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Harvard professor lectures on American populism, class divide

| Monday, October 29, 2018

The Political Theory Program hosted its two-part biennial Niemeyer Lecture in Political Philosophy on Thursday and Friday in the McKenna Hall Auditorium. Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University, presented the lecture, titled “Why the Populists have a Point: the Tyranny of Merit and the Future of Democracy.”

Sponsored by the Department of Political Science and co-sponsored by NDVotes, the Niemeyer Lectures honor Gerhart Niemeyer, a former professor of political philosophy at Notre Dame, and are made possible by Notre Dame alumnus Raymond Biagini. The lecture consisted of two consecutive talks — Thursday, Sandel spoke about the present political climate, and Friday he offered various solutions for our future state of affairs.

“[On Thursday] I tried to diagnose our current political moment,” Sandel said at the Friday lecture. “I tried to make sense of the populist uprising against the elites. Today, I would like to say only a little bit more by way of diagnosis and try, for the most part, to offer some concrete, practical illustrations of what an alternative to the purity of merit might look like.”

Sandel cited the British sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy and claims that a meritocratic society widens the gap between classes by exaggerating both the superior’s superiority and the inferior’s inferiority.

“Young concluded his dystopian scenario by predicting that in the year 2034, the less-educated classes would rise up in a populist revolt against the meritocratic elite,” Sandel said. “That revolt arrived 18 years ahead of schedule.”

Sandel explained that one of the most significant contributors to this revolt has to do with the role of higher education in society.

“One of the deepest political divides in American politics today is between those who have and those who lack college degrees,” Sandel said. “These days, discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation is widely condemned, and one could almost say that the only remaining respectable prejudice is what might be called credentialism.”

This divide perpetuates a “tyranny of merit” for the educated, Sandel said, and a “politics of humiliation” for the uneducated. This is because higher education in the United States is not only a means of advancement, but also a symbol of social esteem. The value of admittance into a top-tier school, then, results in a grossly competitive environment of Advanced Placement classes, extracurricular leadership and hours of volunteer service, he said.

“The tyranny of merit oppresses not only the losers, but also the winners,” Sandel said. “It creates such a high-pressure adolescent experience for mainly upper-middle-class kids that though they win the competitive race, they arrive injured in certain important psychic ways.”

To solve this problem, Sandel proposed the college admissions process be turned into a lottery in which every qualified applicant is placed into a pool from which the admitted students are randomly chosen.

“The reason for this is not primarily for the sake of fairness, but rather for the sake of alleviating the pressure of the kids who apply, and also for the sake of puncturing the hubris that inevitably follows that highly-pressurized experience,” Sandel said.

However, the problem of meritocracy is not one isolated to colleges and universities.

“My objection is about the pervasiveness of meritocratic attitudes and practices,” he said. “My concern is to keep merit in its place, so to speak. The morally corrosive attitudes that meritocracy generates arise when meritocratic assumptions spread beyond discrete context of employment and college admissions.”

Sandel explained how this pervasiveness of merit leads to an inevitable separation of the upper and middle classes.

“Increasingly, the affluent secede from public places and services, leaving them [to those] who can’t afford anything else,” Sandel said. “Increasingly, we find that those who are affluent and those who are of modest means live and work and shop and play different places. And this has the effect of evacuating public spaces of people from different economic backgrounds and creating fewer and fewer class-mixing institutions.”

With fewer multi-class interactions, public discourse becomes less frequent and meaningful, which contributes to a more polarized political discourse, he said.

Sandel said a possible solution could be improving public facilities and services so that poor and rich alike want to use them. He recognizes, however, that improving the state of our political affairs is a much broader and challenging endeavor.

“To reinvigorate democratic politics, we need to find our way to a morally more robust public discourse,” he said. “One that honors pluralism by engaging with our moral disagreements rather than avoiding them, one that takes seriously the corrosive effect of meritocratic strategy on the social bonds that constitute our common life.”

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