The Truth of the Republican Meritocracy
The thing we need to understand about Republicans is that they are, in the truest sense of the word, meritocrats.
On the surface, this seems ridiculous. Meritocracy needs to keep an open mind, doesn’t it? It’s about embracing the strengths that anyone provides, regardless of who provides it. And yet you have Republicans saying absolutely ridiculous things: slaves were immigrants, non-white people should reject their ethnic heritage, women should let their husbands make decisions for them, etc. How can you believe those things if you believe in giving everyone a chance? Isn’t it true that all Republicans are just plain-out prejudiced?
Before we go on, let’s make sure we all understand what a meritocracy even is. The word itself is polylinguistic: from Latin, “meroe,” meaning “I earn,” and the Greek kratos, “power.” In a meritocracy, you prove yourself skilled or able in some particular field, and you are rewarded for your achievements with respect, status, money, political office, etc. It’s a simple, logical system, and arguably one of the most American things you could possibly institute. After all, while America is the land of opportunity, it’s not a land of entitlement. You have to earn success here, by being better than everyone else. The combination of democracy (where everyone’s voice matters) and capitalism (where the best rise to the top) is what makes America the land of opportunity: everyone has a chance to play, though obviously not everyone will win.
And here’s where we start attacking the easy, but ultimately false, that all Republicans are “just racist.” All the quotes up there? They’re not by rich entitled white men (though they sure sound like they could be). No, they’re from minorities, from Piyush “Bobby” Jindal and African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. They’re from people that, so far as we can tell, Republicans want to oppress… And yet here they are, not only voting and operating Republican, but running for President. If the Republican party were “just racist,” none of these people would have had a shot.
And this is why Republican and Republican-leaning voters are on record as saying, “We are not racist.” They’re saying it because… It’s true.
But then how do we square these prejudiced statements coming out of a supposed meritocracy — statements that say, “We don’t need to give people a chance” or “People don’t deserve control over their bodies” or “Racial and gender equality are a threat to me!” — with the fact of a meritocracy? How can a group that claims they’re willing to give people a chance be making these statements that indicate their unwillingness to give people a chance?
That takes another element: the idea of personal responsibility.
The Republican Cult is very big on personal responsibility. They believe that each individual citizen should be the master of their own fate. And it’s this dysfunctional idea that motivates Republican racism.
Now, before you start getting on my case, let me be clear: I agree with the idea that people are responsible for themselves. I agree with the idea that, just as people should take credit for their achievements, they should claim responsibility for their failures. However, the Republican Cult takes the idea way too far. They believe that each individual citizen is the absolute master of their own fate, with no outside forces or influences. Everything that happens to you is your fault; there is no such thing as luck. And, as a consequence, Republicans believe that any sort of deficiency is the citizen’s fault.
Do you have cancer? Well, shucks, you should’ve avoided doing that. Homeless? Obviously your fault, why didn’t you go back to your family — oh, you’re an orphan? Well, then your mistake was in having dead parents, get living ones next time. And oh!, those silly fools who had the weird idea to be born black. — Well, okay, you can’t help being born black. But you sure can help being black. Another thing Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson have in common: they have assimilated. They don’t speak with accents, and it’s clear that they’ve adopted the conservative mode of thought which characterizes the Republican Cult. They prove that it’s possible to transcend your humble beginnings and become something “better” — and by “better” we mean “more like the power class.” Drumpf’s slogan may not be to Make America White Again, but it sure is the Republicans’.
It’s the only context in which Republican legislation makes sense. It’s the only thing that makes their policies understandable. Why would you not give a damn about healthy citizens? Why would you not give a damn about global warming? Why would you not give a damn about racial bias? Because those people deserve it. They made the choices that resulted in them being sick, or poor, or a minority, and they just have to live with the consequences. That’s fair, after all.
I’ve written about the fallacies of fairness — written about it more than once, in fact. I won’t waste time repeating myself. I’ll just point out that the American Dream has become the toxic foundation of the many things that are wrong with American politics today, and move on. (And yes, that includes stuff in the Democratic Party too. To be honest, I pay less attention to their atrocities than those committed by conservatives, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Why the hell didn’t Obama just put the last nail in the coffin of the F-35, for god’s sake? Did no one learn from the F-111??)
The problem with the form of meritocracy practiced by conservatives is that, simply put, it isn’t true. The fantasy that the vast majority of human beings have full control over their own life is just that: a fantasy. It’s true that most human beings have some control, but not full control. Feminists describe it as “power-over,” as in “power over other people’s lives,” as opposed to “power-to,” as in “power to decide your own life.” You decide to go to a restaurant, but you discover that the chef has taken your favorite dish off the menu. You have power-to, but the chef has power-over. He can ruin your night (or at least your meal) but you can’t ruin his. I actually talked about this in, of all things, my analysis of Game of Thrones — most characters have power-to, but only some have power-over, and in the novels, those characters are never narrators. Why? Because the experience of being at the whim of an authority figure is one that most Americans can sympathize with. A similar problem happened in the cult TV show Firefly. When Joss Whedon showed his work to FOX executives, they complained that the stars of the show were all people getting squished by the unfeeling heel of policy, rather than people who get to make those policies… apparently failing to recognize that the vast majority of human beings empathize with the crew of Serenity. (In this light, its cancellation looks like a weird sort of Q.E.D.)
I think that part of the reason Republicans forget about the difference between “power-to” and “power-over” is that, simply put, most of them have power-over. Who is attracted to the Republican Party? CEOs. Congresspeople. Governors. Brain surgeons. Big business. The petroleum industry. These are people who have all but forgotten that it’s possible to get squished under the heel of unfeeling policy, mostly because they are the people doing the squishing. This in and of itself does not distinguish them from Democrats (cf Hillary Clinton, who never met a war she didn’t like, and her husband Bill who seemingly never met a pussy he didn’t want to grab), but Democrats at least try to think about the squished, even if only as a tactic to garner votes. Republicans don’t seem to bother, especially nowadays.
And yet they keep acting as though they do care… mostly because, according to their own version of the meritocracy, they do. “We keep giving these people the freedom to take power-over themselves! We keep giving them the option of transcending their own origins! They just gotta do it! Never mind that doing it takes facilities and space that we never offer them, like good public education and three square meals a day and not going to bed wondering if a police officer is going to shoot you when you call 911. Never mind that success is not something you just carry around with you, it’s the culmination of dozens of factors. Never mind that racism is so deeply embedded into American values that white Americans get uncomfortable when someone merely acknowledges racism exists. We’re going to pretend that it’s just something you carry around with you! Because, that way, we can claim to be a meritocracy!”
And so they go. But now that we understand them a little better, we have a better chance of bringing them around to a more humane way of thinking.
If a Republican claims that he or she is not prejudiced, listen to them. They are, so far as they can tell, being honest. But when you ask them why they’re not prejudiced, it’s time to lean in. Because the meritocracy itself is a lie. Their excuses are just that: excuses. And when they come out, you can make a difference.