What does it mean to live in a populist age? Above all, it means that a broad swathe of the public is deeply skeptical about the merit and legitimacy of the people in power throughout our society. And without question, the United States and much of the rest of the West are now in the midst of such a crisis of legitimacy.
At first glance, democratic societies such as ours seem like they should be the least troubled by demands for legitimacy. Their institutions wear their claims to valid authority on their sleeves. Elected governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Cultural, social, and economic power also ultimately answers to citizen and consumer preferences — at least in general terms. No one asserts a right to rule by force, or because of some unquestionable birthright.
But in fact, precisely because democratic societies are grounded in egalitarian presumptions, they are constantly troubled, and sometimes intensely agitated, by concerns about legitimacy. The democratic ideal suggests that a free and equal society should have no privileged class to rule it, but in practice every society has its elites, one way or another. “Elite” has become a kind of insult in our time, but the term almost describes a tautology: Whatever the rules for election to office or ascension to influence, power, and wealth may be, some people will rise and some will not. Those who do rise are society’s elite, because they have risen. The question, then, is how the elite is determined and replenished. Who gets the privileges of power and status, and on what grounds?
Elites in democratic societies are always under pressure to prove that the answers to these questions are sufficient, and thus that they are worthy of their authority and special standing. A widespread sense that power and wealth are distributed according to an unjust standard would be poisonous to solidarity and civic unity. As Irving Kristol pointed out in 1970, if elites hold power or privilege for reasons that most of their fellow citizens don’t consider genuinely meritorious, the entire society will lose respect for the rules it says it lives by. Life in such a society would feel not only unequal but unfree. “People feel free when they subscribe to a prevailing social philosophy; they feel unfree when the prevailing social philosophy is unpersuasive; and the existence of constitutions or laws or judiciaries [has] precious little to do with these basic feelings,” Kristol argued. The principles according to which our elite is populated and replenished must somehow be, as he put it, persuasive.
When we fail to find such a persuasive justification for the privileges of an elite, the tendency of a democratic public is to rebel against that elite — to reject its claims to authority by lashing out against its uses of power and demanding that the establishment be torn down. But populists are not anarchists. They demand liberation from oppressive authority because they want legitimate authority.
This creates a strange kind of problem in a democracy. Our politics seeks to give people what they ask for, so in a time when what people ask for is distinctly different from what they want, politics tends to be unusually aggravating. Today we ask for a politics of breaking down authority when what we really want is more-respectable authority. When our politics challenges the establishment, it only sharpens our sense of what we’re missing.
We can see this in the peculiar appeal of various kinds of confident claims to authority that are extrinsic to our politics right now — such as the attraction of some younger Americans to streams of orthodox religion that reject liberal political ideals and to some secular moralisms (in the mold of Jordan Peterson) that unabashedly demand self-discipline. We can see it, too, in the appeal of an identity politics that, for all its grave faults, draws clear lines between oppressors and oppressed. The attractiveness of these doctrines should tell us something about what we actually want from our politics, which is something very different from the antinomianism it is increasingly offering us.
All of this is made worse in our time by an elite politics that responds to the populist demand to demolish authority by simply defending the status quo. This easily becomes an ugly cycle: Frustrated voters want more-legitimate authority yet demand the demolition of authority, and they are answered with a doubling down on what they perceive to be illegitimate authority. This creates a situation in which everyone can manage to be smug, wrong, and frustrated simultaneously. The effects are apparent well beyond politics. Frustration with elite claims to authority drives a loss of confidence in professionalism and expertise, particularly when experts insist on deploying their authority as an instrument of cavalier contempt.
Any effort to address this escalating frustration should point us toward the revitalization of our core social institutions, because, whether we see it or not in the midst of our daily irritations, elite authority is unavoidably channeled through elite institutions. This is why populist frustration with elite authority is so often expressed as a loss of faith in institutions.
