These days many people are asking: how did things get so bad, why are we in this mess? Because we are in a helluva mess. I do not think anyone anywhere disputes that statement.
In his book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Michael Sandel, a moral philosopher and public intellectual, who also happens to be a tenured Harvard professor (if that impresses the reader), attempts to supply an answer, or at least a partial answer. And for my money, it is a pretty compelling read on the situation.
It has to do with the pernicious, compounding effects of the ill-considered, widespread (mis)application of a concept called meritocracy, a damning illustration of good intentions gone awry, the unintended and thus far untreated consequences threatening the health and longevity of human society.
The book should be required reading for anyone running for office, or anyone voting for anyone running for office.
Here Sandel discusses the misdiagnosis of a now common malady called populist nationalism; I quote at some length:
Some denounce the upsurge of populist nationalism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms, as a protest against job losses brought about by global trade and new technologies.
But it is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest or to view it only as an economic complaint. Like the triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 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.
The hard reality is that Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer.
Construing populist protest as either malevolent or misdirected absolves governing elites of responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeling disrespected and disempowered. The diminished economic and cultural status of working people in recent decades is not the result of inexorable forces; it is the result of the way mainstream political parties and elites have governed.
The elites are now alarmed, and rightly so, at the threat to democratic norms posed by Trump and other populist-backed autocrats. But they fail to acknowledge their role in prompting the resentment that led to the populist backlash. They do not see that the upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historical proportions.