Democrats! Time to Re-Embrace Merit, Free Speech, and Universalism
Voters, especially working-class voters, would approve.
Claudine Gay is out as president of Harvard. It’s tempting for Democrats to simply ascribe her fall to the nefarious activities of the right and, of course, to racism as Gay herself alleges in her resignation letter. If so, no rethinking of Democratic positions is necessary, just a ringing affirmation of the party’s noble commitment to, well, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
That would be a mistake. In truth, Gay owed her position to her race, gender and, importantly, her role as a DEI enforcer par excellence. Her body of academic work is thin, undistinguished and, as we now know, riddled with instances of plagiarism. As the dean of arts and sciences at Harvard, her position prior to becoming president, Gay presided over a DEI regime where dissenters from the reigning orthodoxy were enthusiastically punished, including the evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven for publicly asserting that there were only two biological sexes and, most egregiously, the brilliant young economist Roland Fryer.
Fryer, like Gay, is black. But unlike Gay, who grew up in a comfortable middle-class household headed by two professionals and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, Fryer came from a broken home, living on and off with his alcoholic father and crack-dealing relatives and was involved in gang life. But he overcame all that to become a profoundly original economist who won the John Bates Clark award for best economist under 40, with innumerable pathbreaking papers to his name. As Glenn Loury observed:
His research upends many commonly held assumptions about race, discrimination, education, and police violence. It is tremendously creative, rigorous, and consequential scholarship, and it cannot be simply written off because it happens to challenge the status quo.
But the status quo-challenging aspect of his work was not well-received around Harvard, especially when he published a meticulous study of police use of violence that found police no more likely to shoot blacks than whites in police-civilian interactions and another study that found that “viral” incidents of police violence followed by investigations typically lead to police pullback and large increases in felonies and homicides, mostly of black victims. When a dubious sexual harassment claim was brought against Fryer, Gay’s bureaucracy pounced and despite findings that rejected most of the charges against him, it was deemed appropriate to go beyond the recommended punishment of sensitivity training for inappropriate sexual banter to suspend him for two years without pay and shut down his incredibly productive lab. Gay reportedly wanted to go even further and revoke his tenure.
The cancellation of this exemplary scholar, with his quintessentially American success story of overcoming multiple and severe obstacles, reflects shamefully on both Harvard and Gay. And thanks in no small part to Gay’s activities, Harvard has managed to rank dead last out of 248 schools in the free speech rankings of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). None of this appalling record seems worth defending by Democrats and the center-left in general.
There is a better way. Rather than defending the likes of Gay, why not just go back to what Democrats have traditionally stood for?
Take merit. Democrats traditionally believed that discrimination should be opposed and dismantled and resources provided to the disadvantaged so that everyone can fairly compete and achieve. Rewards—job opportunities, promotions, commissions, appointments, publications, school slots, and much else—would then be allocated on the basis of which person or persons deserved these rewards on the basis of merit. Those who were meritorious would be rewarded; those who weren’t would not be.
But Democrats have lost interest in this approach. Merit and objective measures of achievement are now viewed with suspicion as the outcomes of a hopelessly corrupt system, so rewards should instead be allocated on the basis of various criteria allegedly related to “social justice.” Instead of dismantling discrimination and providing assistance so that more people have the opportunity to acquire merit, the real solution is to worry less about merit and more about equal outcomes—“equity” in parlance of our times.
Ordinary voters don’t buy this approach. They believe in the idea of merit and they believe in their ability to acquire merit and attendant rewards if given the opportunity to do so. To believe otherwise is insulting to them and contravenes their common sense about the central role of merit in fair decisions. As George Orwell put it, “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
This is shown by the public’s views on racial preferences. To put it simply, they are very, very unpopular. In a typical result, last spring’s Harvard/Stanford/University of Texas SCOTUS Poll found 69 percent of the public agreeing that private colleges and universities should not be able to use race as a factor in admissions, compared to 31 percent who thought these institutions should be able to do so. The same question about public colleges and universities elicited at 74-26 split. Pretty definitive.
Or take this time series question from Gallup:
Which comes closer to your view about evaluating students for admission into a college or university—applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted (or) an applicant's racial and ethnic background should be considered to help promote diversity on college campuses, even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted?