On the face of things, elite institutions in our society should be well positioned to offer persuasive criteria for the use of power. They are, after all, mostly professional institutions of different sorts: They are companies answerable to market forces; they are political institutions answerable to voter pressures; they are educational, cultural, and social institutions that claim to operate by certain standards of conduct and modes of integrity to which we might hold them. They should be suited to constraining our elites and pressing them into the service of the public.
But too often they are not, because they do not perceive themselves in these terms. Rather than understand themselves as formative of an ethos that might constrain the people within them, such institutions increasingly understand themselves as expressive of the ethos of the people within them. The more the elite ethos in America has grown contemptuous of a skeptical public, the more our elite institutions have become instruments of alienation. And when they are called upon to prove their legitimacy, these elite institutions tend to misconstrue the nature of the public’s concerns.
Generally speaking, elites can establish their legitimacy in two ways, which need to be combined: by making sure opportunities are available for others to rise into the elite and by using their own power and privilege with restraint and for the greater good. For much of American history, the first of these requisites for elite legitimacy was the more obviously lacking. But in our time, the second has become increasingly important.
Through the middle of the 20th century, the apex of American political, cultural, and economic power was largely the preserve of a fairly narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant near-aristocracy centered in the Northeast. These elites were known as WASPs, though of course only a sliver of America’s white Anglo-Saxon Protestants composed this class. Their claim to power, like that of most modern aristocracies, was a mix of heritage and rearing. They possessed their privileges by virtue of their birth, but they were raised and educated in ways intended to prepare them for responsibility and authority. They were — at least in principle, though in many cases very much in practice — expected to subject themselves to a code of behavior, a commitment to public service, a degree of personal reserve, a regard for the rules of fair play, and a sense of responsibility rooted in the implicit recognition that their power was an inherited privilege, not an earned achievement.
Obviously they never simply lived up to these ideals. The WASPs, like any elite, were frequently arrogant, entitled, and guilty of abuses of power. But they often internalized and institutionalized their code of behavior so that these abuses were also hypocrisies, and this did restrain, form, and direct the behavior of American elites to some degree. Their faults were many, but they also achieved a lot, right through the era of the construction of America’s mid-century institutions.
By the 1950s and 1960s, however, it was becoming clear that these claims to power could not remain persuasive as our culture became ever more liberal and democratic. The WASPs were undone by the exclusive nature of the criteria for entrance into their elite — which largely excluded those not born into a narrow Northeastern gentry and almost entirely excluded Catholics, Jews, women, and racial minorities. Such discrimination not only became untenable in a society growing more inclusive and diverse but also became intolerable to much of the WASP elite, which gradually lost its own sense of legitimacy and became persuaded that its institutions would need to open themselves to outsiders and adopt new criteria for ascent to the heights of American life.
In line with the democratizing spirit of the age, these criteria had to somehow avoid special favor and privilege. This meant, almost ineluctably, elevating an elite whose membership was determined by some measure of ability or intellect. The idea was hardly novel. It had been the organizing principle of the professional civil services that had taken shape throughout the West in the 19th century, and in some respects it reached back to Confucian China, if not earlier. Some set of exams, which might be relied upon to offer relatively objective measures of relevant abilities, would serve to filter potential elites. Those who scored high enough would be set on a path toward authority and privilege. Such filtering would take no account of family background, sex, race, religion, ethnicity, or other such characteristics. All that would matter would be a measure of merit. And thus was born the meritocracy.
The term “meritocracy” is generally attributed to Michael Young, a British intellectual (and Labour member of Parliament) who coined it in the title of his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book was a work of fictional social commentary, criticizing the notion that the best and the brightest would be better rulers than the public at large, and the term was intended to be pejorative.
But for reformers of America’s elite institutions, many of them guilt-ridden WASPs, meritocracy seemed like an extension of democracy, because it involved broadening the criteria for joining the upper reaches of American life. Filtering for elites by testing for some objective measure of merit would create a much fairer upward path for anyone who showed ability, regardless of where he or she might come from. By the 1970s, the term “meritocracy,” employed without its original pejorative connotation, was in common parlance among American reformers, especially in higher education.
