Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The referendum on meritocracy

Watched some of last night’s DNC, fell asleep post-Michelle (who had just proven herself capable of being president as well as supermodel-in-chief, as well as someone who could totally have been Meryl Streep if she'd gone that direction, but remember, folks, she’s just a mom!), typing this in Word offline on the train... more biking, trains, teaching, more figuring out my students' newfangled online workbook, and have yet to read any DNC commentary, so if what follows was everyone’s assessment, either I’ll notice later or you’ll tell me in the comments.


David Brooks set up this idea, and Ross Douthat applied it to Romney specifically: meritocracy sounds just, but is unjust in its real-life application. More to the point, whether or not in the abstract, this new way of choosing leaders is fair, it hasn’t come through with results. The winners of this contest – whether up from bootstraps or merely the children of professionals inculcated with great work ethics – may be more morally entitled to their status than were the WASP elites that preceded them, but they’re not necessarily proving to be any better at leadership. The banks! Jobs! Whatta mess! 

Thus, as Douthat noted, why all the tunafish-nonsense detracted from the message. It’s clear that Romney’s life hasn’t been one of privilege in the Paris Hilton (or, more accurately, heir-or-heiress-who-never-had-the-get-up-and-go-to-seek-publicity) sense, of lounging about. But – as the Daily Show take on this showed so elegantly – Romney’s case for having “built” his own success is, given his family of origin, implausible.

Which brings us to last night. I first tuned in when a gay Jewish entrepreneur gave a speech in which he mentioned not only Americans of different religions, but also non-believers. Woohoo! Then at one point or another the pizza I was making for dinner split in two while still raw, in the oven. Waa! Then a woman appeared onstage who, as PG in her usual spot-on waynotes, won the scrappiness competition hands-down, being quite literally scrapsof her former self, having lost both legs (and an arm?) in battle. A woman of color, even. I mention the pizza, of course, for waambulence reasons. What have I, limbs intact, got to complain about? Yet, in the moment, complain I did.

The theme of non-complaining continued into Michelle Obama’s turn. Her speech… I was in awe. She managed to be on one level the sweet, unthreatening just-a-mom, the devoted wife, the stunning First Lady (great early-1960s makeup, I so approve), and on another, to offer up a really harsh counter-argument to Ann Romney. There was the tale of Michelle’s father – conveniently revealing how a worse case of the very condition Ann suffers from goes for someone without access to the best medical care or the option of not working outside the home. (Too sneaky, or brilliant? Discuss.) There was a reference to how they value “truth” – take that, Paul Ryan! Mitt and Ann used to eat pasta? Well, Barack and Michelle had student loans. Facts like these you can’t argue with. The Obamas came from so much less, and are that much more personally impressive. You can, however, argue about what to make of that. You can't really get around that this makes their case for scrappiness more honest than Ann Romney's DIY table. But is scrappy what the people want?

As an Obama supporter, I hope this works. I'm endlessly impressed by the Obamas, and more to the point, on almost all the issues, I prefer the Democratic agenda. (My Zionism is not a far-right one, my leftiness of the center variety, meaning I don't find the party too conservative, and I'm a big ol' social liberal, so a Democrat I shall be.) But I fear that there’s a part of the scrappiness message that could turn off some voters, namely those who either started off with more than they did, ended up with less, or both. Those who have it tough and do sometimes complain about it. Those who work, yes, but not that hard.

Even though the Republicans have this bootstraps message, there's a sense in which, if you believe in meritocracy, they're not the obvious choice. Republicans don't really care if someone's privilege is showing, because if they're self-made, they built it, and if they're not, well, their parents or grandparents did, and at least the government in no way contributed a drop.

On more sleep, and with less of my brain wrapped around the concept of online homework, I suspect I'd have more (or less but better) to add. In the mean time, you the commenters, have at it.


PG said...

Duckworth said something similar to what I've heard from a few friends, which is that the support from government in hard times has enabled them to become the successes they are today. E.g. from one of my high school classmates after watching the RNC: 'I'm kinda partial to "government", I suppose. It gave my family food stamps when we were younger and ensured that my Dad paid child support. It sent me to great public schools and provided me with a medical education. It allowed me to borrow $150,000 in low interest loans. Now the government pays for the mental health care of the kids I see (yay for good salaries) so that I can "pay it forward" to someone else in need. Is government perfect? Nope, but it's partly because "government" is "we the people" in all of our egoistic and flawed glory.'

I think people who are currently facing hard times can sympathize with the Democrats' message that their situation isn't permanent, but in the meantime it's better for them to get help than to "let him die." Duckworth's family story was certainly of both ups and downs, not just the rise: her father started out doing reasonably well and then lost his job and had trouble finding work again.

Britta said...

I would think if you started with more and ended up with less, you'd be even more likely to be a Democrat, because the Democratic party isn't the one saying that rich and successful people are the ones who work hard and poor people are just lazy and jealous. They're saying, at least the rich ones, 'even though I am now rich, I understand what it means to not be,' which is about empathy, a really different message than the one scrappiness one-upsmanship is about. By contrast, the Republican message is one of "if I could do this all by myself, why can't you?"

Speaking of the reverse, JK Rowling, now a multi-gazillionaire with a castle in Scotland, was asked why she didn't move her money to some tax haven like all the other British gazillionaires, and she wrote this amazing piece about how she was a single mom on the dole when she wrote HP, and she'd be a giant, ungrateful hypocrite if she didn't contribute her dues to society now that she was fortunate.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...




Agree with almost all of that. But there is some scrappiness oneupmanship from the Obama camp, albeit defensive post-rnc. Michelle Obama was seeking to show that her family unlike the Romney's did struggle. This is in part an empathy issue but also about showing that Barack in particular is more impressive as a person than Mitt. Which, well, true enough!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, and Britta, PG,

Expect a post at some point (soon?) about where YPIS falls on the left-right spectrum.