America’s Enduring Advantages
How will the United States deal with the fissures created by globalization and meritocracy?
- Globalization has caused a divide that rewards meritocracy and multiculturalism as comparative advantages — but it denies those advantages to others.
- Those who are not as advantaged — largely the less educated — feel that globalization and meritocracy have excluded them.
- How America deals with the fissures created by globalization and meritocracy is the single major political issue facing the United States today.
Meritocracy, when shaken together with the melting pot of immigration and blended with a strong jolt of intellectual freedom, is one of America’s major competitive advantages. In an era where ideas are money, it is this blend of diverse thought and multiculturalism that acts as America’s catalyst for creativity — and prosperity.
However, meritocracy is also the major underlying cause of political unease in America today. And most likely, along with globalization, it will be the major theme simmering below the surface in next year’s presidential election.
Globalization, with the speed of a text message and its blatantly undemocratic demand for only the educated and mobile, has forced an acute fissure within American society. It has caused a divide that rewards meritocracy and multiculturalism as comparative advantages — but it denies those advantages to others, creating two different economic and cultural worldviews.
For America to continue to be a laboratory of creativity — to increase the odds it will invent the next Internet, Google, iPad or Twitter — it must first come to terms politically with the large minority of its citizens who are left behind by globalization, who have essentially failed meritocracy.
The American ideal of meritocracy was part of the nation’s founding culture. American history can even be interpreted as a struggle to fulfill the dream of a meritocracy. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1813, “For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.”
This idea of a natural aristocracy was cemented further in America with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. And in the 1850s, meritocracy became the fundamental theme of the new Republican Party with the slogan, “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men,” which argued that slavery undermined the dignity of labor and inhibited social mobility.
In reality, however, the movement towards meritocracy in America has been plodding, at best. This slow movement, although hurtful to many, historically has been beneficial, allowing the culture time to open up and adapt to the various social and economic changes.
Globalization and its sidekick, technology, have radically forced the American movement towards meritocracy into overdrive. Beginning in the mid-1990s, America’s largest corporations intuitively began to understand that a globalized marketplace demanded diversity in corporate leadership.
As General Electric chairman Jack Welch stated in 2000, “Globalization has changed us into a company that searches the world, not just to sell or to source, but to find intellectual capital — the world’s best talents and greatest ideas.”
But by its very nature, the acceleration of meritocracy has created instant fault lines within America’s democracy. The “newocracy” — populated by people such as the multinational corporate manager, the globally connected financier, the technology entrepreneur and members of the aspiring meritocracy — see globalization as a reality to own. But others who are not as advantaged — largely the less educated — feel that globalization and meritocracy have excluded them. They see globalization as a rigged game that has brought substantial unemployment to America and threatened their way of life.
This divide is evident in the debate over immigration. The newocracy sees immigration as a net positive, with skilled workers under the H2B visa program strengthening their businesses and the economy. But for those who have been left behind by globalization, immigration represents much that is wrong with the world today. To these people, there is little difference between American jobs going overseas or, because of open borders or simplified visa requirements, immigrants coming into the United States. Either way, they feel, globalization has taken opportunities away from them.
The divide is wreaking havoc on America’s political parties. Democrats are hemorrhaging their traditional blue-collar base, while the Republican Party has splintered, with two major constituency groups dominating: the populists (comprised increasingly of the refugees of globalization) and the old-line business interests.
Nominal GOP political tag words have begun to diverge in their meaning. For the new populists, championing free enterprise and individual rights is very different from the traditional Republican approach of big business being championed by the government, a tradition that stemmed from Lincoln’s Whig roots with government support of canals and railroad rights-of-way. For these new non-corporate members of the Republican Party, government support of big business, whether through subsidies, tax breaks or bailouts, is anathema.
Globalization, with its take-it-or-leave-it demands, is forcing America to come to terms with the limits of meritocracy. The country is increasingly grappling with the question of what happens to people who fail at meritocracy when there are no longer well-paying industrial jobs — and when the government safety net is shrinking almost daily.
How America politically deals with this in a time of scarcity — so that all of its citizens can either participate in globalization or are not threatened by it — is the single major political issue facing the United States today.