U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Demos, Polis, and Meritocratic Technocracy: Anti-Elitism in Recent U.S. History

Richard Hofstadter asserted, in his 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, that anti-intellectualism is about resentment and hostility toward “the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it.” On the latter, it was about categorizing intellectuals as outsiders, servants, and scapegoats.[1] It would be foolish to deny that instances of these attitudes and behaviors have occurred, both in the past and present.

hofstadter_anti-intellectualism-in-american-life_1963Yet, as my reading in the historiography grows (in terms of Hofstadter’s heirs), a lack of evidence, or at least evidence that can be interpreted in different ways, is pointing me to a contrarian claim: citizens are not, in fact, exhibiting clear general problems in those areas. They do not generally resent critical thinking, creativity, research, or intellectual individualism. Regular people are not hostile to what Hofstadter identified as “the play of the mind” or “playfulness” of the intellect.[2] While some evidence exists regarding contrary tendencies, that evidence doesn’t indict broad swaths of the population. What seems clear, however, in historical and present-day political news is a resentment about what those intellectuals represent in the sturm und drang of democratic discourse. Hostility toward intellectuals is accidental in relation to what those individuals symbolize, or appear to symbolize. To belabor the point no longer, very often I find that instances of so-called anti-intellectualism are really about elitism and anti-elitism.

Confusion and Confusing Factors

Writers—meaning journalists, pundits, or even historians (gasp!)—who identify “anti-intellectualism” are often elites who are writing for other elites. If liberal and conservative elites must disagree about political ideals, they can agree that the common person is “anti-intellectual,” even as they manipulate those people for different ends. To the elites, regular voters don’t get the complexity of situation, or are simply reacting, or being emotional. Those outside circles of the elite “we” are either just jealous or noisy. Their opinions are unearned. They don’t deserve to contribute, even while their votes are needed. lasch_revolt-of-the-elitesOne of Hofstadter’s mentees, Christopher Lasch, identified these manipulative, nefarious tendencies in the latter’s 1994 book, The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy (who primarily and mistakenly, I think, characterized those elites as liberals).[3]

The roots of today’s anti-elitism are not in the general tendencies observed more than fifty years ago by Richard Hofstadter—i.e. spontaneity, preference for intuition, practicality, egalitarianism, etc.[4] Today’s anti-elitist currents are not in historical trends related to Protestant religious movements, the mass politics of emotion, or business. (Those currents do, however, arise from an intensification of some of the trends Hofstadter identified in education. More on that below.) Continuing in relation to Hofstadter’s text, today’s trends are not grounded in the narrow, specific intellectuals in his book’s historical eras, such as Jonathan Edwards, William Jennings Bryan, Frederick Winslow Taylor, or John Dewey. Rather, anti-elitism is about two things: the resentment of both ideological political “thinkers” and a credentialism that feeds a faux meritocracy.

On ideological thinkers, ponder the specific preachers, business people, and education reformers who, while neither aspiring to the status of “intellectual” or promoting themselves as such, become associated with “thoughtfulness” about particular issues in particular periods. Examples include Bircher sympathizers on communism in the early 1960s, the Berrigan Brothers on anti-nuclear efforts in the 1980s, various neoconservatives on foreign policy in the 1980s and 1990s, Bill Bennett in the 1980s on education, and Al Gore on environmental issues in the 1990s. Excepting Gore, these figures often purposefully set themselves up as outside of elite circles of political technocrats, even while some move in those circles. These ideological thinkers obtain followers, in the form of viewers, listeners, and readers. As they become media celebrities, either as elites or go-to referents for technocratic elites, some become resented by regular people who lean in other directions politically.

