Friday, January 23, 2015

Why the Center Must Hold - Meritocracy and Political Centrism

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

In previous articles, we've talked about how recent attacks on Meritocracy are also attacks on our top-tier universities and on the concept of higher education per se.

They are also, we believe, thinly-veiled attacks on the at-risk and beleaguered Baby Boomer generation, individuals now in their 50s and 60s, as well as being aimed at the general concept and practice of Political Centrism, throughout the modern developed democracies, but particularly within the United States.

The former hypothesis is clear and fairly easy to understand: At this stage of their collective lives, the "prime years" of the 50s and 60s, today's Boomers represent every one of the key Meritocratic qualities - education, experience, and hard work, plus the long-term application of their inherent talent and intelligence.

We will take up the important topic of Meritocracy and the Baby Boomers in the next blog in this series.

The relationship of Meritocracy to Political Centrism, its practice, and its tenets, particularly in the U.S. and other modern democracies, may be a bit harder to grasp. But we think it is equally important.

As we discussed in an earlier piece (see Meritocracy Has Eleven Letters, Not Four ), "Thug-ocracies" of any kind - ruling groups which wish to preserve and increase the greatest economic inequality possible - generally seek to do so by pitting various constituent populations against one another: sex against sex, race against race, ethnic group against ethnic group, religion against religion, or sometimes region against region or profession against profession.

This basic tactic has been widely practiced by all historical "Thug-ocracies," whether they are based within monarchies, feudal states, tribal states, or even within modern democracies like our own.

Thug-ocracies incite constituent populations to dislike, distrust, and want to "get the better of" one another. They're persuaded to fight to the finish like gladiators in an arena - or pit bulls in a dogfight  - for whatever meager crumbs of the economic pie the ruling Thugs decide to grant them.

In the process, all these "little people" are meant to lose sight of the Big Picture: who is really taking the lion's share of our collective economic resources. And somewhat amazingly - in our own country, in our highly-developed world, in our modern era and our wonderful, advanced Utopian democracies - it's becoming a larger and larger lion's share by the minute.

Does my prose appear a tad too purple? Perhaps. But it paints a fairly accurate picture of what has been going on for the past 25 or 30 years in the United States and the rest of the developed economies.

In an era in which, because of modern inventions and advancements in everything from transportation to energy to agriculture, one might expect that income inequality would be going the way of the dodo, it has, instead, been increasing at the quickest pace since the Great Depression of the 1930s . . . in fact, the statisticians tell us, at an even more rapid pace than in that last great worldwide economic cataclysm.

If some, particularly within the United States, still don't quite understand what's been happening, I believe that's due to two major stabilizing factors which have masked the reality - although both these sources of stability are now becoming unglued, as it were - and rapidly.

The first stabilizing factor has been the safety net of entitlements for the poor, needy, and aged, put into place in the wake of the Great Depression and subsequent decades and meant to provide a means of basic survival for the "least among us." It was sincerely hoped, however, that this group would become smaller and smaller, as virtually every American moved up into the vast, bourgeois "middle class," which was supposed to include pretty much all of us.

Well, I think we all know what's been happening on this front. Entitlements - which most Americans don't want to depend upon in the first place, since we stubbornly retain our "rugged individualism" in the face of every assault - are being stretched to the limit, as more and more people - educated, hard-working, experienced, and deserving people - have been knocked out of the "middle class," generally through no fault of their own.

Which brings us to the second "masking" factor, a mask that's been brutally ripped off during the various economic dislocations of the past few decades: The individuals and groups who have been most badly hurt by the tumultuous economic events of the past 30 years are those who used to be called "the Silent Majority," groups and individuals who are prone to cope with economic distress, not by turning outwards and ranting, raging, rioting, or forming political splinter groups - but rather by turning inwards, becoming mute and despondent, or attempting to cope in small and personal ways, by struggling to remake themselves, change careers, form new businesses, or otherwise act in as self-reliant a fashion as possible.

On the one hand, this is a positive development, because we haven't - yet - been prone to major socially disruptive events, unlike previous periods of "Bad Times," including the 1930s Great Depression.

In these previous periods, those hurt the most tended to be those who felt left out of the American Social Contract - blue-collar factory workers, people with less formal education, youth, minority groups, and recent immigrants.

Because these population groups already felt "left out," they were not afraid nor ashamed to speak out loudly and agitate publically about their plight. Their problems and concerns were not "masked" - a good thing, from their points of view -  because their airing of them was very visible.

In contrast, those hurt the most in the various economic dislocations of the past few decades - outsourcing, downsizing, middle management shrinkage, housing crises, market crashes, and the evisceration of both manufacturing and Main Street small business - have strongly tended to be older and better-educated than the average American. They've been managers, professionals, and small business people. They've been homeowners and investors. They've been people who have had the most to lose - and, indeed, have lost it.

Such people, those who were born into or later came to be comfortably ensconced within the "middle class" - which, again, in a truly successful democratic and bourgeois society, should be pretty much everyone - have been, up to now at least, anything but vociferous about their current plight and strangely inactive as political agitators, even in the most minor sense.

Perhaps it's because this They who are We - what I like to call "the Rest of U.S." - are still too cowed, too ashamed, too shell-shocked that this could have happened to us, our families, our neighbors, our communities. Perhaps we're afraid that if we come out into the open and say how much we're hurting, the Thugs will be encouraged to do even worse to us.

Or maybe it's the opposite - our stubborn and tenacious American optimism, that "rugged individualism" and self-reliance telling us that however bad things are, we have the inner strength to overcome our difficulties quietly and on our own. Somehow, some way, we will receive that part of the our birthright the "Rest of U.S." most cherish: the Great American Second Chance.

