This Week: The Asia Fantasia + Meritocratic Mania

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This week — when they say Pivot to Asia, run! With Frederick Logevall, Graham Allison, and Gideon Rachman. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: Call it America’s Asia Anxiety Disorder or maybe China dread — the sheer fear of the wealth and power of the world’s fastest growing country. Toss in a nuclear threat in the neighborhood and the existential challenge of America on the back nine, and you’ve got the recipe for a military conflict. History is full of lessons and cautions if we just want to recall them of course; start with Vietnam. And so we did this week, with a master historian and new friend, Frederick Logevall. Chris found this one, and he’s spent the last few weeks devouring his books: Choosing War, about the lost chance for peace in Vietnam 5 decades ago. And then the back story: Embers of War, a Pulitzer Prize winner about how the U.S. snatched a losing war from the jaws of France’s imperial defeat in Indochina in the 1950’s.

We played two clips from JFK at the beginning of the show (masterfully mixed with music from Apocalypse Now by our engineer George Hicks): one when he was a Massachusetts Senator talking about the folly of involvement there and then another when he was president in 1963, defending the U.S. escalation. Fred Logevall says they all knew better: JFK, LBJ and Nixon, too, and yet three million dead Vietnamese later, the U.S. is still able to contemplate military conflict in that part of the world.

We visited Graham Allison at the Kennedy School on Thursday morning for the institutional historical view. When you have a rising power in the world threatening a ruling power, most of the time you get war, Allison says, explaining what he calls the Thucydides trap, named for the historian of the wars that destroyed Ancient Greece.

But about our own more recent foreign policy traps? Gazing at the dozens of official photographs of visiting politicians and statesmen and women outside Allison’s office, Chris asked, off mic, which of them had voted against the Iraq War. He came up with one: Sam Nunn.

From left to right, Robert Mcnamara, Sam Nunn, and Graham Allison at the Kennedy School

Zach Goldhammer: In prepping for this week’s show, we were also thinking about the great American journalist and historian David Halberstam, who died 10 years ago this past April.

Halberstam’s monumental book on Vietnam, The Best and The Brightest, laid blame for the war on the genuine genius of the minds who constructed it through their “brilliant policies that defied common sense.”

The Best and the Brightest has been back in the news lately thanks to an accidental scoop from the New York Times college sports reporter Marc Tracy, who happened to spot Steve Bannon studying the book in an airport. When asked about why he was reading this left-leaning critique of the war, Bannon claimed he wanted “everyone in the transition to read it … it’s great, for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”

Tracy outlines why Bannon’s reading of the book matters, citing our guest Fred Logevall, who says “the book speaks to a concern about having a government run by technocrats.”

Who are the technocrats he has in mind? One of the main ones, of course is U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “an ingenious scientist of managerialism, a president of Ford Motor Company, who as secretary of defense, said Mr. Halberstam, ‘knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics.’”

One might hope that Bannon had tried to internalize McNamara’s own later wisdom about the folly of the Vietnam War and the lessons laid out in Errol Morris’s brilliant 2003 documentary The Fog of War.

But it’s more likely that Bannon’s planned revolt is not against the military, but instead against an ideology: meritocracy

Trump’s pivot to Asia quagmire (Illustration by Susan Coyne)

What’s wrong with meritocracy? Shouldn’t we want to reward merit-based achievement in education and in politics, broadly speaking? And what’s the alternative ?

There are variety of arguments that have been bubbling up from parts of the political spectrum for the last decade or so.

The post-Occupy left, for instance, has honed in on the term “meritocracy”—like “neoliberalism”—as a broad description of a system underlying our present condition of inequality. Meritocracy in this view might be held responsible for the dismissal of universal welfare and economic redistribution programs in favor of means-tested systems: programs that favor the highest achievers and the deserving poor, but leave the unremarkable members of the vanishing middle class in the dust.

Progressive liberals have also picked up on this critique. MSNBC Chris Hayes outlined the problems of meritocracy rather succinctly in his 2012 book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (you can listen to Chris Lydon’s interview with Hayes about the book here). Hayes recognizes the benefits of meritocracy, particularly in his own education at Hunter College High School in New York. He also sees how it results in what he calls, brilliantly, a form of “fractal inequality”; a system where smaller and smaller slices of the elite feel locked into a constant competition due to their relative positions on the hierarchy of achievement.

