by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
[C]onsider David Goodhart’s discussion of the crisis in what he calls today’s “cognitive meritocracy.” The doyen of British scholars of populism, Goodhart in his bestseller The Road to Somewhere (2017) documented the profound value divides that Trump and the Brexiteers rode in 2016, between communitarian patriots and a deracinated elite driven by self-actualization, cosmopolitanism, and adaptiveness to social change. Even when they take the form of electoral upsets, these divides remain rather symbolic. Those who weaponize them electorally haven’t always translated them into actual policy change. After formulating the anywhere-versus-somewheres dichotomy, Goodhart in his new book, Head, Hand, Heart (2020), shows again his knack for capturing complex social science in readable prose, although this time with a deeper cut. Here he extends his inquiries beyond the realm of politics and grounds them in far deeper moral questionings.
The over-rewarding of cognitive merit at the expense of the wider spectrum of human ability is, in a way, one cause of our populist moment. But in another sense, unlike the case with unchecked immigration, supranationalism, or deindustrialization, it was not the elite’s deliberate policy preferences that gave us a “cognitive meritocracy” but rather far deeper trends in political economy and social mores, trends that Goodhart is ahead of the curve in documenting. The book was ready before March, so if COVID-19 helps in any way to even out the rewards to those who have different skills and make different economic contributions, it’ll have been sheer luck for him. The pandemic may in fact also take the political sting out of his case, for it is precisely the cognitocrats working remotely who were made to realize the indispensable role of hand and heart — the essential workers keeping our shelves stocked and our ailing patients ventilated.