I have found recent Letters to the Editor from different supporters of County Commissioner candidates to have been thought-provoking in that many of their arguments for the election of their preferred candidate were a case study of the ongoing political debate that “Meritocracy is the new face of inequality”.
Political meritocracy is the idea that a political system is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. While a meritocracy sounds like a no-brainer for an ideal democratic society, the danger is that the criteria that we use to determine merit are problematic.
For example, one criterion of “merit” often used is political party. Loyalty to the party is certainly useful in the sense that it allows voters to base their decisions on a national party manifesto rather than the idiosyncrasies of the local candidate, but does that make one candidate more “meritorious” than another?
Another criterion used as an example of “merit” has been public service. But is it reasonable to make politics the reserve of people with lots of spare time on their hands? This limits politics to certain groups: people with enough disposable income to forgo full-time employment, people beyond working age, people without any caring responsibilities. That is hardly a representative sample of society.
Women often have less free time than men because they shoulder a greater proportion of domestic burdens, but this makes them adept at juggling multiple commitments and delegating where necessary. These are skills that would serve them well when facing the many demands made of a politician.
Other “merit” based criteria that have been used are education, business, and prior political experience. Education and business ownership may be measures of achievement but may also be markers of social privilege. Prior political experience can be an indicator of know-how, but it may also reflect privileged access to lower levels of politics, also known as “the old boys club”.
The ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behavior for signs of prejudice, and trend to preserving the “status quo”.
When we look at our current Board of County Commissioners (BoCC), we do not see diverse representation of our local community. Supporters of maintaining the “status quo” argued in their letters that we need business leaders, who have previously served in local government, as our representatives. They apparently don’t see a problem in the dramatic lack of diversity, or the glaring gender bias, in our local elected officials.
I personally find it shocking that we have had only one woman elected as Commissioner in the history of Chaffee County. I also find it insulting when a meritocratic argument is used to suggest that the reason why white men dominate our local politics is that they deserve to – “because of their greater merit”. This suggests, by inference, that under-represented groups, including women, ethnic minorities, and people from less privileged backgrounds, are absent from the BoCC because they don’t deserve to be there. When we argue that women, or any other underrepresented group, have less “merit” than those in office, we are simply saying that they do not reproduce the “status quo”. And yet, by a different measure, that might be the very thing that makes them good candidates.
I believe in a representative democracy. We have a diverse population here in Chaffee County and are fortunate in this election that we have multiple candidates running for County Commissioner. I hope that citizens will consider more than just the “status quo” when listening to all of the candidates during the upcoming debates. I also would urge voters to consider the benefits that more diverse representation on the BoCC would bring to Chaffee County citizens.
Editor’s note: Alison Brown is a primary investor in Ark Valley Voice. Per contract, she has no editorial control.