The Democratic Vs. The Meritocratic

Courtesy of comments, Democracy In America gets at something I missed in Ross's column. Here's Ross:

Palin's popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal -- that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal -- that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

Here's DIA:

The problem with Mr Douthat's argument is that the democratic ideal, as much as there is one, is the meritocratic ideal. Americans don't simply believe that anyone can grow up to be a success. They believe that with hard work anyone can grow up to be a success. And for many (like Mr Obama) an Ivy-League education is indicative of that hard work. It would be quite a stretch to paint someone like Mr Obama with the same brush as, say, George Bush, who was gifted his stays at Harvard and Yale. Mr Obama's success story, Ivy-League education and all, is as much a story of the "everyman" as Mrs Palin's.

The problem is this notion that by merely not attending an Ivy, you somehow automatically fulfill the "democratic ideal."  It's true Americans respect people who make it in the world without coming from an elite background. But the idea that the only real marker of that background is a college acceptance letter is reductive.

Palin is not so much an example of the democratic ideal as she is an example of the American Idol reject ideal. Most Americans believe everyone, no matter their background, has the right to compete. Very few believe everyone, no matter their suckage, has the right to win.

Again, I think race is key. From Conor Friedersdorf:

Given the history of race in America, the election of a mixed race black man to the presidency -- Columbia and Harvard or not -- ought to have as much a claim to fulfilling the democratic ideal as the nomination of a woman who didn't attend an Ivy League college. We've had our Andrew Jacksons and our Jimmy Carters. Despite the frequency of Ivy League presidents, no one doubts that a candidate from a less elite educational pedigree can be elected. Which candidate caused more Americans to reconsider the kind of person who might be elected to the presidency, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin?

It just strikes me as blind to argue that in the year that America elected it's first black president, that the democratic ideal has failed. Seriously, if the only qualifier is that you don't attend an Ivy, why wasn't Jesse Jackson's loss in 88 evidence of the failure of the democratic ideal?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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