In the twentieth century those ideological figures have, nevertheless, passed through the necessary institutions to give them elite credentials. They have bachelors and master’s degrees, and sometimes doctorates. They are certified ideological specialists and elites. Today’s Dwight Moody most certainly has an MBA and teaches courses, part-time, at an Ivy. Today’s Billy Sunday is a graduate from Bob Jones University and has a master’s in theology from somewhere. On examples from more recent history, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a BA, and BDiv, and a PhD. Phyllis Schalfly had a BA and JD. Newt Gingrich has a BA, MA, and a PhD. Ann coulter has a BA and a JD. Richard Spencer, of Racist/”Alt-Right” fame, has a BA and MA from the University of Chicago–and studied for a doctorate at Duke University. As an exception that proves the rule, only Rush Limbaugh has just a high school diploma. These figures have avoided general resentment as elites by fostering vernacular connections with large constituencies. They posture as political outsiders, for better or for worse. Those who self-identify as conservatives do this better than most self-identified liberals.

For large swaths of the twentieth century—most all of it, in fact—progressives and liberals have been content to be identified with the mechanisms of meritocracy, explicitly and implicitly. Most often associated with the Democratic Party, those progressive and liberals have earned the taint of elitism because of that belief. The belief in merit earns the resentment of anti-elitists because of it is often accompanied by a sense of entitlement. Merits entitle one to power and leadership.

I do not mean to assert that some liberal and progressive politicians have not overcome this formula, or association. In terms of the middle and late twentieth century political history, exceptional liberal leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jesse Jackson, and Jimmy Carter come to mind. Bill Clinton wore his wonkism and technocratic tendencies proudly, but assuaged them with appealing vernacular speech. Obama embodied, as an outlier, the notion that a meritorious elite could obtain power over America’s anti-elitist tendencies. But his unusual oratory, engagement, and tendency to avoid the attitude of entitlement (i.e. his trait of cautiousness) helped his cause as a politician. These exceptions aside, meritocratic elitism has generally limited the appeal, and electability, of progressive and liberal candidates nationally.

How has the idea of meritocracy obtained such a high status in progressive and liberal circles? The answer many would give, with an exasperation of obviousness, is that hard work means ability and skill. Your merits earn you the right of deference and status. Hard-won experience, working to learn, and obtaining credentials should result in jobs higher up the chain of command. Ability has been proven. You are qualified, or perhaps the most qualified. The Protestant/Puritan work ethic meant diligence to Anglo-Saxon and northern European descendants in the United States, where it was also transformed into a kind of guarantee of material rewards and success. This implied but earned elitism, an elevation due to qualifications, sits uncomfortably with the demos, with democratic movements and aspirations.

Historiography and History: Liu, Young, and Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a recent invention of the West. It is a topic that has not, to my knowledge, been well-covered by U.S. intellectual historians. I know of only one recent work that explicitly addresses the topic: Catherine Liu’s American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique. What follows is a meditation grounded on that work, but I welcome more suggestions on this topic.[5]

liu-american-idyllLiu situates her discussion of meritocracy in the rise of standardized testing, vocationalism in American schools, and the legacy of Progressive scientific authority. Although the idea is of meritocracy may be older, the term is a recent invention in history. Liu and others trace it to British labour politician and sociologist Michael Young, and his 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy. In Liu’s summation, Young imagines a future system where human capital and national brain power of Britain, in 2033, has been more efficiently extracted, utilized, and managed by national testing (i.e. IQ tests). The system is called “meritocracy.” On the plus side, it destroys the feudal problem of inheritance. As a negative byproduct of its construction, or unintended consequence, the system also destroys the ideal of equality. Capitalism and the nation replace both feudalism and representative democracy with a homegrown technocratic elite. In 2033, however, an “irrational,” “populist revolt” destroys the system while a “smug, well-educated” man properly narrates events.[6] Civil war trumped civil service.

Despite being a satire, Liu properly notes how British and U.S. society had already adopted this kind of system before, during, and after the appearance of Young’s novel. In Liu’s words of summation and assessment (American Idyll blurs the line, at times, between the novel and real historical events), “the system of education had become a sinister pipeline of promotion for gifted and talented working-class children and underrepresented minorities.” (I’m sure this includes women too.) Liu continues: “Young described familiar figures of a global educated elite who were sophisticated, restless, ambitious, and jet-setting.” [7] You might call them meritocratic cosmopolitans, though less oriented toward a world society or polis/demos than using, or bending, the world toward their purposes. A global elite with highly distorted cosmopolitan traits.

michael-young_the_rise_of_the_meritocracy_1967_coverLiu notes that Young was interviewed in 2001 about his book, wherein he assessed the fate of his neologism. While he meant the term (in Liu’s words) to “communicate a philological and political monstrosity”—a “repellent form of social and economic organization”—it had instead become “a laudatory moniker.” The satirical idea had become, at once, the norm and an ideal. Young regretted that the current system filtered the best “according to education’s narrow band of values.”[8] That sieve functioned to reward the abilities and resources of elites, thereby reproducing, in the main, a class of increasing inbred technocrats and bureaucrats. The construction of a meritocratic utopia created, alongside, a dystopian underclass, unheard and underrepresented in this new “representative” state, trapped in poverty.

In this context, apparent anti-intellectualism is, then, most often an anti-elitism of resistance, ironically, to a technocratic hegemonic meritocracy that has subverted democracy. This situation traps the anti-elitists within an apparent undemocratic frame. How do the resistors escape the rigged prison-house of meritocracy? If they are peaceful, they elect an apparent anarchist. If not peaceful, then by violence according to Michael Young.

In American Idyll, Liu moves the story back to Hofstadter and his lament for the loss of liberal education ideals in the formal system of K-12 schooling and in higher education. Liu sympathizes with Hofstadter’s critique of the ideals of life adjustment, vocationalism, and professionalism that now dominate education at all levels. She concludes: “Hofstadter’s theory of American anti-intellectualism links popular resent of pseudopersonalized education to the logic of administered inequality masquerading as the management of educational opportunity.”[9] A revolt against this “meritocratic” system is more of a theory than reality in Liu’s book. It’s a potential horizon, even as the first rumblings occurred as she wrote the book, when Occupy Wall Street specifically made student debt and educational outcomes an explicit issue. Liu’s focus, in the book, are wannabe populists within academia—academic anti-elitists. Their existence made it easy, from the 1970s to 1990s, for conservatives and neoconservatives to be the anti-technocrats. They could denounce liberal elitism and denigrate the inauthentic cultural politics of liberals.

Meritocracy Today

How does this relate to the present? There are no clear lines from the past to today. Yet the rhymes and similarities are, I think, inescapable. Societies are not easily rerouted from their deep currents. This past is situating the present puzzle of anti-elitism disguised as anti-intellectualism.

As conservatives and right-wing demagogues have denounced technocratic liberalism and its imperfectly inclusive meritocratic sieve mechanisms, they constructed, at the same time, an alternative meritocracy of big business. Their credentialed elites, while railing on elite liberalism, created an “alt-right” system (yes, I’m subtly reappropriating term) of meritocracy that also included degrees from high-profile institutions, internships in conservative think tanks, and extended apprenticeships in finance and industry, (ometimes alongside Democratic opposition. The ultimate sign of success in that meritocracy was wealth—a wealth that most often built on past wealth (hence their ability to navigate the meritocracy).

The irony of the conservative and Right-leaning system is that it exists alongside, and in companionship with, the liberal meritocratic system. This enables our political class to draw on similar resources and personnel, creating a sense of continuity and stability while also perpetuating social, economic, and cultural problems.

Yet there are differences. Today’s liberal meritocratic technocrats take their cues from values that date to the Great Society era, especially some modicum of social justice and anti-racism. But those same liberal technocrats value equality of opportunity without respecting, truly, the unequal conditions for those that enter the meritocratic pipeline. The language of hard work dominates liberal circles (as “laziness” does conservative circles), and negates the alleviation of deep and inherited economic inequality.

As the system continues, outbursts against its appear irrational and anti-intellectual to the elites, ideological thinkers, technocrats, and bureaucrats that populate the system—the entrenched political class and its sympathetic observers. But those outbursts are in fact against the whole of those elites, across the political spectrum. Those outbursts by the “less meritorious,” and those unable to navigate the existing meritocracy (i.e. the underclass), are symptomatic of failures in representation and democratic discourse. American leaders have not sufficiently fought against the trends of inequality. The demos and polis live in tension, unable to become a synoikos.


