Uncivil war

A test score ‘meritocracy’ is battling the Left Behinds

Now we are engaged in a great uncivil war. What we see in headlines is not politics; it’s a new kind of class warfare. It’s been building in our country for more than 40 years, and if we continue to ignore the real nature of our national discord, it will certainly and soon become much worse.

The last ten presidential elections have been decided to an increasing degree not by issues so much as by class identity. The division is not primarily economic or racial; it’s something new in human history.

The class war now sundering our nation is between the New Elite and the Left Behinds. The New Elite is composed of the test score “meritocracy” that has gone from good grades at good schools to good jobs. It is prosperous but not rich. It numbers in the millions but will never by itself constitute a majority. There have been other elites before— warriors, priests, the very rich—but the new class differs from previous groups which held great power primarily because it feels that its ascendancy has been scientifically certified. It supposedly has been certified by SAT scores and other tests designed merely to predict college performance but which now are mistakenly thought to measure what is called general intelligence.

The New Elite feel that their cognitive superiority has been proven and that they know best what is best for everyone else. Everyone else is a member of a class called the Left Behinds. It constitutes a majority of the population. It includes billionaires and paupers, people of all colors and preferences, and, though this would come as a surprise to the New Elite, scholars as well as the poorly educated. “Everyone else” really is just everyone else. It’s all those who simply don’t identify with the new class.

You can tell who’s in which class by whether they rely on experience or experts. (Many people have aspects of both classes but increasingly identify with only one.) Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was very much a member of an old elite, said that a page of history is worth a volume of logic. That means he would be a Left Behind. A presidential spouse who actually put 500 experts in a room and told them to completely rewrite national health care, one-sixth of the economy, is a member of the New Elite.

Warren Buffet is smarter than hell, but he is a Left Behind, because he relies more on experience than on experts. He is of course an expert, but that has been certified by the marketplace, not by a test score.

The division between the two classes is less partisan than many people think. There was a time when most members of the New Elite probably were Democrats, but the vast growth of the test-score meritocracy and in the professional rewards it expects has permitted a sizable number of high-salaried people to identify more closely with class than with party.

Why does all this matter? Because the real significance of the growth of the New Elite has been its dismantling of our institutions of representative government.

If one believes that there is such a thing as general intelligence and that it has been accurately tested and that, therefore, we know who the smartest people are, then there is no longer any need for majority rule. This is the core belief of the new class that has been both busy and successful in the task of dismantling our democracy.

It is impossible to exaggerate the damage that already has been done. The links between the governed and the government have been systematically cut or weakened for decades. This has been accomplished through court-made law, gerrymandered legislative districts in which almost no incumbent party can lose (only eight incumbent congressmen out of 435 were defeated in the tumultuous election of 2016), and through displacement of law and custom by political correctness. This is why so many millions in both parties feel that our country is moving in the wrong direction—it’s because they feel that their votes no longer count. And they are right.

Thus, increasingly, for decades now, our presidential elections have been decided by the new class warfare. The public tries to determine which candidate is closer to the New Elite and then votes for the other one. Regardless of anything else, including even party or issues.

That’s why Trump won. Most presidential contests are now decided in this way. It’s why Reagan beat Carter; it’s why Gore lost to “W,” despite peace and prosperity giving Gore a huge early lead in the polls. It’s why Obama, almost unknown at the time, took his party’s endorsement from Hillary Clinton. Yes, his own education was elite, and his speech erudite, but many voters thought that his race and background had put him in touch with the concerns of voters denied both privilege and opportunity. It is possible that he lost more votes through having been a law professor than by being black. Bill Clinton won the presidency, and his wife could not—not so much because of gender bias as by the public perception that the spouses were at very different places on the New Elite-Left Behind scale.

I did not vote for Donald Trump, but this is not about who should have won. It’s about the way we elect presidents now. It’s about what happens when a democracy produces an elite that rejects democracy. It applies to both parties. To put a stop to election-by-backlash we have got to return to representative government. That means representation of all the people. We must replace the wires that have been cut.

The smartest person ever to serve as president was Lincoln, who knew that the greatest challenge of an uncivil war was to rededicate ourselves to a government of, by, and for the people— whose lives could teach them to know what was in their own best interest.


David Lebedoff , a Minneapolis attorney, is the author of seven books, including Cleaning Up, about the Exxon Valdez case, and The Uncivil War: How a New Elite is Destroying our Democracy and The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Harvard Law School.