The US military was deployed, the Bush Administration tells us, to bring democracy to Iraq. But the military brass and the Administration have apparently parted company on what democracy means in the United States, as the Supreme Court arguments on April 1 in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases made clear.

Solicitor General Ted Olson, arguing on behalf of the Administration, attacked the Michigan law school admissions program as “constitutionally objectionable” for naming racial diversity as a goal, “an end in and of itself,” in admissions. Several Justices quickly interrupted, directing Olson’s attention to the “military brief” filed in the case.

In that brief, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two former defense secretaries and retired heads of the military academies endorsed affirmative action as essential to national security in a multiracial democracy. “The military,” they said, “must be permitted to train and educate a diverse officer corps” to circumvent the morale problems and communication bottlenecks of the Vietnam era, when a virtually all-white officer corps commanded large numbers of black and Latino troops.

The military brass were clear on this: Democratic authority, and thus military effectiveness, depends upon admissions procedures that recruit and select a diverse group of potential leaders. Democracy as a whole, like national security in particular, depends upon genuine, representative leadership throughout the ranks.

The mission of public colleges and universities is also a democratic one: to train leaders who can work with diverse groups of people, to provide students the skills to participate in civic life, and to encourage graduates to give back to the community, which, through taxes, made their education possible. To perform this democratic mission, public colleges must be able to select a racially, ethnically, geographically and economically diverse class of students who will enhance the educational environment while they are in school and contribute to the public good after they graduate.

The Solicitor General and other opponents of affirmative action treat admissions decisions to public colleges and law schools as if scarce slots can be allocated based on individual merit unrelated to the sacred democratic values that are at stake. And whenever race becomes an issue, a multifaceted, democratic view of merit suddenly collapses into a fealty to a “neutral” testing regime.

In fact, SAT and ACT scores often measure little more than the social capital students bring to a single, timed test. The relationship of scores to parental wealth far exceeds the relationship between test scores and grades in college or success after graduation. Poorer students and students of color, who on average perform less well on these standardized tests than their richer and whiter peers, can do just as well academically and professionally when given the chance. Evidence from Texas shows that those admitted because they graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class have higher grades as college freshmen than those who are admitted based on their test scores. Even more important, a study of Michigan’s graduates found the black and Latino lawyers were those most likely to serve underrepresented communities and to fulfill public citizenship obligations generally. Students with the highest test scores, by contrast, are less likely to give back to the community that subsidized their education. Apparently high scores communicate a sense of entitlement without responsibility.

The authors of a Century Foundation study, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, call the overreliance on a single indicator such as test performance “skinny merit.” Through dependence on test scores, higher education has become a gift the poor give to the rich. Poor people pay taxes for rich people to attend elite public colleges and universities where graduates gain, through networking and credentialing opportunities, a large share of coveted posts in the public and private sectors.

Carnevale and Rose studied the family fortunes of students at the 146 most selective colleges and universities. We are, Carnevale says, creating “an inequality machine” with a “brutally efficient sorting” system that allows students from the upper quartile of income in the country to fill three-fourths of the slots at these schools, while only 3 percent of students come from the bottom quartile. That ratio was borne out in the research that produced the Texas 10 percent plan. Historically, 75 percent of each freshman class there was filled by students from 150 suburban and private high schools, in a state with 1,500 public high schools. At Michigan’s flagship university, high schools in the most affluent suburbs also dominate the freshman class. Affirmative action diversifies the student body, at least around the margins, by race and income. While whites from the highest income quartile have cornered the admissions market at selective schools like Michigan, black and Latino beneficiaries of affirmative action hover around the middle of the economic indicators.

Democracy means access for all of the people, not just the elite. Yet it is the military–rather than higher education–that is performing the essential democratic function of breaking down rigid class and race barriers. As Representative Charles Rangel points out, blacks and Latinos, as well as working-class whites, are disproportionately represented among the enlisted ranks.

Taxpayers subsidize public colleges to provide a representative group of future leaders, to train those leaders in democratic citizenship, and to enable them to problem-solve in a diverse society with a knowledge-based economy. Even those who are ambivalent about the “diversity rationale” should understand the democratic imperative for robust rather than “skinny” merit in rationing access to higher education. “If you have an all-black army and an all-white law school,” University of Michigan law professor William Miller told the New York Times, “something’s not right. The democracy, the risks and benefits, simply have to be better distributed.”

A dynamic and democratic view of merit in higher education admissions assures access to blacks and Latinos to selective public colleges and law schools, trains potential leaders to serve all segments of the society and legitimizes our democracy. The military brief cites the chasm between the racial composition of officers and enlisted soldiers as a “blaring wakeup call” that racial diversity is “critical” to “our national security.” The democratic stakes in the Michigan cases are just as high.