Book of the Year 2020
One of my favorite pieces of American music is Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” I recall listening to it in the early light on long family vacation drives. I played it softly as most of the rest of the family were still sleeping in our creaky VW bus.
As vistas of the American West spread before us, Copeland’s fanfare evoked a particularly American sense of grandeur: the nobility of the ordinary person. This celebration of “the common man,” seemed to me as quintessentially American as the Arizona canyons, the Montana prairies and the forests of the Northwest.
Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? explains how this American belief in the dignity and nobility of the common man has been jeopardized, if not lost altogether, over the last forty years of globalism, meritocracy and populist backlash.
Sandel’s book is, i.m.h.o., the book of the year for 2020, one that needs to be widely read and discussed if we are ever to move beyond our currently polarized and acrimonious condition.
As I noted in a earlier blog about the book, Sandel’s argument transcends the current culture wars and left-right polarities. If books like Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers In Their Own Land put a human face on the populist backlash that gave us Donald Trump, Sandel elucidates the tectonic cultural and moral shifts that brought us to this pass.
But is this important, now that Trump has lost and Biden is soon to be inaugurated? Isn’t all that Trumpist stuff soon to be behind us? No, it isn’t, not unless we liberals learn some crucial lessons and make some major course corrections that give ordinary people a chance and which re-bind us in a new solidarity as Americans.
In an interview with the British paper, “The Guardian,” Sandel sums up his challenge to the left-liberal consensus. Asked if he is sympathetic, then, to Donald Trump, he answers,
“I have no sympathy whatsoever for Donald Trump, who is a pernicious character. But my book conveys a sympathetic understanding of the people who voted for him. For all the thousands and thousands of lies Trump tells, the one authentic thing about him is his deep sense of insecurity and resentment against elites, which he thinks have looked down upon him throughout his life. That does provide a very important clue to his political appeal.
“Am I tough on the Democrats? Yes, because it was their uncritical embrace of market assumptions and meritocracy that prepared the way for Trump. Even if Trump is defeated in the next election and is somehow extracted from the Oval Office, the Democratic party will not succeed unless it redefines its mission to be more attentive to legitimate grievances and resentment, to which progressive politics contributed during the era of globalization.”
Indeed, one of the most striking features of The Tyranny of Merit is just how tough Sandel is on figures like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and, especially, Barack Obama. All of whom embraced meritocracy — “you can make it if you try” — as the solution to globalization. Meanwhile, facts on the ground were increasingly making this claim, repeated ad nauseam, ring hollow.
The result, in one of Sandel’s striking phrases, has been, “The politics of hubris and humiliation.” Hubris on the part of those who were winners in the global economy and meritocratic game, humiliation for the losers. Both the winner’s hubris and the loser’s humiliation tear away at the social fabric.
One element of all this that is of particular interest to me, and perhaps other’s influenced by Christian faith, is what might be called the “atrophy of grace.”
Grace says that if you enjoy some success it’s not just because of your hard work or smarts or virtue. It is because you have been the recipient of gifts and benefits not of your own making. Success, in this perspective, entails both humility and obligation. When grace is lost, and replaced only by the calculus of merit, the result is that the wealthy and successful claim full credit for their state, becoming arrogant and detached, while those who are not so fortunate become angry and bitter.
And Copeland’s stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man” rings empty.