percent and 75 percent, respectively. Throughout The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel constantly reminds these Americans that, for many, their efforts to move up the social and professional ladder will ultimately end in failure. He cites the lack of socioeconomic mobility in the United States compared with other countries, pointing out that they’d be better off pursuing the American dream in Copenhagen.

While Sandel makes some important points, telling Americans that it’s time to do away with the idea of meritocracy altogether is politically impossible. Is “you can make it if you try” really more insulting and disempowering than “you can’t make it, but we’ll help you?” The United States is a highly individualistic society, which is why American politicians often emphasize hard work, the freedom to make your own choices, and yes, the ability to rise or fall on your own merits. This doesn’t mean we have to accept low socioeconomic mobility, inequality, and all the other problems Sandel outlines, but American politicians have never made the case that these problems have to remain permanent features of our system. In fact, the politicians Sandel decries for their attachment to the rhetoric of rising have always emphasized the ways in which merit alone isn’t enough for millions of Americans.

The Tyranny of Merit is filled with quotations from American politicians celebrating the virtues of meritocracy, but these quotations are selective. They leave the reader with the impression that U.S. presidents have for decades been dogmatically repeating the mantra that all Americans can get ahead as long as they work hard and play by the rules, apparently blind to the ways in which equality of opportunity has been unevenly distributed (wage stagnation, low mobility, inequality, lost factory jobs, and so on). But this simply isn’t true. In many cases, the rhetoric coming from American presidents and other political leaders perfectly mirrors the most essential features of Sandel’s argument.

For example, in a December 2013 speech, President Obama discussed the lack of socioeconomic mobility in the United States in exactly the same terms as Sandel. He observed that Americans had the “nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them.” He decried a “relentless, decades-long trend” of “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility.” While he described that idea that “if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead” as “America’s basic bargain,” he acknowledged that this bargain had “frayed.”

Like Sandel, Obama said the postwar social compact “began to unravel” in the late 1970s. He pointed out that, as “good manufacturing jobs automated or headed offshore, workers lost their leverage, jobs paid less and offered fewer benefits.” He emphasized the disconnect between soaring productivity and stagnant wages. He lamented the fact that a “child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top.” He admitted that “countries like Canada or Germany or France… have greater mobility than we do.” And he rejected a form of politics that “pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.”

These are exact prefigurations of the arguments Sandel makes in The Tyranny of Merit. The only difference is that Obama believes success in America should still depend on “effort and merit”—a belief shared by the vast majority of the country. And it’s clear that Obama was right to embrace the ideas of fairness and meritocracy simultaneously. At a July 2012 campaign event in Virginia, Obama strayed too far from the rhetoric of self-determination and merit, telling the crowd:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

This was an explicit repudiation of meritocracy, and Obama paid for it. His opponent, Mitt Romney, said the comment was “insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.” Less than two weeks after Obama’s speech, ABC News reported that the “Romney campaign has been heavily pressing their ‘you didn’t build that’ attacks for the past ten days” and was launching “their biggest push yet with events with small business owners in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Nevada.”

Romney devoted an entire section of his website to the remark, calling it “Built by Us.” The theme of the Republican National Convention that year was “We Built It,” a phrase which could be found on massive signs behind speakers, on merchandise, etc. The headlines rolled in: “Obama’s ‘you didn’t build that’ problem,” “4 reasons why ‘you didn’t build that’ still haunts Obama,” and so on. Even Sandel admits that “Republicans seized on the last two sentences to portray Obama as an apostle of big government who was hostile to entrepreneurs.” If this was the response to a single carelessly worded sentence, it isn’t difficult to imagine what would happen if a presidential candidate dumped the idea of meritocracy entirely.

While Sandel argues that Obama’s “attempt to evoke the mutual dependence and obligation of citizens” could have been presented more artfully and effectively, his delivery wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Americans never want to be told that hard work and talent don’t matter. Although Sandel identifies many of the problems with meritocracy as it exists in the United States, these arguments have already been made at length by the politicians he criticizes. This is why his solutions to the tyranny of merit are nowhere near as far-reaching as his conclusions about the scope of the problem—he suggests a lottery system for the applicants to Ivy League schools, a greater appreciation for the contributions working class Americans make to the “common good,” and other ideas that merely tinker around the edges of meritocracy without fundamentally altering it.

In his speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, President-elect Joe Biden said, “In America, everyone, and I mean everyone, should be given the opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them. We can never lose that.” In his victory speech last month, he said the same thing: “I’ve always believed we can define America in one word: possibilities. That in America everyone should be given an opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them.” Biden’s economic plan calls for an “economy where every American enjoys a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead.”

Throughout The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel relentlessly attacks the “mainstream parties and governing elites” who have been the “target of populist protest.” He describes the rise of populism in the United States as the result of a “political failure of historic proportions”—a failure of the technocratic elites in Washington, whose commitment to neoliberal economic policies (such as free trade) and meritocratic principles has allegedly created the furious backlash that propelled Trump to the Oval Office. Biden is exactly the sort of politician—a fixture in Washington for decades—Sandel decries.

But Biden received over 80 million votes—more than any presidential candidate in U.S. history. Despite his reputation as a centrist, he ran on one of the most progressive platforms of any American president: a $2 trillion climate plan; hundreds of billions in new healthcare spending (Case and Deaton cite the inefficient and expensive U.S. healthcare system as one of the main contributors to the influx of deaths of despair in recent years); a $15 minimum wage; two years of free community college; significant increases in corporate and capital gains taxes; and so on.

Biden’s policies offer a much more fundamental reconfiguration of the status quo than the suggestions in The Tyranny of Merit—a reminder that the rhetoric of rising doesn’t have to ignore the real concerns of millions of Americans. In fact, this rhetoric works best when it acknowledges all the ways Americans don’t have an equal chance to get ahead and offers concrete proposals for narrowing those gaps.

There’s no replacement for meritocracy. This doesn’t mean the United States is stuck with rampant inequality, socioeconomic immobility, and all the other problems that were becoming more and more evident long before the election of Trump. But it does mean effort and talent will always be crucial determinants of success in the United States—and Americans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson writes for Haaretz, Quillette, Arc Digital, and other publications. He is author of How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.