Meritocracy and populism – Is there a connection?

Abstract: In three recent critiques of meritocracy – Markovits (2019),  Sandel (2020) and Goodhart (2020) – the  argument is advanced that the failing pursuit of an education based meritocracy by mainstream political parties, together with the persistence of meritocratic discourse, have generated status discontents that readily translate into support for populist movements and parties. We consider how far recent research can provide empirical grounding for this argument. We find that there is a growing body of evidence that populist support is associated with low social status – is an expression of status rather than of class politics. The evidence that status discontents arise from the discordance between meritocratic discourse and the failure to realise a meritocracy is less  strong but, such as it is, appears consistent with the claims that the authors in question make. We suggest that further research in this latter regard would be of more than academic importance, given the policy and political implications that would follow if a meritocracy-populism connection were to be more decisively confirmed.