Anne Applebaum, writing in Slate, raises an important paradox: Why is there a rising tide of resentment toward Ivy League elites, given the role that Ivy League institutions have played for decades in driving the engine of meritocracy and upward mobility? Isn't the Obama Administration filled with graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton (which is what people really mean when they talk about "Ivy League elites" -- when was the last time someone was called an elitist for going to Cornell?) who rose from working class roots to the halls of power?
As the latest evidence of this "anti-elite-educationism," Applebaum points to a new round of campaign ads by Christine O'Donnell, the Republican nominee to fill Joe Biden's Senate seat. In contrast to her opponent, Chris Coons, "I didn't go to Yale," she declares. "I'm you."
What gives? Applebaum starts at an answer by pointing out the psychic downside to a society that professes meritocracy: If we're told that if you're smart and work hard, you'll rise to the top, it follows if you don't rise to the top, the only reason was that you weren't smart enough or didn't work hard enough. As Alain de Botton has noted, in embracing meritocracy, we no longer acknowledge to each other or to ourselves the continuing role of fortune -- in upbringing, mentoring, opportunity and ultimately, in the outcome of our lives.
"I can see how this is irritating, even painful," Applebaum allows, "[b]ut I don't quite see what comes next." In other words, it may fuel Tea Party rhetoric but it doesn't make for very coherent policy. She's right -- frustration alone rarely makes for a good plan -- but in rushing to a political analysis she vaults over the understanding she seeks.
I suppose Applebaum -- Yale alum, daughter of a Yale alum and holder of many of the meritocracy's loftiest distinctions and honors (Phi Beta Kappa, Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics, Oxford, etc.) -- should get empathy points for acknowledging that those toiling outside meritocracy's winner's circle might find conditions "irritating, even painful." But it's worse than that. For many, it's not just irritating or painful, but seemingly irreversible. It's true that many of our gatekeeper institutions have, if imperfectly, become pathways for social mobility. But the problem is that they're all clustered at the bridge between adolescence and adulthood. Once you graduate from, say, Central Connecticut State University, you can't un-graduate later and go to Yale. Yes, there's a second chance in the form of going to Yale (or Harvard) for law school or graduate school, which is what Chris Coons actually did. But once that train has left the station, then those connections, those opportunities, the aura that society grants those from Harvard and Yale -- the chance at those things is gone forever, and you're likely to have a long, long walk to get to where you're going. And someone on that walk may be disinclined, if not unable, to make the distinction between the Yalie whose father went to Yale and the Yalie whose father was a dry cleaner.
That's not the fault of those who went to Yale, regardless of how they got there. But it does point out a significant structural problem with American meritocracy. To answer the question Applebaum poses: Americans don't resent upward mobility; they just resent getting so few chances at it. There isn't an obvious solution to this situation. But until we address it, we need to be prepared for a great deal of irritation from a great many people.