His tone is perpetually friendly and he has the charisma of a reserved gentleman. At the same time, he has that presence that is typical of American stars, regardless whether they’re in Hollywood, politics or at a university. His arguments are razor sharp and often accusatory in nature.
Michael Sandel, 67, is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University. Millions have viewed his popular Ted Talks online.
The release date for his latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit,” has deliberately been pegged to the final weeks of the presidential election campaign in the United States. Fittingly, the book is about U.S. President Donald Trump, his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump’s challenger in the last election, Hillary Clinton, and her husband Bill, the former president.
In the book, Sandel seeks to identify the culprits behind the division of American society and that of so many countries, including Germany. He is critical of Donald Trump, but his indictment also targets the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the left-leaning social democrats in Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: Professor Sandel, readers are getting used to the publication of books in rapid succession that always seem to have the same tone: Trump is dangerous, Trump is stupid, Trump is to blame for everything. But in your latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit,” you focus on his opponents, the Democrats, and blame them for the plight of American society. That’s a bit surprising.
Sandel: To make one thing clear: My book in no way excuses Donald Trump for the damage he has done to American politics and society. He has inflamed racial tensions and he has inflamed all of the divisions that already existed in American society before he entered into office. He has made them worse. But the book also tries to show how the Democratic Party – with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – opened the way for Trump.
DER SPIEGEL: You argue that the Democrats have established a “success ethic” that has turned their former voters, including the working class, against them. What’s wrong with the idea of performance? The message that, “You can make it if you try,” has always been part of the great American promise.
Sandel: It is true that the Democrats have repeatedly made this promise with good intentions: to show people a way out of the inequality that has worsened as a result of globalization. They emphasize university education as the avenue for upward mobility. But this leaves out over half of the population. We now have intense meritocratic competition for spots at the best universities, for the best grades and degrees, and we’re seeing an epidemic of overly protective parents because they are worried their children will be left behind. The notion that fate is in your hands is inspiring in one way but invidious in another, especially for those who don’t manage to succeed. Trump taps into that feeling.
DER SPIEGEL: But the development of the kind of elite thinking you describe isn’t exclusively the domain of the Democrats.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 39/2020 (September 19, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
Sandel: That’s true. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promoted the free market and globalization. In the course of the 1990s, Bill Clinton took office as president, Tony Blair as British prime minister and Gerhard Schröder as German chancellor – all representatives of center-left parties. They accepted the basic principle of their conservative predecessors that market mechanisms are the primary mechanism for achieving the public good. Their faith in the markets was softer than that of Reagan and Thatcher and they also tried to strengthen the safety net for those the markets left behind, but they did not question the market faith itself.
DERR SPIEGEL: What should they have done?
Sandel: They should have shown more humility.
DER SPIEGEL: Humility?
Sandel: Yes. Think of Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “deplorables.” She used it in the last election campaign in reference to Trump voters, blue-collar workers. It showed an arrogance toward the less educated. Obama spoke of people who “cling to guns or religion.” The liberals emphasize rising based on merit. But we don’t live up to the meritocratic principles we proclaim. Of course, you have to pass difficult entrance exams to get into Harvard, but some people are groomed for it throughout their childhood and youth, with hockey lessons, piano lessons, foreign language classes, and their parents pay for it. Other parents can’t afford it at all. So, good performance depends heavily on family background and a good deal of luck. By realizing this, we can develop a sense of humility and identify more easily with those less fortunate than ourselves.
DER SPIEGEL: Obama was the first black president of the U.S. He would certainly reject the accusation that he spoke to a largely white elite.
Sandel: He would also have some arguments in his favor. Obama and Bill Clinton could say: We offered working people a much more generous set of policies. We offered universal health care. The Republicans were against it. We offered more childcare. The Republicans were against it. We fought for a tax policy geared to the middle class. The Republicans were cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires. Your follow-up question to Clinton and Obama would then be: Well, then why is it that working people voted for Donald Trump instead? The Democrats were shocked when Trump was elected. They didn’t take seriously the legitimate grievances with which the ugly sentiments that drive supporters of populism are entangled. For Trump’s supporters, it’s not only about wages and jobs but about humiliation. The grievances are not only economic, but also moral and cultural. It’s about the lack of dignity and esteem.
DER SPIEGEL: If Trump’s followers feel humiliated by the elite, was it particularly intolerable for them to see a black man rise to the presidency and, with Hillary Clinton, almost a woman, too?
Sandel: Racism and sexism are certainly factors. Trump makes misogynist statements and overtly racist appeals. But it is important to remember that Obama got elected president twice, and some Obama voters went for Trump. Sexism was a factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, but so was her identification with meritocratic elites who seemed to look down on working people. With Trump, they didn’t have that feeling.