Because prestigious colleges are the King’s Highway into every other elite institution, higher education has been at the center of meritocratic reforms from the start. Basing admission on standardized testing — especially the SAT — offered a way to select students from a relatively broad range of backgrounds. The appeal of the tests was not so much that they measured the skills or abilities most relevant to college success as that they measured those relevant skills and abilities that could be quantified without regard to an applicant’s other characteristics. They offered a single objective standard of comparison, and so would break the stranglehold of the patrician WASP families.
The new approach to admissions quickly allowed for more Catholic and Jewish students in elite universities — and later also for more students of Asian ancestry. Over time, and partly with the aid of affirmative-action formulas, they were joined by a greater number of African-American and Hispanic students, while the integration of women into elite universities (largely in the 1960s and 1970s) meant that these schools also stopped being boys’ clubs. Although family-legacy admissions certainly continue, and the WASP lines are still overrepresented in elite schools, there is no doubt that today’s American elite is far less narrowly drawn in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and sex. This has opened opportunities for able Americans from many backgrounds and diversified our elite dramatically.
These elites of different backgrounds nonetheless do have one thing in common: They all measure up by the standards that are now said to represent merit. Yet those standards are not by any means self-evidently suited to supplying us with an able and legitimate elite. They are not inherently persuasive. And a merit-based system cannot avoid the simple and unchangeable fact that an elite is intrinsically narrow and exclusive.
In fact, our meritocracy has not even been able to avoid the tendency of elites to become outright aristocracies — that is, to transmit privilege generationally. Thanks to both assortative mating and the powerful incentives to game the tests that grant entry into the American elite, children whose parents are in the upper echelons of our society have a very strong (and growing) chance of finding themselves in those upper echelons as adults.
Moving from the WASP near-aristocracy to a meritocracy vastly enlarged the pool of potential elites in America in the middle of the last century. But that really happened only once — or, rather, it happened for one generation. Since then, with each generation of meritocracy, the pool has not enlarged, and in some respects it has grown narrower and tighter. This process has both contributed to and been intensified by growing economic inequality over the past several decades. As William Deresiewicz has noted, the percentage of students at selective colleges whose families are in the top quarter of income earners in America has gone from roughly 45 percent in 1985 to more than 65 percent today. Our meritocracy is plainly rearranging itself into a more familiar aristocratic pattern, which leaves us less and less persuaded of its claim to legitimate authority.
For similar reasons, the American elite has actually grown more homogeneous in terms other than race, sex, ethnicity, and family connections. Business elites, professional elites, political elites, cultural elites, media elites, and academic elites were not so long ago fairly distinct groups of people in American life — each with its characteristic set of educational backgrounds, cultural identities, political affiliations, and life experiences that crosscut in constructive ways. Today, we increasingly find a uniform body of elites atop these different institutions, all of whom share the same kinds of educational backgrounds, cultural affinities, and political priorities. Different sectors of American society no longer really have their own elites, because there is just one elite, and it is increasingly becoming its own sector of society.
What is worse, this new aristocracy is in some important respects less modest about its own legitimacy than the old. Because each of its members must work to prove his or her merit — to pass the key tests and clear the key hurdles — today’s elite is more likely to believe it has earned its power and possesses it by right more than privilege. Because our elite as a whole has inclined to this view, it tends to impose fewer restraints on its use of authority and generally doesn’t identify itself with the sort of code of conduct that past aristocracies at least claimed to uphold. Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as the fulfillment of an obligation to give back but rather as a demonstration of their own high-mindedness and merit.