I have not read read Chris Hayes’ 2013 book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Perhaps that book has a stronger historical component than I know? The “after” in the title made me think it was more present than roots oriented. Perhaps, with this post, I’ve simply covered well-trodden ground? Let me know. A simple keyword search of Hayes book (thanks Amazon!) tells me that Richard Hofstadter and Catherine Liu are not covered therein, but Michael Young is.


[1] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963), 7, 146.

[2] Hofstadter, 27.

[3] See this essay by Jeremy Beer for more on Lasch’s work.

[4] Hofstadter, 65, 91, 145, 362

[5] Catherine Liu, American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011). In 2013, I broached the subject of meritocracy at the blog, in relation to my reassessment of Richard Pells’ The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age. Here was my comment:

“Speaking of the period’s uniqueness and its class of elite intellectuals, I wished that Pells had spent some time trying to understand the role of meritocracy in this period. Given the fact that society would be opening up a bit for white males (via GI Bill) and white women (given their out-of-home work during the war), and that the 1940s and 1950s set the stage for a larger opening in the 1960s, the transition to and inculcation of “merit” would’ve been a worthy exploration. Pells broached the topic when, recounting the thought of Daniel Bell, Bell noted (in Pells’ words) that the “transformation of American capitalism [from industrialism to late, state-sponsored capitalism] meant that one’s access to the boardroom depended not on lineage but on education, ambition, and efficient performance—qualifications potentially available to anyone” (p. 142). What did merit mean to Macdonald, Mills, McCarthy, Hofstadter, Riesman, Hartz, Whyte, etc.? Was it an illusion? That was most certainly Mills’ argument. If Pells’ actors simply didn’t discuss it, that by itself would have been noteworthy.**”

[6] Liu, 28-29. You can learn more about Michael Young’s life and legacy at this link. The OED dates the term to 1956, a few years before Young’s book. But by 1960 we have meritocracy, meritocratic, and meritocrat in the English language. Before that “merit” and related terms had strong theological associations.

[7] Liu, 29.

[8] Liu, 29-30.

[9] Liu, 80.

17 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for this, Tim. A couple questions arise.

    1) Do you define the term “elite” in here, or are you relying on a well-understood and accepted definition? If the latter, can you give us a thumbnail?

    2) Same question for the term “regular people.”

    • John,

      Thanks for the questions. Here goes:

      1. I think the category of “elite” is much broader than that of “intellectual.” Not all intellectuals are elites. Many are astute critics outside of elite circles. On elites, we have media elites, political elites, academic elites, elite athletes, etc. Credentials are part of elitism (from 1945-present), but also media attention and celebrity and some smarts. Wealth (i.e. the top 1 or 10 percent) factors into it. For the purpose of this post, I’m mainly concentrated on leadership and the political leadership class.

      2. For the purposes of this post, everyone else beyond “elite” and “intellectual” belong to the class of regular people.

      Does this help? If not, please let’s continue. I want to be as clear as possible—as I wasn’t in the post above, right?! – TL

      • That seems reasonable: Elites are wealthy celebrities who are smart.

        Your thesis, then, is that regular people don’t resent elites for their smarts, their celebrity, or their wealth, but for their smugness (obvious sense of belief in their own superiority)?

        If so, I believe there’s something to that.

        But I wonder if we can avoid so entirely the content of the ideas that are held by these elites as responsible for the resentment they arouse?

        Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Diane Rehm attended college, both are intellectually active and make their livings that way, each is comfortable to wealthy and fairly well-known. Yet Rehm is resented as an elite, but Limbaugh is not. Can that entirely be separated from their place on the ideological spectrum?

        Or take the case of Christopher Hitchens. He was about as much of an intellectual, and elite, even a snob, and made no concessions to the regular people (he had much nastier things to say about the bitter Bible-clingers out there than Obama ever said), but merely by switching his position on one discreet question–the Iraq War–he was able to become a hero among the common folks.

