On Thursday, the US Supreme Court restricted the use of race as a factor in college admissions, holding that such “affirmative action” violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. Conservatives are celebrating the restoration of the all-American ideal of “meritocracy.” The right has long upheld merit and “equality of opportunity” as the true American ideals, as opposed to newfangled progressive efforts to achieve “equality of outcomes,” not least through affirmative action.
The conservatives are wrong on the history. The original US ideal was, in fact, much closer to equality of outcomes than proponents of opportunity, merit, and social mobility would have you believe. But the demise of the current regime of diversocracy is worth celebrating, all the same.
A classic articulation of the right’s “equality-of-opportunity” ideal came in a 2011 speech at the Heritage Foundation by Paul Ryan, then a rising congressman. Those who believe in equality of opportunity, Ryan said, “follow the American Idea that justice is done when we level the playing field at the starting line and rewards are proportionate to merit and effort.” By contrast, those who promote equality of outcome blame “most differences in wealth and rewards” on “luck or exploitation” and believe “that few really deserve what they have”—“a false morality that confuses fairness with redistribution and promotes class envy instead of social mobility.”
Ryan’s polemical targets were mainly the economic redistributionists of the traditional left, though the logic of his argument could easily extend to the racial redistributionists and defenders of racial affirmative action. The problem is that the American tradition—the real tradition, not the airbrushed one promoted by right-wing think tanks and at retreats for GOP congressional interns—is far more complicated. And it cuts against attempts to reduce the “American Idea” to mere meritocracy and social mobility.
Rather, many of the early protagonists of the American story were anxious about the ramifications of inequality for self-rule. Could Americans encounter each other as political equals if many millions of them lacked enough property and material security to be invested in the system?
The earliest statesmen thought a virtuous, self-governing republic required a modestly propertied and competent citizenry. They fretted about an industrial, urban economy that would breed “men without property and principle,” as the Founding Father John Dickinson put it. James Madison fearfully prophesied “future times” when “a great majority of the people will not only be without landed but any other means of property,” an oppressed rabble that would either destroy liberty or “become the tools of opulence and ambition.” Thomas Jefferson considered it an urgent task of government to ensure “that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land.”
It is true that “equality of opportunity” ran through the early tradition. Yet as the heterodox historian Christopher Lasch showed, this wasn’t a rags-to-riches ideal. The mere possibility that a few of the poorest could attain grand wealth, including through education, wasn’t what bound Americans to their newborn nation. Rather, equality of opportunity, Lasch argued, meant that most Americans “owned a little property and worked for a living.”
It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution that something resembling the Paul Ryan ideal of social mobility began to edge out the older account of equality. By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had placed “a little ownership and equality” out of reach for the masses. Indeed, as the historian Charles Sellers has shown, “social mobility” had begun to grind to a halt by the dawn of the Jacksonian era.
It was only after the Jeffersonian ideal of equality had been utterly buried that a new idea of “social mobility” took off. As Lasch noted, the phrase itself entered common parlance just “when the hierarchical structure of American society could no longer be ignored.” As far as some intellectuals were concerned, though, it no longer mattered whether workers as a class could enjoy the older mode of equality—that is, as long as the gifted among them could be recruited to the top, reinvigorating the elite class with fresh blood and lending legitimacy to the whole order.
This was the vision of men like Harvard President James Conant, who as early as the 1930s argued that higher education’s chief mission was to ensure the circulation of elites. As Lasch noted, left unspoken was the loss of Jeffersonian equality. Going forward, it sufficed to legitimate the system as a whole for white Protestants to periodically elevate the children of other groups, even if this meant a relatively diminished status for the scions of the WASP regency. As a bonus, the fresh blood (and brains) would actually redound to the benefit of the power structure, which was already beginning to glimpse a globalized marketplace and a more diverse home market following the massive immigration waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was against this backdrop that affirmative action emerged in the 1960s, in the wake of the civil-rights movement. What became affirmative action as we know it was partly a response to historic disenfranchisement (and not an unreasonable one at the time). But it also jibed with, and was an outgrowth of, the concerns of men like Conant over the need for elite circulation. The collapse of apartheid in the South added the need for racial legitimation to existing worries about class-based social mobility. Thus, today’s diversocracy supplanted the meritocratic, equal-opportunity model—which was itself a poor substitute for the original Jeffersonian equality of outcomes.
When it comes to a choice between the meritocratic regime that took hold beginning in the late 19th century and the weird diversocracy of more recent vintage, meritocracy is preferable, because it has some semblance of rational, non-racialized competition and is less prone to political gaming by hucksters of various stripes. But right-wingers who are cheering the Supreme Court’s affirmative-action decision must still reckon with the reality that in today’s United States, it takes an average of six generations for the advantages associated with inherited family wealth to disappear. Yes, the libs are angry today. But the nation’s Jeffersonian ghosts are angrier still.