The most recent result is quite typical: 70 percent favored the merit-only approach and just 26 percent endorsed the need to admit less-qualified students on the basis of race. Americans, whether Democrats are willing to admit it or not, are basically meritocrats when it comes to college admissions—and most other things for that matter.
Another indicator is how race-based affirmative action has fared in state referenda which is… not well. The most recent example was in the very blue state of California in 2020. Democratic leaders put an initiative on the ballot, Proposition 16, that would have repealed the state's ban on using affirmative action in school admissions and government contracting and employment decisions. The measure, endorsed by Governor Gavin Newsom, then-senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, pretty much every other Democratic official in California and a staggering array of elites from business and labor to beloved sports teams, was widely seen as allowing schools to adjust merit-based admission policies to admit more blacks and Hispanics and fewer Asian Americans in order to make black and Hispanic enrollment proportional to their share in the population. But in spite of its prominent endorsements and generous funding—supporters of the measure outspent opponents by 10:1—the measure failed by 57 to 43 percent. Across racial groups, support for Proposition 16 ran 15-25 points behind support for Biden in the 2020 election. This speaks volumes about the stunning cross-race unpopularity of racial preferences.
Why is this? It’s very simple. Most voters, especially working-class voters, think racial preferences are not fair and fairness is a fundamental part of their world outlook. They actually believe, with Martin Luther King Jr., that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In a recent University of California Dornsife survey, this classic statement of colorblind equality was posed to respondents: “Our goal as a society should be to treat all people the same without regard to the color of their skin”. This MLK-style statement elicited sky-high (92 percent) agreement from the public, despite the assaults on this idea from Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the likes of Ibram X. Kendi and large sectors of the Democratic left. In a fascinating related finding, the researchers found that most people who claim to have heard about CRT believe CRT includes this colorblind perspective, rather than directly contradicting it. Perhaps they just can’t believe any theory that has anything to do with race would reject this fundamental principle.
Similarly a recent Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground survey found 91 percent agreement with the statement: “All people deserve an equal opportunity to succeed, no matter their race or ethnicity.” This is what people deeply believe in: equal opportunity. In the wake of the Claudine Gay debacle, as well as the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, Democrats would be well-advised to return to this bedrock principle.
Democrats also used to be steadfast defenders of free speech. Free speech was viewed as integral to advancing the agenda of the left and the labor movement, against those who opposed that agenda and sought to suppress organizing efforts for social change. But the tables have turned and now in institutions where Democrats dominate, such as the universities, the commitment to free speech has become very shaky indeed. Conflation of speech with “violence” and “harm” and making people feel “unsafe” has put a damper on the free expression of ideas.
But this is not what voters want. They have a different model of discourse in mind, such as that suggested by this poll question tested from April to June last year among over 18,000 registered voters by RMG Research:
Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith. (76 percent agree/14 percent disagree)
Why on earth can’t Democrats embrace this approach which seems so sensible and, well, American? Democrats should err on the side of free speech, not its suppression.
Or take universalism. Democrat have historically done the best when they were viewed as the party of the common man and woman, of the ordinary American. That party stood for universal uplift of all Americans, especially all working-class Americans, against entrenched economic interests and guardians of the status quo.
It’s still a great model. In our new book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, John Judis and I put it this way:
[T]he New Deal Democrats were moderate and even small-c conservative in their social outlook. They extolled "the American way of life" (a term popularized in the 1930s); they used patriotic symbols like the "Blue Eagle" to promote their programs. In 1940, Roosevelt's official campaign song was Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Under Roosevelt, Thanksgiving, Veterans' Day, and Columbus Day were made into federal holidays. Roosevelt turned the annual Christmas Tree lighting into a national event. Roosevelt's politics were those of "the people" (a term summed up in Carl Sandburg's 1936 poem, "The People, Yes") and of the "forgotten American." There wasn't a hint of multiculturalism or tribalism. The Democrats need to follow this example.
Think about all three of these principles—merit, free speech, and universalism—and it’s extraordinary the extent to which each of them has become right-coded, if not tinged with racism, for broad swaths of the Democratic Party. This is bizarre. Democrats desperately need a “back to the future” movement to re-embrace these core principles and get back in synch with the American people.
Harvard may not like it but ordinary Americans will.