A meritocracy naturally assumes its authority is merited. But the idea at the core of our meritocracy is radically individualistic and dismally technocratic: Merit is demonstrated by test scores and a glittering résumé rather than evidence of service to the larger society, and is then often put to use in various forms of management and administration. The sort of elite this produces implicitly substitutes a cold and sterile notion of intellect for a warm and spirited understanding of character as its measure of worth. Our society increasingly cannot escape the sense that this is an unjustifiable substitution. But rather than impose some standards of character on itself, our elite inclines to respond to these concerns with increasingly intense displays of its ideal of social justice. It doubles down on the logic of meritocracy, adopts the language of privilege in its critiques of the larger society, and pushes for even more inclusive criteria of admission to elite institutions.
But these efforts miss a simple point. The claims to legitimacy of today’s elite are being met with skepticism, less because it is too hard to enter the upper tier of American life (though it is) than because those in that tier seem to be permitted to do whatever they want. The problem is not that too few Americans can get into elite colleges, but that those who do get in too often go on to exercise power in our society without restraints or standards.
Precisely because our elite does not think of itself as an aristocracy, it does not perceive itself to be in need of restraints. Ironically, to strengthen its case for legitimacy, it might have to understand itself more as an aristocracy. As the social critic Helen Andrews argues in an astute essay on this subject, “the meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy — so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable?”
What would it mean, though, for our elite to make itself presentable or persuasive? It would surely require some sense of what has made it unpresentable or unpersuasive to begin with. Our meritocracy has lacked that sense. We have implicitly mistaken an idea of merit meant to broaden the entry criteria into elite educational institutions for an idea of merit that could justify and legitimate authority throughout society. But authority is not legitimated merely by the ways it is obtained. Often more important are the ways it is deployed.
The WASPs were wrong to close the doors of their powerful institutions to women and religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. But they were not wrong to impose a demanding code of conduct and restraint on those within their institutions. Our elite, however it is formed, requires such restraints and obligations too.
But what forms could such restraints plausibly take in our time? And how could any code of conduct be imposed? Such a code would unavoidably need to be imposed through the institutions of elite authority themselves. But those institutions are at the heart of our crisis of legitimacy. The public has been losing its confidence in them for decades.
So how could we come to have greater trust in our institutions and those who run them? We trust our institutions when we believe they form the people in them to be worthy of trust and provide everyone else with standards by which to judge those people. But in recent decades we have watched our institutions gradually lose sight of the importance of that function and instead begin to serve merely as platforms upon which individuals can perform. To regain our trust, the people who populate our institutions would need to understand themselves through those institutions again, to see their roles and characters as formed by them, and to demonstrate their integrity by accepting the constraints that come with professional and institutional responsibilities.
What does accepting such constraints entail in practice? At a minimum, it means doing your job with integrity. It means lawyers seeing themselves as agents of clients, professors seeing themselves as teachers of students, legislators seeing themselves as representatives chosen to bargain on behalf of constituents, reporters seeing themselves as bound by a set of professional standards. It means that, whatever your institutional role, you understand yourself not as “building your own brand” but as being molded and formed by the larger whole of which you are trusted to be a part.
That would take both institutional reforms and a change of attitudes geared toward a recovery of the formative, and thus constraining, purpose of key social institutions. The duty-laden institutional question — “Given my position here, how should I behave?” — is the one our elites will need to ask and answer persuasively if they are to make a strong claim to authority.
But that kind of question is a challenge to the logic of our meritocracy in much more than a merely formal sense. It is a question that implicitly assumes a different standard of merit, and in some respects an altogether different conception of the human person — a more modest, less ambitious anthropology with much to teach us.
It is not a coincidence that a performative rather than formative understanding of institutions has arisen in our age of meritocracy. To see institutions as platforms for performance is to deny them their role as molds of character, and by extension to deny our very need for such formation. Our culture now often does deny that need. Both the libertarian and the progressive ideals of freedom assume a human person already fully formed, requiring only liberation from oppression or coercion to be free. The meritocracy is rooted in an idea of achievement that tends to take the fact that someone has reached a position of privilege as evidence that this person warrants trust, or at least has paid his dues.
