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The Meritocracy Muddle

Populist resentment against "elites" is a recurring feature of modern democracy, owing to the fact that popular sovereignty is at odds with the careful management of increasingly complex economies. But what causes public discontent to explode at some times rather than others?

CHICAGO – If anyone still doubted that we live in a populist era, the surfeit of recent books which aim to make sense of the current moment should settle the matter. If these efforts are not always successful, that is partly because populism itself can be so conceptually slippery. Commentators use it to describe the revolt of ordinary people against experts and elites, but few ever carefully define who belongs to which group and why.

Who is an “ordinary” person? Is it just someone without a university degree or a lot of money? Is it someone who lives in a rural area, and is perhaps religious and conservative? And who, for that matter, are the “experts,” and what sets them apart from the “elites”? The only thing that is clear is that calling someone a member of the “elite” now packs a formidable rhetorical punch. Presumably, that is why Nobel laureates, university professors, newspaper columnists, TV talking heads, politicians, and other elites so often accuse each other of being elitist.

Given the depth of today’s moral panic over populism, one might conclude that rubes and hayseeds have the world’s developed democracies by the throat. And yet, in the case of the United States, populism is as old as the country. In the founding era, opponents of the new constitution accused merchant and planter elites of seeking to install an American aristocracy in place of the British aristocracy that had just been defeated. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson appealed to populist sentiment in order to unseat the Federalist administration of John Adams; Andrew Jackson rode a populist backlash against Washington, DC, elites all the way to the White House in 1828.

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