      • John: Your first three paras above are near, but miss my point about credentials. I know you acknowledge Rush & Rehm below, but, as I noted above, they are exceptions—so unusual–that they prove the rule about credentialism on the right and left. Credentialism is a part of that elite class.

        Rush is a unique case, but I do think he’s a part of the elite class. Remember his 1990s affinity for cigars and the GQ cover and his bloviating about the finer things in life (all “deserved” for his hard work, he argues). – TL

      • I guess I’m wondering if credentials are really all that important.

        For example, if someone belongs to the AMA and has a PhD in some biological science, the anti-vax folk and the homeopaths will cry foul if that erson is dismissing their theories, but they will celebrate someone with the same credentials if they concur with their theories.

  2. Tim,

    Fascinating post, as usual. Have you read Christopher Newfield’s “Unmaking the Public University”? I think it’s a useful book for understanding how conservatives have leveraged language and tools of the left to attack and defund public universities. It has particularly interesting things to say about how meritocratic diversity was a lever used by conservatives to delegitimate calls for educational egalitarianism.

    You say, “The irony of the conservative and Right-leaning system is that it exists alongside, and in companionship with, the liberal meritocratic system.” I wonder if the Right is really a companion to the liberal meritocratic system or if it’s a dog whistle for a different type of meritocracy: eugenic meritocracy whereby certain races produce a larger percentage of the “best people” because of inherent racial superiority. While eugenics have a historical relationship to liberalism, ideologically they have since World War II been principally been the domain of reactionaries who oppose racial integration. Obviously, no one in contemporary America would intentionally reference eugenic meritocracy (though with the Trump folks anything is possible), but I wonder if their explicit support of meritocracy is really a tacit argument supporting biological white supremacy.



    • Matt,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I have not read Christopher Newfield’s book. But admissions at elite schools, and where it takes people, is most definitely a part of this conversation.

      I confess that white supremacy complicates my “alongside” argument. And I sort of acknowledge that when I said: “Today’s liberal meritocratic technocrats take their cues from values that date to the Great Society era, especially some modicum of social justice and anti-racism.” That said, I do think liberals are guilty of pandering to white supremacy, which is why #BLM is a leftist movement and liberals are uncomfortable with its range of demands.

      – TL

  3. Oh, thanks Tim for this great post. I do want to say that I talked about Ross Perot, — billionaire populist — in the book, but also I wish I had more time to write about Chris Hayes’ book, which I found disappointing, but I have to go into an all day faculty retreat! Will respond more later!

    • Catherine: Thanks for the comment. I overlooked the Perot mention in your book. But yes, that feeds into my thinking about resentment toward political elites and the meritocratic process that gets them in the upper circles. He fits that, but hen again, he’s an oddball because of his *extreme* wealth. – TL

  4. John Haas 11:28 comment above deserves a comment from me, but in an unnested fashion. Here’s what he said:
    “I guess I’m wondering if credentials are really all that important. For example, if someone belongs to the AMA and has a PhD in some biological science, the anti-vax folk and the homeopaths will cry foul if that person is dismissing their theories, but they will celebrate someone with the same credentials if they concur with their theories.”

    I think the credentials are important in terms of how the U.S. meritocracy has evolved. But “credentials” means different things to different populations. One part of the conservative meritocracy values business experience above all else. “Business” is their do-it-all liberal arts degree. If you’ve succeeded in a business venture, especially company creation, then you have merit, are able, and are then legitimate. Another part of the conservative meritocracy values MBAs, business degrees, and seminary—along with experience—as qualifiers for their elite.

    And the antivaccers are a unique population among antielitists. The both want and don’t want credentials. As you said, some desire sanction from homeopaths and renegade osteopaths. So their not antielitist in that way. But other religious and secular strains also desire no input from “establishment medicine”—they believes in “natural cures” with no interference, or just spiritual invocations. – TL

  5. Tim –

    I’m thinking the discussion might be more fruitful if the focus were on “elites,” rather than on “meritocracy,” a much more specific, latter-day concept that refers to a particular regime or structure of elite rule; while the language of elite theory taps into the vast resource of modern social theory and research, including figures such as Montesquieu, St. Simon and Comte, Durkheim, Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, European elite theorists such as Pareto, Mosca and Michels, C. Wright Mills, Joseph Schumpeter, Arthur Bentley, David Truman and Robert Dahl, etc.

