“ARE THE WINNERS of globalization justified in the belief that they have earned and therefore deserve their success?” asks the philosopher Michael Sandel in his penetrating book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. For decades, mainstream Democrats and Republicans imagined the global economy as an international talent competition: a system that distributes economic and social rewards based on individual ability or “merit.”
Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 represented a full-blooded rebuke of that idea. Now that Joe Biden has won his restoration candidacy, where do we go from here? Should we rebuild the system the way we left it? Sandel’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in rebuilding our broken nation.
The short answer is no. In Tyranny, Sandel explores the “dark side” of the meritocratic myth, arguing for a full reckoning with the folly of the pre-Trump years. The main issue is that meritocracies have a fraught relationship with moral virtue. In a perfect meritocracy, where resources are doled out exclusively according to ability — as opposed to some combination of ability, need, and luck — citizens must take full ownership for where they end up on the economic totem pole.
This may satisfy those at the top, but it stigmatizes those at the bottom. It is a society devoid of love and compassion, the kinds of qualities we hope for in our neighbors and friends. It is also a society that damns those, even at the top, with interminable status anxiety. “What do you do?” a stranger asks at a social gathering. The answer is difficult, in part, because our self-worth seems to hang in the balance. We ask others about their jobs before we ask them about their interests or aspirations. Meritocracy is a recipe for snobbery.
Accompanying the psychological defects are ethical ones. In a merit-based system, life outcomes should track one’s choices as opposed to one’s luck. But this ideal has never truly matched our intuitions around fairness. Consider the institution of basketball. Although many would rightly agree that the NBA should reward those who play basketball the best with the highest salaries, does an all-star player like LeBron James really “deserve” his success? Based on the earlier distinction between luck and choice, he shouldn’t. After all, he did not choose his natural endowments any more than the family he was born to. Nor did he choose to be born in a society that prized his basketball skills to the extent that it did (had he been born in Renaissance Italy, when artists were in high demand, his talents would have been useless). If individual choice is the moral currency of a meritocratic order, then natural-born talents should be an unfair advantage. This makes meritocracies seem either too demanding or ethically misguided.
The issues with meritocracy explain one reason for the election of Donald Trump. When global markets were displacing blue-collar jobs in the Rust Belt, establishment politicians were extolling those markets as examples of fairness. Although Bill Clinton and Barack Obama worked to give capitalism a softer floor, they did nothing to patch the growing disconnect between one’s economic worth on the global market and one’s moral or civic worth. Instead, Obama loved to recite a pop lyric which became an emblem of the meritocratic delusion: “You can make it if you try” — a phrase he uttered more than 140 times during his presidency. Self-congratulatory language such as these antagonized unskilled laborers, who saw their economic opportunities vanish through no fault of their own.
In truth, many Americans were heading toward ruin. According to the economist Raj Chetty, poor millennials were almost half as likely to become rich adults than their baby boomer counterparts. In 2018, an article in The New York Times concluded that the chances of improving one’s station in life in China “vastly exceed those in the United States.” Contrary to the precepts of the American Dream, the data suggested that our system was rigged. In the fall of 2011, Americans expressed their frustrations with global capitalism with encampments on Wall Street and other places.
The meritocratic myth also functioned as a civic bottleneck: moral license to be excused from the democratic discussion. If what you got was what you deserved, so the theory went, then nothing was given, and nothing was owed. For Sandel, right-wing populism was not the result of malevolent racism or misdirected anxiety; it was the result of callous elites and their failure to accept responsibility for imperiling working-class lives in exchange for cheap iPhones and travel rewards.
The failure to take stock of changing realities cost the Democratic Party in 2016. By the time Donald Trump ran, elites had concocted elaborate theories to justify their place in the new system: a meritocratic ideal consolidated their economic position, while a technocratic view of politics exiled non-experts from the public debate. If Biden is to avert another crisis in 2024, he must rebuild the Democratic Party across class lines, drawing from those who have been most affected by globalization. The center-left establishment, in other words, can no longer be the exclusive party of the winners.
Readers will already be familiar with parts of this story, and Sandel’s book, in its careful attention to moral language along with its refusal to absolve elites of culpability for the Trump years is a fresh addition to an already burgeoning area. But the most unique perspective of the book lies in the chapters where Sandel implicates his own colleagues, the philosophers, as accessories to the crime. Their role was one of capitulation: an intellectual surrender to the values of the individual over those of the community. This conceptual maneuver seems harmless in the abstract, yet in the context of globalization, it had the effect of glorifying winners and humiliating losers.
In 1982, Sandel, who had just completed his doctorate at Oxford, published a set of essays criticizing the preeminent liberal philosopher John Rawls. In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, he articulated the concern that the liberal project was fundamentally flawed. The task of the liberal philosopher, according to Rawls, was to devise an ideal society that placed a particular emphasis on “distributive justice,” the question of “who deserved what.” If “justice is the first virtue of social institutions,” as Rawls declared, the primary task of society was to ensure that everyone could have a fair shake at success. He called the idea “justice as fairness.”
For cultural historians, “justice as fairness” seemed like an exceptionally isolating view of social cooperation. In Rawls’s imagination, society seemed to be segmented into millions of individual lanes, one for each citizen, where life was a race for individual prosperity. The job of the philosopher came to resemble the race designer: How much help should individuals receive in the beginning? How should individuals be rewarded at the end? The idiosyncrasy of that conception, at the time, cannot be overstated, for it pushed aside some of our basic intuitions about ourselves and how societies work: that we are, at bottom, members of communities working side by side toward some common goal.
