Merit Before Meritocracy

Peter Skerry, "Nathan Glazer: Merit Before Meritocracy," The American Interest, April 3, 2019.

In The American Interest, Peter Skerry writes about Nathan Glazer, his milieu, and the transformation of American intellectual life.


The death of Nathan Glazer in January, a month before his 96th birthday, has been rightly noted as the end of an era in American political and intellectual life. Nat Glazer was the last exemplar of what historian Christopher Lasch would refer to as a “social type”: the New York intellectuals, the sons and daughters of impoverished, almost exclusively Jewish immigrants who took advantage of the city’s public education system and then thrived in the cultural and political ferment that from the 1930’s into the 1960’s made New York the leading metropolis of the free world. As Glazer once noted, the Marxist polemics that he and his fellow students at City College engaged in afforded them unique insights into, and unanticipated opportunities to interpret, Soviet communism to the rest of America during the Cold War.

Over time, postwar economic growth and political change resulted in the relative decline of New York and the emergence of Washington as the center of power and even glamor in American life. Nevertheless, Glazer and his fellow New York intellectuals, relocated either to major universities around the country or to Washington think tanks, continued to exert remarkable influence over both domestic and foreign affairs. The improbability of all this was driven home to me in the mid-1980’s, when I was living in Washington. While hosting some friends from South Texas (where they were deeply enmeshed in local Democratic politics), I asked a neoconservative colleague working in the Reagan White House to arrange a VIP tour. My Texas friends were delighted but also quite baffled to hear that their Reaganite tour guide was a former socialist. (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my friend had been not just any socialist, but a Shachtmanite!)


The American Interest