Here's a question we should all be asking: What went wrong? Not just with the pandemic but with our civic life. What brought us to this polarized, rancorous political moment?
In recent decades, the divide between winners and losers has been deepening, poisoning our politics, setting us apart. This divide is partly about inequality. But it's also about the attitudes toward winning and losing that have come with it. Those who landed on top came to believe that their success was their own doing, a measure of their merit, and that those who lost out had no one to blame but themselves.
This way of thinking about success arises from a seemingly attractive principle. If everyone has an equal chance, the winners deserve their winnings. This is the heart of the meritocratic ideal. In practice, of course, we fall far short. Not everybody has an equal chance to rise. Children born to poor families tend to stay poor when they grow up. Affluent parents are able to pass their advantages onto their kids. At Ivy League universities, for example, there are more students from the top one percent than from the entire bottom half of the country combined.
But the problem isn't only that we fail to live up to the meritocratic principles we proclaim. The ideal itself is flawed. It has a dark side. Meritocracy is corrosive of the common good. It leads to hubris among the winners and humiliation among those who lose out. It encourages the successful to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. And it leads them to look down on those less fortunate, less credentialed than themselves. This matters for politics. One of the most potent sources of the populous backlash is the sense among many working people that elites look down on them. It's a legitimate complaint.
Even as globalization brought deepening inequality and stagnant wages, its proponents offered workers some bracing advice. "If you want to compete and win in the global economy, go to college." "What you earn depends on what you learn." "You can make it if you try." These elites miss the insult implicit in this advice. If you don't go to college, if you don't flourish in the new economy, your failure is your fault. That's the implication. It's no wonder many working people turned against meritocratic elites.
So what should we do? We need to rethink three aspects of our civic life. The role of college, the dignity of work and the meaning of success.
We should begin by rethinking the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity. For those of us who spend our days in the company of the credentialed, it's easy to forget a simple fact: Most people don't have a four-year college degree. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans don't. So it is folly to create an economy that makes a university diploma a necessary condition of dignified work and a decent life.
Encouraging people to go to college is a good thing. Broadening access for those who can't afford it is even better. But this is not a solution to inequality. We should focus less on arming people for meritocratic combat, and focus more on making life better for people who lack a diploma but who make essential contributions to our society.
We should renew the dignity of work and place it at the center of our politics. We should remember that work is not only about making a living, it's also about contributing to the common good and winning recognition for doing so.
Robert F. Kennedy put it well half a century ago. Fellowship, community, shared patriotism. These essential values do not come from just buying and consuming goods together. They come from dignified employment, at decent pay. The kind of employment that enables us to say, "I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures." This civic sentiment is largely missing from our public life today.
We often assume that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good. But this is a mistake. Martin Luther King Jr. explained why. Reflecting on a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, shortly before he was assassinated, King said, "The person who picks up our garbage is, in the final analysis, as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity."
Today's pandemic makes this clear. It reveals how deeply we rely on workers we often overlook. Delivery workers, maintenance workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, truckers, nurse assistants, childcare workers, home health care providers. These are not the best-paid or most honored workers. But now, we see them as essential workers. This is a moment for a public debate about how to bring their pay and recognition into better alignment with the importance of their work.
It is also time for a moral, even spiritual, turning, questioning our meritocratic hubris. Do I morally deserve the talents that enable me to flourish? Is it my doing that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have? Or is that my good luck? Insisting that my success is my due makes it hard to see myself in other people's shoes. Appreciating the role of luck in life can prompt a certain humility. There but for the accident of birth, or the grace of God, or the mystery of fate, go I.
This spirit of humility is the civic virtue we need now. It's the beginning of a way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points us beyond the tyranny of merit to a less rancorous, more generous public life.