For whatever reason, the recent big asset grab of our current Thug-ocracy - straight from the American bourgeoisie into the invisible coffers of the Dark Pools of Capital - has been met with far less vociferous opposition and protest than most - maybe all - previous attempts to subvert our modern, secure "middle class" democracy.

I believe the influence of the Internet culture and its preeminent role in consolidating Media into fewer and fewer - and more and more brutish - hands has been one important and largely unrecognized factor in stifling the Vox Populi. We have talked about this issue in the past, and we'll talk much more about it in the future.

But right now, we want readers to begin to recognize the correspondence between attacks on Meritocracy, a core value of American life and democracy, and attacks on the Political Center, to which the vast majority of Americans still gravitate.

Vocal fringe groups - many of them, however disguised, actually representing the interests and the will of whatever Thug-ocracy is in charge - tend to disparage the Political Center and Political Centrism as being insufficiently "pure," the political province of mongrels, the hoi polloi, the "ordinary" people who don't know what's good for them, as We - whatever fringe group is talking - do know.

But the "Rest of U.S.," who neither kowtow to nor are enchanted with a "protecting" and know-it-all Anointed Elite, understand that most Americans are naturally attracted to the Center because it is the Center - the middle-of-the-road economically, socially, and culturally, as well as politically.

Americans think of the Political Center as the democratic agora, where issues are debated and discussed as long as they have to be debated and discussed; where divergent views can somehow be reconciled; and where we can do our political and philosophical "horse-trading," up to the point when we miraculously reach consensus.

The Political Center, in a modern, bourgeois democracy, also represents the proverbial "melting pot," the Big Tent, Main Street, and the essential Social Contract, which binds all Americans as Americans (or Frenchmen as Frenchmen, Brazilians as Brazilians, Indians as Indians), no matter who each of us is as an individual.

The Political Center will - because it is supposed to - strongly tend towards cooperation and opportunity and fairness, which in turn will naturally promote greater income equality, not inequality, within whatever the populace decides is an appropriate range of incomes and national asset sharing.

This is, in fact, what the American Dream is all about - what used to make this country a beacon of hope to newer and rawer democracies, just breaking free from the shackles of whatever Thug-ocracy used to hold them:

No one will be very poor. No one will be very rich. Everyone will be proudly - indeed, triumphantly - "middle class," because it represents the golden political mean. We are "all in this together." And our national Social Contract will protect us and keep us safe, happy, and free from want.

I hasten to add that this historical vision of the American Dream - which so many other modern democracies have eagerly preempted as their own National Dreams - is both Conservative and Progressive in absolutely equal measure.

It's Conservative in the sense that it wishes to conserve and preserve our national characteristics and collective national values, which are the values of the melting pot, of the Big Tent, of equality of opportunity in every sense of the word, and above all, of that national Social Contract, which presumes that we are united in this worthy venture which is American life, and that our primary allegiance must be our allegiance to America itself, not to any of its constituent groups.

Equally, the American Dream is Progressive, in the sense that we are all committed to seeking the Greater Good, a Greater Good that has sought to encompass more and more citizens and more opportunities for every citizen, as our understanding of a good society evolves. Again, there is a central quality of sharing, of decency, of humanity in this overriding meaning of what it is to be an American - what it means to live in a modern democratic society.

In a very real sense, the essence of the American Dream is Meritocracy.

Americans cannot - will not - be divided and judged upon artificial criteria imposed by a powerful Thug-ocracy composed of The Few. They cannot - will not - be judged more worthy or less worthy on the basis of gender or race or religion or ethnicity or region or profession - and certainly not on the basis of how much money they have, which is the overriding anti-"value" our current Thug-ocracy is trying to impose.

What is left, apart from these artificial criteria, which the vast majority of Americans do not wish to see imposed as a basis for judgment or preference of any kind, are the core Meritocratic values of education, experience, hard work, applied intelligence, and applied creativity and talent.

Applying this core Meritocratic value system has served us well throughout our history, as more and more people have been allowed to strive for the American Dream and the good life that all of us seek.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that recent attacks on the concept of Meritocracy have coincided with unfortunate - indeed, repugnant - attempts to increase, rather than decrease, inequality - in our economy, in our markets, in our media, in our very culture and national identity.

Nor is it any accident that those who propagandize against Meritocracy tend to be the same people who rant against the Political Center.

They tend to say things like "our way is the only right way." Or "our view is pure, and yours is not pure." Or "we know what is best for you."

Some of these people proclaim that they are Progressive - but they are not. Some claim that they are Conservative - but they are not. Because to be truly Progressive or truly Conservative, one has to have a faith in the collective ability of the American people to discuss and debate and dicker and "horse trade," until some sort of workable consensus is reached.

And that also implies having an essential human and humane respect for one's fellow citizens, seeing them as part of Us - of U.S. - not part of "The Other."

Dividing the citizenry artificially - by sex or religion or race or ethnicity or economic status - doesn't allow us to see our fellow Americans as part of Us - of U.S.

But the Meritocratic criteria, the Meritocratic values, are ones we can all attain, all strive for, all respect within one another.

Meritocracy is an essential component of the American Dream, as is the constant search for a Political Center. And recreating the great Political Center and the worthwhile American Dream both depend on preserving and re-enshrining Meritocracy and Meritocratic values.

The next blog in this series will explore the role of the immense and now badly beleaguered Baby Boomer generation in the battle to preserve Meritocratic values in the U.S. and other modern democracies.

We will also explain how "saving" the Boomers - preventing the world's current over one billion Boomers from falling off an economic cliff - needs to become every generation's priority task right now, if a potential catastrophic economic disaster is to be averted.

Read about and consider joining with us in the Bring Back the Meritocracy! project, a non-profit, non-monetized, non-partisan, and non-controversial long-term project helping the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" in the U.S. and abroad: