In this situation, which is ours, the meritocrats have no mandate and no sense of why the public hates them — believing that their governance was wise and just and there’s nothing wrong with meritocracy that can’t be fixed with more of it. But the populists have no competence and no coherent program, and so all their revolt can win is stalemate.I think this is interesting but only partially right. For one thing, as I keep pointing out, one reason every rich nation in the world has some version of neoliberal economics is that we simply can't imagine any real alternative. It isn't just the greed of elites that keeps things as they are, but our inability to come up with a system that could deliver the dynamism of the current economy without its massive unfairness. For another, elites vs. populists is only one of our impasses. We have an equally intractable conflict between liberal and conservative worldviews that prevents the forces of populism with ever forming a stable political bloc; whatever Berniebros and Tea Partiers agree on, they hate each other too much to ever work together.
Different versions of this impasse exist in Britain, France and the United States. In the British version the forces of populism won a stunning victory in the Brexit referendum but lacked real leaders (save hacks and opportunists) and a clear plan for pushing forward (save implausible promises). The result is Theresa May’s shambolic attempt to deliver the impossible, a job she’s graced with because nobody else wants it — save Jeremy Corbyn, whose left-populism seems entirely unready for power in its own way.
In France the “gilets jaunes” protests have brought populist fury from France’s peripheries into the heart of Paris and wrecked Macron’s centrist-technocratic plans. But as a political force the protest movement remains essentially inchoate, now pulled toward the far left and now toward the far right, awaiting leadership and vision. Which, judging by the equally dismal approval ratings of Macron’s rivals, is something that French politics is unlikely to supply.
In the United States the populists theoretically hold the White House, under a president who promised to be a traitor to his class. Except that these promises were mostly just a con job, the Trump inner circle is a parliament of opportunists, and his administration’s policy agenda has been steered by the Republican Party’s business elite rather than by the voters who elected him.
Each case is a variation on the same theme, a slightly different intimation of the meritocratic endgame that Michael Young foresaw 60 years ago. A governing class that has vaulting self-confidence and dwindling credibility, locked in stalemate with populist movements that are easily grifted upon and offer more grievances than plans.
Maybe one day super-intelligent AI will work out a better economic system for us, but until then I think we are stuck with the conflicts and systems we have.