American meritocracy is a total scam — and they're not even trying to hide it
The news that Amy Chua, the semi-notorious author of the dual memoir and parenting self-help book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” secured her daughter a Supreme Court clerkship under the tutelage of Justice Brett Kavanaugh is many things, but it is not surprising. America’s meritocratic rulers have grown increasingly brazen in recent years, and using your celebrity to ensure your overachieving offspring ultimately enjoys a lucrative gig in the private sector is less objectionable than, say, the president dragging his progeny along on state visits to pimp their chintzy resorts and bad fashion brands.
Outrage over Chua’s shameless public sycophancy does, however, indicate just how deeply the myth of meritocracy remains ingrained in the ostensible American left. Yes, I am quite sure that there is a brilliant legal mind toiling away at a second-tier regional law school and burying herself beneath a mountain of student debt who is smarter, more perspicacious and more deserving. But isn’t this really just the lean-in fallacy popularized by Sheryl Sandberg, another psychotic celebrity of the ruling class?
The Supreme Court may be more clubby than ever before—two of our current justices went to the same private high school, at the same time—yet it has always been a profoundly anti-democratic artifact of our profoundly anti-democratic American system of government. Expanded individual access to these archaic institutions of inequality doesn’t solve a more fundamental problem: that they exist in the first place.
At least Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld will have a job of some sort. It may consist of helping the court’s reactionary majority find ways to declare that hydrocarbons enjoy First Amendment protections and that indentured servitude is permissible and should be governed entirely through private arbitration, but it will surely involve more effort than the Trump clan’s various fake appointments and occupations or Chelsea Clinton getting $600,000 from NBC to interview the Geico Gecko or any number of less prominent scions of the rich and powerful who stumble into the best colleges and most coveted careers.
One of liberalism’s greatest weaknesses is its conviction that hypocrisy is the most devastating charge that can be leveled against you in public life. Ironically, the accusation is often misapplied. The Chua-Rubenfelds are not, after all, hypocrites; Amy Chua and her husband, author Jed Rubenfeld, have been entirely upfront about the whole scam. Prostrating oneself at the altar of power may be shameful and even repulsive, but it is perversely honest. You cannot call Chua a hypocrite for practicing what she’s preached for years.
As is so frequently the case, the question of who runs our most elite institutions distracts from the structural challenges posed by the institutions themselves. Getting more women seated on the Supreme Court is great—until it turns out they’re the children of reactionary aristocrats who are going to work for an archconservative. Appointing another Ruth Bader Ginsburg sounds terrific—until it turns out she’s, well, another Ruth Bader Ginsburg, doomed to disappoint and capable of genuine evil.
And here we arrive at liberalism’s other great weakness, its fixation on access—to health care, to education, to economic mobility. In focusing so monomaniacally on the occupants of the Supreme Court, the Senate, the White House or the board of Facebook, it has forgotten what it means to wield political power.
Access, after all, is just a narrow door; only a few will enter, most of whom already had a key to begin with.