What's Become of the Common Good?
These are dangerous times for democracy. We see a populist revolt against mainstream parties and politicians, who struggle to make sense of the discontent roiling politics around the world. Like the triumph of Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind. And a similar predicament afflicts European democracies.
Michael Sandel argues that before the mainstream parties can hope to win back public support, they must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them — not by replicating its xenophobia and strident nationalism, but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are entangled. But they need also to rethink something subtler but no less consequential — the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied the growing inequality of recent decades. More than a protest against immigrants, outsourcing, and stagnant wages, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified.
Sandel highlights the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgment it imposes on those left behind. He offers an alternative way of thinking about success - more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility, and more hospitable to a politics of the common good.