Today, we often assume that opponents of liberalism are un-American, either communist, socialist, or fascist. But “communitarians” like Sandel were immanent critics. Sharing many of the same values as the liberals — liberty, equality, and fairness — they argued for a realignment of priorities: the primacy of merit over compassion, individual over community, and formal over substantive freedom, these decisions would ultimately impoverish the public sphere and deprive citizens of basic social needs. Deprivation can lead to frustration, then resentment, which, in democracies, translates into populism. Just as establishment politicians kowtowed to markets during the late 20th century, academic liberals became preoccupied with the problem of merit and desert. Rawls had wholly subsumed political philosophy within his paradigms, and the distributive view of justice became synonymous with liberalism.
The story of what happened in 2016 is, in part, the story of how a theory of moral desert came to occupy the center of the Western liberal imagination, even as declining social mobility rendered those questions increasingly irrelevant to the working class. It should come as no surprise, then, that Sandel’s critiques of meritocracy — its conceptual incoherence, its flawed view of the self, its ignorance of social realities — echo his reservations with liberalism. The specter of the liberal-communitarian debates haunts the core arguments of Sandel’s book, giving readers the impression that right-wing populism is liberalism’s dark end.
Why did communitarianism fail to gather a more robust following? One possible reason, taken from the philosopher Daniel Bell’s entry on the topic in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is that, unlike Rawls, they never succeeded in offering “a grand communitarian theory as a systematic alternative to liberalism.” How can we escape this moral stagnation in the coming years? Sandel has proven that meritocracy is a flawed ideal. But can Biden’s America chart a different, more communitarian course?
American history already provides some help. In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Robert Putnam (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) breaks down America’s first successful escape from individualistic excess to communitarian redemption. The America of the Gilded Age (1870s–1890s) was, in many ways, an image of our own: rising inequality, rampant corruption, a fraying social fabric, hyper partisanship, technological upheaval, overwhelming corporate power, and, not least of all, a meritocratic myth, inspired by Social Darwinism, that appeased the winners of the new system. Yet in the ensuing decades, society became more equal, more collaborative, more cohesive, and more altruistic before lapsing back into generalized selfishness. Interweaving quantitative metrics with historical narration in a tour de force of political science scholarship, Putnam tracks the rise and fall of American social cohesion during what he terms the “I-we-I” century.
One lesson from Putnam’s extraordinary longitudinal studies is that things rise and fall together. As economic inequality subsided throughout the first half of the 20th century, cross-party collaborations grew, civic associations proliferated, and books began referring frequently to communitarian terms like “association” and “cooperation.” As economic mobility stalled, instances of party conflicts rose, attendance at community meetings dropped, and Americans took more liberties in naming their children (as a measure of cultural individualism, Putnam found that baby names became more eccentric after 1960). Not all of these trends share the same moral valence, however. The upswing decades were also made up of a higher proportion of mothers, yet many will not see this as progress. Nonetheless, the overarching correlations across economic, political, social, and cultural measures are so compelling that one cannot help but posit the existence of some master variable that connects them all.
That master variable, a kind of ethos of cohesion, is the key takeaway of The Upswing. The New Deal, the NAACP, the Suffragist movement, The Sherman Antitrust Act, Jane Addam’s Hull House, and the muckrakers, these are not fragmented victories occurring on individual tracks — the Rawlsian vision; rather, they are the product of a great American relay, participated in by ordinary citizens who believed in the existence of a common purpose.
I do not intend to romanticize the past: the 20th century, like any historical period, will lag behind our contemporary moral standards. But the hidden message of the upswing years was not where society fell on the graph of progress, but where it was going. And during the Progressive Era, disillusionment with the system created a centripetal force that changed the course of American history for the better. The relevance for this post-election season is clear: America’s present predicament, its fractured nation, its damaged institutions, and its beleaguered public sphere, is not so much a burden, but a ballast for change.
That citizens should work together toward some common goal does not come naturally to the liberal language of rights, desert, and fairness. Instead, that idea has always been germane to communitarianism and its language of service, solidarity, and responsibility to the community. The American experiment has always depended on their negotiation, and it is abundantly clear which way the pendulum needs to swing now: “[I]f we want the true democracy” wrote the pastor Washington Gladden, “we need a different kind of men and women — men and women to whom duties are more than rights, and service dearer than privilege.” Like their early 20th-century counterparts, today’s Americans have already demonstrated slivers of the communitarian spirit.
In a recent report called the “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” authors at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences noted “Americans are hungry for opportunities to assemble, deliberate, and converse with one another.” Beyond any specific policies and programs, it is this hunger, this sense of urgency to meet the political moment, coupled with an unwavering moral conscience, that creates the conditions for the upswing.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that liberty and equality were not so much at odds, but compatible with each other. Americans then were no less protective of their individual liberty as their 21st-century counterparts. But through their civic associations, they managed to channel their freedom into communal activities that also served the common good. He called this understanding “self-interest rightly understood.” Today, the pandemic, technological disruption, and climate change demand more from citizens than just keeping to their own lanes. And a theory of distributive justice or meritocracy, the remnants of the pre-Trump years, will not take us there.
Our hopes for the post-Trump era should lie instead in the possibilities embedded in history — when Americans managed to strike a balance between freedom and community, however imperfectly, first in the mid-19th and then in the mid-20th century. Winston Churchill once remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” As fascism and communism find new adherents across the globe, the prospect of an American communitarian revival may again be the only thing standing between democracy and “all the others.”