The vision of the human person underlying these assumptions is loaded with very high expectations of the individual, but it therefore makes only modest demands of institutions. Left to himself, the individual can exercise his capacities and pursue the good; our institutions need only to enable him — if not, indeed, to display or promote him.
But this vision has always been opposed in our traditions by a far more skeptical view, which assumes a person who begins imperfect and unformed — not to say fallen. This other ideal comes loaded with rather low expectations of the individual, but it therefore demands a lot of our institutions. It assumes that each of us is born deficient but capable of moral improvement, that such improvement happens soul by soul and so cannot be circumvented by social or political transformation, and that this improvement — the formation of character and virtue — is the foremost work of our society in every generation. This work is the essential, defining purpose of our institutions, which must therefore be fundamentally formative.
This more skeptical vision of the human person and the purpose of society’s institutions has roots that run deep in Western civilization, but it is now very controversial. The assault upon formative institutions in our time has everything to do with just how controversial it has become. It is why we find battles raging around every one of the core formative institutions of our society, including family, faith, work, community, education, and our republican form of government. It helps explain the shape of our culture wars.
Part of the reason this view is so controversial is that it suggests that the fundamental or primary problem in a society such as ours is not the oppression of the weak by the strong but the fragility of the preconditions for social order and freedom. Of course, both are real problems: We all require formation, and the weak are often oppressed by the strong. But which is the primary problem? Which would need to be taken on first in order to enable us to address the other?
It can almost be said that the answer each of us would offer to that question determines our political disposition. At the very least, it tells us a lot about where we fall along the traditional left–right axis that (broadly speaking) has given form to liberal politics for centuries. And it has a lot to do with our attitude toward the meritocracy — which after all embodies a form of the idea that our merit is there to be measured and that granting privilege and power to those who measure up, regardless of where they come from, is a way of treating everyone fairly. This is one important reason why the ethos of our most meritocratic institutions tends to lean left.
This divide is also, finally, an important reason why those meritocratic institutions now face a deep crisis of legitimacy. They demand too little of the people they empower, because they expect too much of them. Our meritocratic institutions, including those that are explicitly educational, evince the view that their purpose is to elevate the people in them far more than to shape them — to let them be who they are, rather than to make them who they ought to be. As a result, they fail to demand, and therefore to produce, integrity and reliability. Their claims to authority are inherently unpersuasive to the larger society.
Such claims would be much more persuasive if they were rooted in an institutional ethic that promised restraint, formation, and responsibility, and so set about advancing clearly defined institutional goals in ways explicitly intended to demonstrate trustworthiness. This would mean doing more to subsume individual ambition to institutional ambition and directing it accordingly. It would mean enabling and expecting the people who populate key institutions in our politics, economy, and culture to pursue status and prominence by working within those institutions — by advancing their aims and embodying their ethics — rather than in the vast open space of the larger society by standing atop the institutions and signaling their virtue. And it would mean understanding each institution as giving its participants a place, a role, and a set of relationships rooted in their need for formation.
The way to take on the crisis of legitimacy we now confront, in other words, is to recover a conservative institutionalism. It is, in this sense, a project to which the Right has a lot to offer. But in our time it is also a project that demands a lot from the Right in particular, because today’s political Right threatens to become an anti-institutionalist conservatism, which is an inherently incoherent and dangerous political force.
It is not hard to see why the Right has grown hostile to key American institutions. The elites who populate those institutions fail to make a persuasive case for themselves. They often do not merit respect. But conservatives must look for ways to fight for those institutions rather than against them — to reform them, to repopulate them, to redirect them, and when necessary to replace them, but not to imagine that our society could do without them.
Today’s populism is understandable in light of the crisis of legitimacy we confront. But it must be seen more as a symptom of the problem than as a solution to it — a sign that new thinking and action are needed, but not an example of what those should look like. Even at its very best, populism is a demolition crew. And demolition crews perform essential work, but it is generally preparatory work. It must be followed by the work of builders and rebuilders. And that is what we each should seek to be.
— This essay is adapted from the author’s new book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.