In the era of meritocracy, why are we so drawn to losers?

Liberal democracies invest a lot in “winners”—people who succeed by means of talent and hard work. Yet popular culture tells a different story

September 18, 2021
Charlie Brown, the real hero for our times? Image: Anthony Hatley / Alamy Stock Photo
Charlie Brown, the real hero for our times? Image: Anthony Hatley / Alamy Stock Photo

Surveying the cultural landscape, it’s hard not to notice the ubiquity of one particular stock type: the so-called “loser.” Popular culture, and comedy in particular, is replete with the hapless, the uncool, the unsuccessful, the misfit.

It seems especially intriguing that the loser’s stock should have risen during the era of meritocracy, the effective house philosophy of liberal democracy in the roughly three decades that preceded the shockwaves of Brexit and Trump. Embraced by governments right and left of centre, meritocracy envisions a society governed by “equality of opportunity,” in which all citizens are gifted the same chances to rise in status and prosperity by means of their talent and hard work.

Why should we be so drawn to losers in a society that invests so much in winners?

More than just entertaining us, popular culture offers us a forum for feelings, anxieties and doubts, both conscious and unconscious, about the dominant ideologies of the moment. For decades it has been asking questions that philosophers and economists have been slow to catch up with.

In recent years, thinkers such as Daniel Markovits and Michael Sandel have offered a wholesale critique of meritocratic ideology. Even without its inevitable nepotisms and cronyisms, as Sandel argues in his The Tyranny of Meritocracy, meritocracy is fundamentally unjust. By placing the members of a society in anxious competition for its highest goods, it corrodes any notion of a common good.

Meritocracy creates and sustains an order of winners and losers, engendering self-satisfied hubris among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter. The Trump and Brexit campaigns of 2016 both tapped into deep wells of resentment against the economic and cultural impacts of this “rigged” meritocracy. To those for whom globalisation had meant only the chronic diminishment of their prosperity, status and opportunity, it promised to reverse the inexorable tide of loss and to usher in a new era of endless winning: “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be sick and tired of winning,” Trump famously proclaimed at a 2016 campaign rally in Albany.

Concealed behind the vapidity of that statement is an insidious ingenuity; Trump’s use of the future tense instantaneously transforms the recent past of innumerable working-class communities who are sick and tired of losing. With the replacement of a single word, Trump makes winners of the losers.

But this also means that the hierarchy of winning and losing remains intact. The implicit promise is to correct the long-standing humiliation of his angry base, to make them winners once more by restoring them to their rightful place at the economic and cultural centre of American life. Trumpism doesn’t so much revolt against the hierarchy of winners and losers as promise to invert it.

Where politics has a habit of affirming and entrenching such binaries, culture—whether “popular” or “high”—more often puts them in doubt. As I suggest in my book on the subject, the loser figure attains cult status not as an object of cheap pity or sentimental affection but as a reminder of the uncomfortable truth of losing as endemic to life. Youth, beauty, love, status, money, memory, life itself: we will all eventually lose those things we’d most dearly like to keep hold of.

We tend to think of losing purely in the negative. “Winning may not be everything, but losing isn’t anything,” laments Charlie Brown, the iconic loser born in the crucible of America’s great age of global ascendancy. Charlie Brown models a depressive submission to an order of value in which only success has substance. And yet few figures, real or imaginary, remind us more potently of the strange emotional riches of losing.

In the absence of any elegant way around it, Charlie Brown turns losing into a total life commitment. The boy who compulsively surrenders his kite to a tree that eats it; who courts humiliation and severe back injury failing to kick a football; who bears insults from other children and the cosmos and even his own dog with gentle and persistent grace and humility; in whom is concentrated the childhood of every great literary loser who preceded and follows him—could there be a better poster boy for what (to invoke the wonderful phrase of American poet Elizabeth Bishop) is called the “art of losing”?

One could almost imagine Charlie Brown growing up to become The Simpsons’ “ol’ Gil” Gunderson, Springfield’s chronically luckless victim of perpetual sackings, marital betrayals, illnesses and avoidable accidents. Inspired by Jack Lemmon’s rendition of Shelley Levene of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s unsparing anatomy of beta male humiliation, Gil turns losing into an art of bottomless invention and endurance.

Gil alerts us to an irony of the age of meritocracy, which ties human value so tightly to winning: that it can engender a comedy of losing, a gleeful mass consumption of spectacles of failure, inadequacy and shame. Among countless examples, we might think of the bitter, irredeemably unlovable misfits of Todd Solondz’s Happiness; the casually brutal yet peculiarly incompetent criminals of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo; The Office’s David Brent, apogee of monstrous self-delusion; the compulsions of Mark and Jez of Peep Show to fail again and fail worse; the feckless entitlement and lacking in self-awareness of Lena Dunham’s titular Girls.

In none of these films or TV shows are we invited to take up the Olympian vantage point of the winners. On the contrary, the excruciating pleasure of watching them derives from the uncanny recognition of ourselves as born to lose. They offer a precious antidote to the hectoring rhetoric of winning, the tyranny of positivity and maximal self-realisation. Bringing home the sheer existential richness of losing, they free us to feel authentically sick of winning.