Chapter 3 of The Tyranny of Merit (2020) is “The Rhetoric of Rising”. Meritocratic assumptions have deepened their hold on public discourse and the rhetoric of politicians. Sandel admits this is not all bad. If success is something we earn through effort and striving, then it’s empowering. Meritocracy celebrates freedom to control our destiny with hard work. If people are responsible for their position in life, not victims of forces beyond their control, then they deserve their self-made, self-sufficient success. But then he turns to the dark side.
The rhetoric of rising lost its luster in the 2016 populist backlash of 74 million angry Trump voters. They resent meritocratic elites, experts and professionals who celebrate free market globalization and reap the benefits, while those in the working class are left behind. The rhetoric of rising for them is less of a promise than a taunt. And astoundingly – they do not reject the rhetoric of rising because they reject meritocracy – no – they fully embrace it! Having worked hard to achieve a modicum of success, they accept the harsh verdict of the market and are morally invested in it.
But when politicians repeat something over and over again, people begin to suspect that it’s not true. The idea that effort and talent will carry you far now rings hollow. It produces two kinds of discontent: 1) frustration – when a system falls short of its meritocratic promise and those who work hard are unable to advance; and 2) despair – when people believe the meritocratic promise has already been fulfilled, and they lost out. They are demoralized because it’s their own fault.
Rhetoric is language intended to persuade and inspire but it is often regarded as lacking sincerity. Did the rhetoric of rising simply deceive people about social mobility? No. Rhetoric preys on their hopes and fears. To defend the rhetoric of rising one might argue that it is really about the opportunity to compete on equal terms, an ideal worth aiming at, not the way things are. But the rhetoric of rising overreaches. It begins as an ideal then slides into a claim about fact – starts out aspirational, then turns congratulatory.
This tendency to move from fact to hope and back again is not a slip of the tongue or philosophical confusion but a characteristic feature of political rhetoric. It plays out with special poignance in the rhetoric of rising. Its commingling of hope and fact muddies the meaning of winning and losing. If meritocracy is an aspiration, those who fall short can always blame the system; but if meritocracy is a fact, those who fall short are invited to blame themselves.
The rhetoric of rising elicits hubris (‘you can make it if you try’ from someone who has already made it); and humiliation (if you can’t make it, you are a failure). Next week, we turn to the diploma divide during this month of college graduations.