Elizabeth Anderson in The Nation:
Last spring, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina explained why, at a pivotal moment in the Democratic primaries, he endorsed Joe Biden for president: “Our problem, it seems to me, is too many candidates spend time trying to let people know how smart they are, rather than trying to connect to people.” Clyburn said he hates it when candidates tell voters they need to be able to send their kids to college. What about the people who want to be electricians, plumbers, barbers? The promise of debt-free college, he continued, offers nothing to the significant part of his constituency that doesn’t want to go to college.
Clyburn’s endorsement played an important role in reviving Biden’s campaign: The former vice president’s thumping victory in South Carolina was the turning point of the Democratic primaries. Clyburn’s focus on higher education and the way it might alienate potential Democratic voters also points to a larger challenge that the party has faced since the 1980s: Despite seeking to protect working-class interests more than the Republicans, it has lost considerable segments of its working-class base. A candidate like Elizabeth Warren may advocate programs that advance working-class interests, including universal child care and pre-K and worker representation on corporate boards, but she failed to draw substantial working-class support. Much the same can be said for Warren’s more centrist colleagues, figures like Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Michael J. Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, gives us a deeper view into some of the reasons why many ordinary workers have become suspicious of the highly educated elites who seek to represent their interests in the Democratic Party. In providing a damning critique of meritocracy, Sandel also documents how, as both an ideology and a set of practices, it has become a driving force within the party as its members have become more highly educated. He argues that, in stressing education as the primary means to get ahead in society, the party’s educated elites have come to offer an increasingly narrow pathway to a decent life.