Barack Obama and the new caste system

What did the re-election of President Obama mean for the politics of inequality in the US? Jon Chait interprets the outcome of the election as a working class victory in a class war:

If there is a single plank in the Democratic platform on which Obama can claim to have won, it is taxing the rich… by God did he hammer home the fact that his winning would bring higher taxes on the rich… polls consistently showed the public was on his side… American voters had a chance to lay down their marker on the major social divide of our time: whether government can mitigate the skyrocketing inequality generated by the marketplace. For so many years, conservatives have endeavored to fend off such a debate by screaming “class war” at the faintest wisp of populist rhetoric. Somehow the endless repetition of the scare line inured us to the real thing. Here it was, right before our eyes: a class war, or the closest thing one might find to one in modern American history, as a presidential election. The outcome was plain. The 47 percent turned out to be the 51 percent.

Not everyone sees it that way. Chris Bickerton and Alex Gourevitch listened to Obama’s acceptance speech and heard him

blow the horns of victory for America’s meritocracy. “I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

Rather unfairly, they do not mention the President’s commitment to increased marginal tax rates for the very rich. Nor were they overwhelmingly impressed with the Obama coalition’s

wins for gay marriage, drug legalization, abortion rights, and equality for women. Obama’s appeal to ‘minorities’ was a neatly crafted effort to define the relationship between culture and economy. This election, he wanted us to believe, was an affirmation of a particular ‘vision’: equal civil rights bring us closer to the ideal of a meritocratic political economy. This is a left-leaning nation embracing the principle of human equality expressed in the idea of equal opportunity.


The new economy has become even more caste-like, with a dwindling proportion of secure, high-paying jobs, and an expansion of badly paying, insecure, part-time jobs that hold little hope of advancement… This is the context for thinking about the coming four years and the way Obama and the Democrats politicize ‘cultural’ progress. Liberal ‘cultural’ egalitarianism is the bright, white outline surrounding its deeply rotten, inegalitarian culture core.

I don’t care for the vitriolic tone, but they have a point. If increasing meritocracy is diminishing the salience of race and gender, how are we nevertheless becoming “ever more caste-like”? Bickerton and Gourevitch do not say, but here is my view.

As the number of secure, high-paying jobs decreases, it is becoming increasingly important to enter the job market at a rung that is high enough that you might someday qualify for an upper tier job. Reaching that first high rung requires a childhood in which your diction, writing, math skills, etc., are highly cultivated by your parents and your schools. Meritocracy makes it easier to buy your children a superior childhood while making it harder to get a decent life if you did not have one. It’s absurd to write as if Obama were personally responsible for this state of affairs, but I think it is fair to say that we have a caste system.

h/t @coreyrobin

About Bill Gardner

A health care researcher and a child and quantitative psychologist by training. I am an American living in Canada and am Professor of Paediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University; and Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. I also blog at The Incidental Economist ( and you can follow me @Bill_Gardner on Twitter.
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3 Responses to Barack Obama and the new caste system

  1. Bill Gardner says:

    It is of interest, thanks. I come from that world — Andover & Harvard — and I think that “being at ease” with leadership is one of the traits those schools give you. That won’t be enough going forward. Quite a few of my classmates are now “retired”, meaning that their positions in the financial industry were judged to be redundant, and they lacked sufficient skills or social capital to regain a similar position elsewhere. Avoiding relegation in the 21st century will require early mastery of hard technical skills, and the ability to continually upgrade them, or first-tier organizational leadership skills.

  2. Pingback: What we lose when we don’t talk about class | Inequalities

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