Despite the strengths of Hayes’s argument, left critics were quick to point out that Hayes seemed more interested in tweaking and maintaining the present system than imagining an alternative. As the ever combative blogger Freddie DeBoer put it, in a review for New Inquiry, the book was “all Karl Marx in description, all Tom Daschle in prescription.” Mike Konczal also points out in his review for Dissent that we need to think about real alternatives:

A politics of broad empowerment in all spheres of life — economic, political, civil, and more — has deep roots in the United States. Twilight calls upon these arguments in its conclusion, making a case for greater equality. But it is difficult to understand how egalitarian politics can flourish under the current regime of merit. The meritocracy is scornful of efforts to achieve equality of outcomes instead of opportunities. This conflict is one reason a clear, post-Obama agenda for the liberal project is difficult to imagine.

But meritocracy isn’t just a topic of left-liberal squabbles. It’s been a deep concern within various factions of the right too. The reformicon columnist Ross Douthat wrote a sort of a prequel to Hayes book in his 2006 Harvard memoir-cum-conservative-polemic, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. Douthat insisted that the primary lesson he learned was this: “meritocracy is the ideological veneer [in elite education], but social and economic stratification are the reality.”

There is plenty of room for critique of Douthat’s argument—the Chapo crew devoted an episode to mocking the book—and I’m hesitant to give too much credit to the writer who made a fledgling “case for Le Pen” in the New York Times earlier this week. But there’s something interesting to be gleaned from Douthat’s bearish focus on the meritocratic sham.

One of the most succinct and arguably prophetic articulations of his concerns comes up as an aside in a 2011 column on the finance executive Jon Corzine, who’s company MF Global had just filed for bankruptcy after somehow misplacing roughly $600 million in customer money:

Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era whiz kids thought they had reduced war to an exact science. Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin thought that they had done the same to global economics. The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history; the architects of the European Union thought that a common currency could do the same for Europe. And Jon Corzine thought that his investment acumen equipped him to turn a second-tier brokerage firm into the next Goldman Sachs, by leveraging big, betting big and waiting for the payoff.

What you see in today’s Republican primary campaign is a reaction to exactly these kinds of follies — a revolt against the ruling class that our meritocracy has forged, and a search for outsiders with thinner résumés but better instincts

But from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain, the outsiders haven’t risen to the challenge. It will do America no good to replace the arrogant with the ignorant, the overconfident with the incompetent..

Our current president is the nightmare end of the trend that Douthat—a #NeverTrump Republican—outlined in the last election. In 2016, a candidate whose resume in government was not just thin but non-existent, a grotesque savant who seemed to have some strange knack for channeling American frustration, won the general election. Once in power, he stacked his cabinet with officials—from Ben Carson to Betsy DeVos—who were not only un- but anti-qualified for their positions.

Trump was also, in this sense, a mirror image of the woman democrats hailed as the most qualified candidate in history, but who struggled to find a campaign message that Americans cared about.

For many, this result felt like a dystopia, the real life version of 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. But for others, the hierarchical model of elite meritocracy was already fantastically dismal, and had been this way for decades.

In fact, the term “meritocracy” originally comes from another dystopian sci-fi novel written—The Rise of the Meritocracy, written by the British sociologist and Fabian Society socialist Michael Young in 1958.

Young was also deeply involved in British politics on the left. He helped draft the Labour Party’s 1945 campaign manifesto “Let Us Face the Future,” in which he pleaded for “positive constructive progress against the chaos of economic do-as-they-please anarchy.”

But the Labour Party that evolved over the next half-century become one that he scarcely recognized. By the turn of the millennium, the party had adopted Young’s own dystopian term as an excuse for letting a new form of laissez-faire economic anarchy reign supreme.

In 2001, the penultimate year of his life, 96-year-old Young tried to clarify the meaning of his original neologism through a scathing op-ed critique of Tony Blair in the Guardian.

I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.

The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.

Much that was predicted has already come about. It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book, but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.


In the new social environment, the rich and the powerful have been doing mighty well for themselves. They have been freed from the old kinds of criticism from people who had to be listened to. This once helped keep them in check — it has been the opposite under the Blair government.

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.

Charles Petersen, an editor for N+1, put us onto Young’s book. He’s working on an American Studies dissertation on “Meritocracy in America, 1945–2000”. We may follow-up with him soon for a show on this topic. But if you have other thoughts on relevant guests and themes for our meritocracy show, drop us a note:

Til next week,

Zach, Mary and the Open Source technocrats