DER SPIEGEL: Why do you think that the Democrats, in particular, are attached to the idea of an elite?
Sandel: The Democratic Party once stood for farmers and working people against the privileged. When Hillary Clinton reflected on her presidential campaign, she boasted that she had won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. Electoral studies found that education, not income, best predicted support for Trump. Among voters with similar incomes, those with more education voted for Clinton, while those with less voted for Trump.
DER SPIEGEL: Barack Obama undoubtedly had his arrogant moments and an intellectual arrogance too. But he also had an ability to speak from the heart in his desire to overcome divisions. Look at his speech at the funeral service in Charleston in 2015, where nine members of a Black church had fallen victim to an attack while praying in church. They came to the memorial service full of rage. Obama held the eulogy and then sang “Amazing Grace” to help relieve their anger. The speech he gave was one of the greatest presidential political speeches in recent years.
Sandel: Yes, that’s true. He was more eloquent than any other political figure in my lifetime on racial equality. I think history will look back positively on Obama and view him as an inspiring figure. When he ran for office in 2008, he inspired a kind of moral and civic idealism that we had not seen in generations. But 2008 was also the peak of the financial crisis. And on economic issues, he embraced neoliberal globalization. When it came time to reform and restructure the financial industry, he bailed out the banks without holding them accountable for their irresponsible behavior, and did little to help ordinary citizens who had lost their homes. Lingering anger at the bailout fueled a politics of protest – on the left, the Occupy movement and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders; on the right, the Tea Party movement and the election of Trump.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you view yourself? You’re a white man and a professor at Harvard. That’s pretty elite.
Sandel: It’s true, I write critically of elites and meritocracy having witnessed it personally. I see the damaging effects that intense meritocratic competition has on many of my students. They arrive at college having prevailed in a stressful, anxiety-inducing meritocratic competition, which increasingly consumes the high school years of many teenagers. I understand the situation in Germany is different. But in the U.S., by the time young people arrive at elite colleges, some are so accustomed to striving for credentials that they find it difficult to step back to explore, to reflect on what is worth caring about. The pressure to achieve can crowd out learning. The tyranny of merit harms the winners as well as those left behind.
DER SPIEGEL: Tyranny is a pretty strong word.
“In an individualistic society like the U.S., solidarity can be difficult to achieve.”
Sandel: There’s also a sobering statistic from a recent study that looked into the mental health of 67,000 undergraduate students at more than a hundred colleges. The study found that enormous stress levels are leading to rising rates of depression and anxiety. One in five college students reported thoughts of suicide. The suicide rate among young people aged 20 to 24 increased 36 percent from 2000 to 2017.
DER SPIEGEL: Only a few weeks are left until Election Day in the U.S. on Nov. 3. What tasks will the political class be facing if, a.) Trump wins or b.) his challenger Joe Biden wins?
Sandel: If Trump wins, the central question for politics will be how to protect democratic norms and institutions in the face of the threat Trump presents. If Biden wins, the central question will be how to heal the deep divisions in our society, how we can renew the sense of common good. But we can’t begin to heal our divisions if we don’t understand the cause of the loss of social cohesion. My book attempts to start a conversation about those causes, and about how we can build a politics of the common good.
DER SPIEGEL: But solidarity and community spirit aren’t easy to impose politically, and certainly not humility.
Sandel: Right. Humility comes from experience, from the messages parents give their children as they raise them and through the implicit lessons that schools convey about success. Is it mainly cognitive performance that is rewarded or are social skills also cultivated and appreciated? Can we create public spaces where people from different social classes come together, or must we retreat into gated communities in the company of our own kind? Do we send our children to public schools, where they meet children from other social classes? Do we give up the VIP skyboxes in the sports arenas that separate us even while watching our favorite team? And above all: Do we acknowledge that we are indebted for our success – to family, community, life circumstance and a good bit of luck?
DER SPIEGEL: We are now months into a global pandemic that has shown us just how vulnerable humanity is. Are there perhaps – not on a large scale, but on a smaller one – signs of a new solidarity among students?
Sandel: In an individualistic society like the U.S., solidarity can be difficult to achieve. Otherwise, we would have a more generous welfare state. There may be some small signs things are heading in the direction you are suggesting. Recently, I asked a group of students whether, during the pandemic, they would favor a lockdown of the economy to protect the vulnerable members of society, or a policy of herd immunity, as in Sweden, where the government risked major outbreaks in order to keep the economy going. The students were overwhelmingly against the idea of herd immunity, because they felt that it was too dangerous for society’s weakest, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions. But it is too soon to draw any conclusions. At the moment, my students are spread out all over the world, learning remotely, as we try to think through the meaning of justice in the midst of a pandemic.
DER SPIEGEL: Professor Sandel, we thank you for this interview.