The Revolt against the Elites
with Michael Sandel
In 2016, when Donald Trump took to the stage to give a speech following his victory in the Nevada primary caucuses, he uttered what would become one of many memorable lines from that race: “I love the poorly educated.” He said this while listing the demographics who had voted for him in the state—demographics that included those with little or no college education—and the media quickly latched onto it as yet another outrageous vulgarity, an insult directed at those who had just lent him their support.
But it was no insult. It was a clear statement about who he was for and who he was against. When Trump portrayed himself as the leader of a revolt against elites on both sides of the aisle, he was making a direct appeal to a huge segment of the electorate that no one else of his prominence (save perhaps Bernie Sanders) seemed to be much interested in. The self-satisfied elite class who saw a lack of education as a character flaw were the ones insulting Trump’s supporters. Trump wasn’t afraid to court them openly.
The political philosopher Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit offers a compelling interpretation of how such a clear dividing line—between elite and non-elite, between “well-educated” and “poorly educated,” between rich and poor, between “winners” and “losers”—emerged in the US. In this excerpt from our recent conversation, he outlines his argument, which views the principle of meritocracy as one of the culprits behind our present polarization. It’s a powerful account of social division, one that I’m sure will open up plenty of debate here, so please don’t hesitate to weigh in.
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GLENN LOURY: So what is the core concern at the root of your argument in Tyranny?
MICHAEL SANDEL: It goes back, really, four decades, during which time the divide between winners and losers, Glenn, has been deepening, poisoning our politics, and setting us apart. I think this divide has partly to do with the widening inequalities of recent decades, but it's not only that. It has also to do with the changing attitudes towards success that have accompanied the rising inequalities. Those who've landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and that they therefore deserve the whole bounty the market bestows upon them and by implication that those who struggle have no one to blame but themselves. So it's these attitudes toward success, I think, that have created a society of winners and losers and that this explains a lot, I think, of why we are so deeply polarized.
The winners don't deserve their success. They shouldn't be crowing about it. They didn't build this. “You didn't build this.” Isn't that what Obama said at one point back in the ancient history of his presidency? You didn't build this, you got there with the aid of many other influences, and it's somehow poisoning the political well to have people running around who have done well, thinking about themselves as if ... yeah.
Well, we don't have enough humility, I think, generally in our public life. And Obama was trying to express something like the idea that I discussed in The Tyranny of Merit, though he didn't put it in quite the way I think he intended. Here's how I would put the main point of The Tyranny of Merit, Glenn. I would say that these harsh attitudes toward success and failure arise from a seemingly attractive principle, the principle of meritocracy, the ideal that says if chances are equal, the winners deserve their winning.
There are a couple of problems with this idea, or so it seems to me. The first is we don't live up to it. Chances are not equal. We all know this. Children who are born poor tend to stay poor as adults. Social mobility, upward mobility across generations is not what we often assume it to be. And higher education is not the engine of upward mobility we sometimes think. In Ivy League colleges and universities, despite generous financial aid policies, Glenn, there are more students from families in the top 1% than there are students from the entire bottom half of the income scale combined. So we don't live up to the meritocratic principles we profess.
But it seems to me there's a deeper problem, which is the ideal itself is flawed. It's flawed because it encourages the winners, the successful, to inhale too deeply of their own success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. And it leads them to look down on those less fortunate than themselves. This gets back to the point you were suggesting about humility, and so it's partly to do with the economy and the widening inequality. But it has also to do with these attitudes toward success that the meritocratic ideal encourages and cultivates. Paradoxically, if you think about it, the closer we come to a perfect meritocracy, if we could somehow achieve genuine equality of opportunity, that would not dissolve these attitudes toward success and failure, the hubris of the successful and the humiliation of those left behind.
This is Michael Young's point from that old book, right?
Exactly. And Michael Young coined the term. We forget this, but Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” back in 1958 with a little book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. That's what it was called. Meritocracy, we use that as an ideal, as the name of an aspiration. When he coined the term, it was a dystopian story he was telling. It was a good thing that the class system was breaking down and that young people from working class families had a chance to get a good education and to compete for jobs. He was all for that.
But he glimpsed the harsh attitudes toward success that would result insofar as people imbibed this sense of deservingness. And he was onto something. He predicted, actually, that in the year 2034, there would be a populist revolt against the meritocracy. He was almost right, except that revolt came  years early.
But was that revolt the revolt of populism as reflected in Trump's emergence in 2016 only or mainly a reflection of the economic disparities of winners and losers? Or was it not also a reflection of a cultural contestation not between economic winners and losers, but between people who control the megaphone of public communication, who live on the coast, and who have certain modernist ideas about social life and those who might clinging to their religion, their guns, and their more conventional morality, you know, moral judgments about sexuality and all of that? Wasn't that also part of the story? And how does that fit into your argument?
I think it was both. It was clearly both. And in fact, I think we sometimes distinguish too sharply between economic and cultural interpretations. As you have shown, economics is shot through with cultural assumptions and beliefs. So part of what I try to do in The Tyranny of Merit is to break down this sharp distinction between economic and cultural interpretation.
I think that the sense of anger and resentment and grievance against elites is at the heart of Trump's appeal. Now, of course, a good part of his appeal, a lot of people were drawn to the racist, xenophobic, misogynist aspect of his appeal. There is no question about that. But the animus against elites, especially against the professional class—and this connects, Glenn, with what you were saying about the coastal elites—this represented, actually, a change in partisan allegiances. Traditionally, voters without a college education voted for the Democratic Party. And this is true in other countries, too. In Britain, they voted for the Labor Party. In France, they voted for socialist parties.
But in recent decades, this has flipped. Those who have a a university degree tend to vote for center-left parties—the Democratic Party in the United States—and those without college degrees tend to vote Republican. And Trump was a big part of kind of consolidating. As you remember, after one of those primary election victories, he said, “I love the poorly educated.”
Yeah. I love that line, actually.
Well, he was onto something.
I mean, I confess, I really love that line.
Yeah. Okay. But you noted it. You took note of that.
Yeah, I did.
Something was happening. That pointed to something of political significance, which is that by 2016, the Democratic Party was more identified with the interests, the values, and the outlook of the well-educated professional classes than with the blue collar voters who traditionally, going back to the New Deal, provided the base of their support. And this has happened in a great many democratic societies. So the divide between those with and those without a college degree has become one of the most significant divides in American politics. And I think that the Democratic Party, if it's to renew its mission and purpose, rethink its political agenda and outlook, has to ask why it is it lost credibility with a large swath of working-class voters and those without college education.
And I think it's connected to the meritocratic hubris of elites. Because Trump, economically, he's a wealthy man. So you could say, well, he was a kind of elite. And yet he was able to channel the sense of grievance against elites because the elites he targeted were elites who had long looked down on him. Elites in the world of finance, in the world of academia, in the world of the media, in journalism, the Manhattan elite.
So one of the few authentic things about Trump was his sense of being looked down upon, his ability to channel grievance. And that translated to the animus, the anger, the grievance against well-educated elites the professional classes that a great many working people felt after years—and here's where it connects to the economy. It's cultural and it's economic, because many of these voters were the ones who suffered from four decades of the kind of neoliberal globalization project that involved the outsourcing of jobs, stagnant real wages over four decades. But it was connected, the neoliberal globalization project of the center-right and center-left establishment parties on both sides was connected with a certain meritocratic hubris among the elites who said, “The winners deserve their winning.”
Do the "haves" today really think of themselves as more deserving of their status than the "haves" in other time periods?
In decrying meritocracy is he not falling into the progressive trap of ableism?