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The end of American meritocracy

What is in a word? When it is packed with as much moral zeal as "meritocracy", the answer is: a lot. A meritocrat owes his success to effort and talent. Luck has nothing to do with it - or so he tells himself. He shares his view with everyone else, including those too slow or indolent to follow his example. Things go wrong only when the others dispute it.

Now magnify that to a nation of 320 million people - one that prides itself on being a meritocracy. Imagine that between a half and two-thirds of its people, depending on how the question is framed, disagree. They believe the system's divisions are self-perpetuating. They used not to think that way.

Imagine, also, that the meritocrats are too enamoured of their just rewards to see it. The fact that they are split - one group calling itself Democratic, the other Republican - is detail. They are two sides of a debased coin. Sooner or later, something will give.

An exaggeration? Readers might be inclined to think so. The fact that Mr Donald Trump has completed a hostile takeover of one of those groups - the Republicans - is a shock to everyone, including, I suspect, the property billionaire himself. The rest should not be a surprise.

Since the late 1960s, both parties, in different ways, have turned a blind eye to the economic interests of the middle class. In 1972, the McGovern-Fraser Commission revamped the Democratic Party's rules for selecting its nominee after the disastrous 1968 convention in Chicago. The overhaul changed the party's course. It included obligatory seats for women, ethnic minorities and young people - but left out working males altogether. "We aren't going to let these Camelot Harvard-Berkeley types take over our party," said the head of the AFL-CIO, the largest American union federation.

That is precisely what happened. Democrats cemented the shift from a class-based party to an ethnic coalition by enshrining affirmative action for non-whites. Getting a leg-up to university, the ultimate meritocratic vehicle, was based on your skin colour rather than your economic situation.

Unsurprisingly, swathes of the white middle class turned Republican. Forty years on, many Democrats, not least Mr Bernie Sanders' supporters, are suffering buyer's remorse.

Before he became president, Mr Barack Obama argued it would be fairer to base affirmative action on income, not colour. "My daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," he said.

Last week, it was announced that Malia Obama had been accepted into Harvard, her father's alma mater. About a third of legacy applicants, those whose parent attended, are accepted into Harvard. No one suggests she is not deserving of her place. However, there are plenty of lower-income black and white children who do not benefit from the advantages Malia Obama or Chelsea Clinton (Stanford and Oxford) had from birth.

The US labour market remains impressively meritocratic. But what happens to a worker in the 25 years before he or she enters it is anything but. Hence the term "hereditary meritocracy". Dr Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution calls them "dream hoarders". Judged by aptitude, almost half of those in America's top two-fifths income bracket are there because of the luck of family background. Think of the value of those unpaid internships. A big share of those in the bottom fifth would be in the top if they had the same life chances.

Middle-class whites derived no greater benefit from voting Republican. For years, strategists such as Mr Karl Rove played on cultural fears - often stoking racial resentment - to galvanise the vote. Once in office, Republicans pursued tax cuts for the rich. Ignored by both parties and disproportionately hit by the downsides of globalisation, blue-collar whites fell into depression . For the first time, life expectancy among American whites is falling.

To add insult to injury, poor whites alone are still fair game for ridicule. They are excluded from the rules of political correctness. This is the demographic that eats itself into obesity in front of bad TV - reality shows such as The Apprentice, which brought Mr Trump into their lives.

Here was a man who spoke his mind and fired people. He may have been a schmuck but he was an open book. "I love the poorly educated," he said after one primary victory. Mr Trump knows his market.

Which brings us back to that supercharged word. Dr Michael Young, the British sociologist who coined it in his 1958 book, The Rise Of The Meritocracy, would feel vindicated. Though the term soon lost its irony, Dr Young meant it as a satire on the imagined ruling classes of the future. Meritocratic elites "can be insufferably smug", he said in a 2001 critique of then Prime Minister Tony Blair's misuse of the word. The rest, meanwhile, "can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves".

Dr Young forecast his meritocracy would break down by 2033. The chances are it will survive 2016. Mrs Hillary Clinton, this year's meritocratic standard-bearer, looks likely to win in November. But polls say Mr Trump would win a clear majority of the white vote. Think about that. Mr Trump is the president white America wants. It is hard to believe it would be on merit.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'The end of American meritocracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe