Academic meritocracy and the U.S. presidential campaign

In an article superficially about Pete Buttigieg, Oliver Traldi makes a number of interesting points about the meritocracy at the heart of academia. None of this reflects well on anyone, except perhaps Traldi himself, for calling it all out.[1]

It’s a little harder to say what’s actually at work here. Because Traldi works from the commentaries of folks who have achieved some measure of success themselves, and then criticizes them for highlighting that measure of success:

One popular Twitter user tweeted some months ago: “Pete Buttigieg reminds me of every reason I decided not to apply to Harvard in spite of being both a legacy and a recruited athlete.” (Her bio mentions that she attended Princeton.) A fellow Harvard graduate now working at a prestigious magazine and lecturing at Yale commented on a specific essay about Buttigieg: “My favorite part of this Buttigieg Bildungsprofil is the throwaway paragraph about taking a holiday from McKinsey to go to Somaliland as a tourist in 2008, and talking to officials there as part of his vacation. I went there in 2002, but instead of talking to officials I performed Tuvan throat-singing on Radio Hargeisa, and instead of writing about it for the IHT, I wrote for a magazine published only in Basque. Here you see why Mayor Pete summitted [sic] the meritocracy ziggurat and I did not.” Tuvan throat-singing and writing fluency in Basque — talk about a throwaway paragraph![2]

One problem is immediately apparent. Our Basque-fluent Tuvan throat-singer has a cultural experience that is somewhat different (I’ll leave to Basques and Tuvans the question of authenticity) from Buttigieg’s conversations with elites. Yes, the former calls attention to that distinction, but Traldi falsely equates the two.

Traldi isn’t entirely wrong. Academia is meritocratic and hierarchical to its core. Grades, for example. The sequence from freshman to senior to post-graduate, for another. Adjuncts to assistant professors to full professors to deans to provosts to college presidents, for yet another. The sequence of degrees, from the high school diploma, to an Associate’s, to a Bachelor’s, to a Master’s, to a Doctoral, and within the latter, any other terminal degree to a Ph.D.

That false equivalence, however, is what ultimately undermines Traldi’s essay:

Supporters of other candidates and commentators at large have found a lot of reasons to dislike [Pete] Buttigieg — his rhetoric, his record, and so on. But, among professors on Twitter and media personnel, no motive seems to be as widespread as this: He reminds them of someone they hated in college.[3]

Why did “we” hate them? Because their achievements lack a certain sense of real life that “we” have lived. But Traldi dismisses that experience as as a “throwaway paragraph.”

Traldi concludes by writing,

And isn’t there something in the very inappropriateness and intimacy of the disdain with which these journalists and professors inveigh against Buttigieg that speaks well of college? That all these different sorts of people have to sit next to each other, competing against each other for grades and internships and romantic partners, before the great sorting mechanisms of adulthood push the future McKinsey consultants to one corner, the future magazine writers to another, and so on? What an institution — and no wonder the rivalries it engenders remain so tender, so primal, even when we’re all grown up and playing at running the world.[4]

The trouble is that these successes are not equivalent. When we speak of the Clintons or of Barack Obama or even of Buttigieg, to say nothing of the high tech assholes who attended Stanford only to network in the way that rich people do,[5] then dropped out to form high tech companies that are arguably ruining our world,[6] we are speaking of power over others, both political and economic, a distinction that is all about the caste system in our society, in which some can achieve that power, and nearly all others are systematically excluded from it.[7]

In his defense of Buttigieg, Traldi not only confounds widely different forms of success, but misses entirely what animates support for Bernie Sanders and disdain for so-called “centrists” in the Democratic Party. It isn’t just that neoliberalism has left so many people behind, sometimes at the expense of their lives.[8] It is that it means to do so.[9]

  1. [1]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020,
  2. [2]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020,
  3. [3]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020,
  4. [4]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020,
  5. [5]G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 156-164
  6. [6]Lia Russell, “The Silicon Valley Economy Is Here. And It’s a Nightmare,” New Republic, January 16, 2020,
  7. [7]John Asimakopoulos, The Political Economy of the Spectacle and Postmodern Caste (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University, 2000); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA, Pine Forge, 2006); Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., Great Divides, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  8. [8]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017,; Jason Hickel, “Progress and its discontents,” New Internationalist, August 7, 2019,; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013,; Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society (Glendale, CA: Larkmead, 2011); Thomas Piketty, Jeffrey Sachs, Heiner Flassbeck, Dani Rodrik and Simon Wren-Lewis, “Austerity Has Failed: An Open Letter From Thomas Piketty to Angela Merkel,” Nation, July 6, 2015,; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2013,; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013,; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013,
  9. [9]Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017,

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