Anne Applebaum gets it spectacularly wrong. First, here’s her view of who makes up the elite:
To study hard, to do well, to improve yourself — isn’t that the American dream? The backlash against graduates of "elite" universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have in the past two decades made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies. Because they can offer full scholarships, the wealthier Ivy League schools in particular are far more diverse, racially and economically, than they were a few decades ago. Once upon a time, you got into Harvard or Yale solely because of your alumnus grandfather. Nowadays, your alumnus grandfather still helps, but only as long as you did well on the SAT, captained your ice hockey team and, in your senior year, raised a million dollars for charity (the last was not a requirement when I got into Yale, but it seems to be now). If you did all that and come from a broken home in Nevada, so much the better.
At one level, the use of "elite" to describe the new meritocrats simply means that the word has lost its meaning.
The first problem here is that your SAT scores aren’t necessarily the major factor. The truth is that they matter, but that elite universities put their thumbs’ on the scale in order to favor certain groups over others, for example:
Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.
My alma mater, for example, is in the top 15 on this list. However, my SAT score was well above the average for, ahem, certain groups of students at Harvard or Yale. Such a situation makes a mockery of any claim of a meritocracy.
Thus, instead of being chosen on merit, our future elites are chosen by a carefully manicured spoils system. There must be the "correct" number of students from each "protected" group. The best one can argue is that we have a meritocracy within narrowly defined categories. When selecting the person to fill the spot reserved for a transgendered (m to f, of course), black, Buddhist from Vermont, I’m sure Harvard selects the one with the highest SAT score, but is that really meritocracy? If so, who is really destroying the meaning of words?
Let’s move on to Ms Applebaum’s discussion of why the plebes resent the elites:
The old Establishment was resented, but only because its wealth and power were perceived as undeserved. Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on "the system." Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as "deserving." Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it’s their own fault — or to feel that others feel it’s their fault — even if they have simply been unlucky.
As we’ve seen, this is incorrect. Merit is used as a pretense to select among favored groups.
The real reason that the new elite is resented is two-fold: 1) they’re unaccountable; and 2) their bad at what they do. Actually this is really just one reason – bad results always flow from unaccountability.
By almost any standard of modern elitism, I am elite. I write laws – only we call them "regulations" to make it "Constitutional." The plebes, however, never voted for me. They almost certainly would have voted against me if given the chance and some minor exposure to my views. The plebes also cannot fire me. For all intents and purposes, no one can. Congressmen come and go, but I abide, and they rarely know anything about my area of expertise.
By most measures, our government isn’t very good at it’s job. We’re spending ever-more money on ever-worsening services. We can’t even win wars against crappy, semi-civilized countries anymore. Some of largest cities are actually falling apart – they’re turning into ruins as you read this. Africa has endured a century of decline (or at best stagnation) at the hands of elitist policy. Yet, nothing is being done to reverse these disasters. They continue apace or gather speed.
Our elites have experimented with various ideas. This experimentation has brought about these failures. Since the modern elites believe that they "deserve" their status, they feel no shame for their failures. They feel no responsibility. They think that the plebes are lucky to have them.
I support hierarchy. I want an elite. I just want a responsible one. If you destroy the economy of an entire country, for example, you I think you should be hung, not promoted and given lavish bonuses. Under such a system, I think outcomes would be very different.