It is important to remember that most Americans — nearly two-thirds — do not have a four-year college degree. By telling workers that their inadequate education is the reason for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism — an insidious prejudice against those who do not have college degrees.
The credentialist prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris. By 2016, many working people chaffed at the sense that well-schooled elites looked down on them with condescension. This complaint was not without warrant. Survey research bears out what many working-class voters intuit: At a time when racism and sexism are out of favor (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.
In the United States and Europe, disdain for the less educated is more pronounced, or at least more readily acknowledged, than prejudice against other disfavored groups. In a series of surveys conducted in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, a team of social psychologists led by Toon Kuppens found that college-educated respondents had more bias against less-educated people than they did against other disfavored groups. The researchers surveyed attitudes toward a range of people who are typically victims of discrimination. In Europe, this list included Muslims and people who are poor, obese, blind and less educated; in the United States, the list also included African-Americans and the working class. Of all these groups, the poorly educated were disliked most of all.
Beyond revealing the disparaging views that college-educated elites have of less-educated people, the study also found that elites are unembarrassed by this prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism, but they are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.
By the 2000s, citizens without a college degree were not only looked down upon; in the United States and Western Europe, they were also virtually absent from elective office. In the U.S. Congress, 95 percent of House members and 100 percent of senators are college graduates. The credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many.
It has not always been this way. Although the well-educated have always been disproportionately represented in Congress, as recently as the early 1960s, about one-fourth of our elected representatives lacked a college degree. Over the past half-decade, Congress has become more diverse with regard to race, ethnicity and gender, but less diverse with regard to educational credentials and class.
One consequence of the diploma divide is that very few members of the working class ever make it to elective office. In the United States, about half of the labor force is employed in working-class jobs, defined as manual labor, service industry and clerical jobs. But fewer than 2 percent of members of Congress worked in such jobs before their election.