In a recent New York Times column, Ross Douthat, in comparing President Obama and Sarah Palin, writes, “Our president represents the meritocratic ideal that anyone…can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great success story. But Palin represents the democratic ideal that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.”
With this example, I believe that Douthat is trying to use graduating from these premier schools as an analogy to intermediate, merit-proving successes in general. The meritocratic ideal necessitates these successes—be they business, academic or political—before facilitating a “great American success story”, or the ultimate success.
The democratic ideal, on the other hand, facilitates potential ultimate successes for anyone, so long as he or she is the most popular candidate. That popularity may be the result of one’s merit, but the democratic ideal certainly doesn’t require merit to be the benchmark, only the popularity.
And if said popularity is based on non-meritorious reasons, then the chances increase that we will procure a less meritorious candidate. Is this supposed to be a good outcome? The will of the people is a fundamental political ideal, and the more checks and balances we have to validate that will (not by people, but by truths)—such as a focus on merit—the more likely the people will get to continue exercising it hereafter.
This is why the meritocratic ideal will generally provide better success stories and better ultimate successes. And, since a meritocracy’s function is to attempt to assure merit of its due rewards, then justice is its natural consequence.