The Democrats’ Merit Problem
They No Longer Seem So Sure It’s a Good Idea
The Democrats have a merit problem. The traditional Democratic theory of the case ran like this: 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 the last part of their case, which undermines their whole theory. 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.
Arguments can be made in defense of the anti-merit approach. You can’t swing a dead cat on most university campuses without hitting some academic who will give you 10,000 words on why this is actually a great idea. In my view, these arguments are universally specious but what shouldn’t be debatable is that ordinary people—ordinary voters—don’t buy the idea. 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.”
Democrats are very shaky indeed on the idea of merit today but that wobbliness goes back quite a way to the origins of affirmative action as a tool for allocating jobs and school admissions. As it evolved in practice, affirmative action became bound up with preferences based on race (later also on gender) that were used to override allocations based on conventional measures of merit. While these practices have been with us for a long time, they have never been popular. Voters have been stubbornly resistant to the idea that it’s fair to allocate sought-over slots on the basis of race rather than merit.
This is true today as the Supreme Court prepares to render a decision next month on affirmative action in higher education as practiced by Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Harvard case turns particularly on whether Asians have been discriminated against in admissions to that college. Given the proclivities of the Court and the blindingly obvious pattern of such discrimination—denying it seems as plausible as professing one’s belief in the Easter Bunny—it is a safe bet that the Court will decide against the universities. In so doing, the Court will find itself on the good side of public opinion and Democrats, who will no doubt denounce the decision in histrionic terms, will find themselves very much on the wrong side.
In typical polling from Pew in 2022, just 7 percent of the public thought high school grades should not be a factor in college admissions and a mere 14 percent thought standardized test scores should not be a factor. But an overwhelming 74 percent thought that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.
This pattern applied to all racial groups. Among blacks, 59 percent said race should not be a factor in college admissions compared to 11 percent who said high school grades should not be a factor and 21 percent who said the same about standardized tests. Hispanics and Asians were even more adamant in downgrading the use of race in admissions.
The public’s view is perhaps best summed up in 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. The public, whether Democrats are willing to admit it or not, are basically meritocrats when it comes to college admissions. They will be more likely to applaud, rather than oppose, the impending Supreme Court decision.
None of this should come as a surprise to those who are attuned to real-world political trends, as opposed to media treatment of racial issues. 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 and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, 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. It was entirely consistent with Democrats’ increasing disenchantment with meritocratic criteria. But in spite of its prominent endorsements and generous funding, the measure failed by 57 to 43 percent, with working-class voters, Hispanics, Asians, whites, moderates and independents all in opposition.
The people had spoken but Democrats were not inclined to listen. Instead, the last several years have seen an intensification of the drive to disregard meritocratic criteria in favor of identity-based characteristics. It has spread to countless workplaces and institutions and to an ever-wider variety of decisions within them. It is more or less the official orientation of the Biden administration. To insist on the centrality of merit, despite this being the dominant view among ordinary voters, is to invite accusations of racism in Democratic circles.
And once merit is disregarded in one area, it becomes easy to disregard it in others. Most perniciously, it invades the realm of ideas. Where once it would have been unthinkable to screen candidates for faculty positions—in everything from economics to theoretical physics—on whether and how much they adhere to a particular ideological project on promoting “diversity,” it is now commonplace. Where once it would have been unthinkable to judge a scientific project or analysis on anything other than its intrinsic merits and truth value, that too is now commonplace. Indeed, a recent paper, “In Defense of Merit in Science” by 29 distinguished co-authors, including two Nobel laureates, literally could not get published by a mainstream journal because the paper was “hurtful” and because the concept of merit “has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow”.
It's amazing that such a paper even needed to be written and truly shocking that it could not get published. But that is the reality of how far the downgrading of merit has spread in our society, with Democrats’ acquiescence. In fact, at the most fundamental level, it is now undermining the very basis of argumentation itself, which traditionally and correctly held that an argument was to be adjudicated on the basis of merit—the logic and evidence behind it—rather than the identity or political agenda of the person making the argument.
Will Democrats pull themselves back from the brink? We shall see. But they should know this: the voters they aspire to lead are not with them. On the bedrock question of merit and outcomes, Americans still believe—and will continue to believe—that “equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not”. In the very blue state of Massachusetts, voters overall agreed with this statement by 61 percent to 16 percent. Republican voters agreed with the statement by 72-12, but so did independent voters by 65-13 and even Democrats by 56-17. White voters endorsed the statement by 63-12 but so did black voters by 56-17. In the purple state of Wisconsin, 73 percent of Republican primary voters agreed—but so did 66 percent of Democratic primary voters. It seems fair to assume that voters in a typical red state would be even more lop-sided in agreement with the statement. In fact, outside of, say, certain parts of Brooklyn, equality of outcome doesn’t seem to have much of a constituency.
Right now, the foibles and extremism of their opponents has insulated Democrats from the consequences of their merit problem. But it will eventually catch up with them. Voters know their own views about the importance of merit and high achievement. What they may not realize is how far Democrats have strayed from the views of ordinary voters. That cannot stay hidden forever.