    If you’re interested in making the worthwhile argument that most hostility today is directed at elites, rather than at the qualities contingently associated with “intellectuals,” it enhances the distance/distinction by considering elites in general, while allowing of course that meritocratic rules and practices are sometimes a focus of resentment.

    I agree that part of the problem is that “the present puzzle of anti-elitism [is] disguised as anti-intellectualism,” but I’d want to add that part of the puzzle too is that anti-elitism is disguised as anti-meritocracy; to shift the metaphor, it’s a bad translation.

    To me the particularly suggestive point in your neat post is that anti-intellectualism is a rhetorical move used by both parties, as each claims to identify with a somewhat different subset of “the people” seen dominated by some elite; while identifying with some other[s] that justly holds power and privilege, whatever its “merit” might be claimed to consist of. And, that they have a common interest in neutralizing popular movements that challenge “elites, across the political spectrum.”

    Finally, I can hardly resist sharing a quotation from Arendt’s “On Violence,” which some might jump to call prophetic –

    “What grounds are there for supposing that the resentment against a meritocracy, whose rule is exclusively based on “natural” gifts, that is, on brain power, will be no more dangerous, no more violent than the resentment of earlier oppressed groups who at least had the consolation that their condition was caused by no ‘fault’ of their own?…. [I]s it not likely that the danger of demagogues, of popular leaders, will be so great that the meritocracy will be forced into tyrannies and despotism?” [taken from an Eric Schleisser blog post on 7.12.16.]

    • Bill,

      Thanks for the long comment.As always, I really appreciate them, and this one.

      You are correct that I haven’t tapped into elite theory, yet, in relation to my topic. But I don’t think it’s an either/or in relation to meritocracy. I think the “meritocracy” is precisely not that, but rather a mechanism for allowing elites (with some hard work, using their vast resources) to reproduce themselves as a class. Perhaps we’re in agreement here.

      Thanks for that Arendt quote. Whoever said the meritorious might not stoop to unethical means to maintain their power in relation to their fears? For what “merits” were rewarded along the way! – TL

      • Tim – Thanks for the response. I guess I wasn’t clear in suggesting that this work on meritocracy is a fairly recent and derivative part of a long tradition of elite theory, so it’s not an either/or; my point was that your thinking seemed to be consistent with – and might be aided by – not reducing the topic of elitism to that particular form of it.

        Some might find the life and career of Robert Michels particularly interesting, and a fun project might be to trace the reception of him and other elitists such as Pareto and Mosca in postwar political science and sociology.

        Michels began as a socialist and democrat, but in “Political Parties,” 1911, argued that for reasons such as the imperatives of organization and leadership, elites that invariably seek their own interests, not those of the people, emerge – the “iron law of oligarchy,” as he named it. Elites may “circulate,” and the class system somewhat open to talent, but the people never rule. Having decided the alternative was either elite-dominated bureaucracy or Bonapartism, he later became a supporter of Mussolini.

      • Bill: My apologies for misreading your comment as an either/or. And thanks for the anecdote on Robert Michels. I feel silly for not recognizing the name before you mentioned it in your first comment. Looks like I have some work to do on elite theory. Among the recent theorists you listed, I’ve only read a little of Mills, and lots around him, and tidbits of Schumpeter. – TL

  6. Three books I read as a political science undergrad in the 1960s are linked together in my memory. Strangely, just before I read your thought-provoking post something brought to mind C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, (1956) which I link with Hofstadler’s book and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. (1950) (All three either updated or revised quickly downloaded on my Kindle.) Now I want to read Liu’s book as well.

    Then two articles from my New York Times email today: “The American Dream, Quantified at Last,” (December 8) and “In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters,” (July 22, 2013) both by David Leonhardt, brought me back to your post and to give some thoughts to the effects of these writings on my own personal history. I will stop here, but thank you.

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