David French, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore our Nation. NY: St Martin’s Press, 2020.
Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
As I write (November 22) the 2020 presidential election results, though challenged by Donald Trump, give Joseph R. Biden the presidency by six million votes (51.1%). The United States, however, is likely to remain a severely polarized nation for the foreseeable future.
Both David French and Michael Sandel agree with this diagnosis. But they have starkly divergent views about its dimensions and sources. French, a well-known journalist who has lately given up on the hyper-partisan Republican Party, views the division as between Left and Right, progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Sandel analyzes the unequal division between the “deserving” talented and able, and those who are not regarded as talented or able hence undeserving. French worries about actual secession, perhaps even civil war. Sandel worries about loss of community and the standards and sentiments of public life. Neither author foregrounds racial inequalities, conventional class divisions, or the urban/rural divide.
French shows how current divisions between Left and Right are deeply rooted in different cultural experiences that could even provoke geographical separation from the United States. American liberal values — tolerance of differences, free speech, free markets, civil liberties, and so forth — that once provided a central core of beliefs are no longer dominant. Rather, tolerance on both sides is lacking. Those who, like Mr. Biden, call for a new unity, are bound to disappointment.
French presents several frightening scenarios illustrating possible secession. First comes “Calexit,” in which California, joined by other Left Coast states, leaves the Union over gun control. Next is “Texit,” where protests against ‘abortion on demand’ and the liberal packing of the Supreme Court lead to secession. Texas is then joined by Tennessee and other bastions of social conservatism. And so on. Such a breakup, French says, would have dire consequences both nationally and internationally, just like the ‘first’ Civil War.
What could forestall such a catastrophe? Invoking James Madison, French offers two main solutions: (1) liberal pluralism and (2) federalism and regional autonomy. (1) Both Left and Right must relinquish the idea of totally defeating their domestic adversaries and enforcing their conceptions of the “common good.” Instead, accept the inevitability of opposing values and groups. (2) More federalism would allow greater regional autonomy. If Californians want gun control, abortion on demand, or environmental protection, let ’em have it. But spare Texans and Tennesseans.
French, like many conservatives, has little faith in democracy or deliberation as solutions to polarization and conflict. Citing the “Law of Group Polarization,” so called by Cass Sunstein, French argues that group deliberation leads only to more group pressure to join the like-minded. Political ideologies have hardened. Deliberation, forcing citizens together to make decisions, would make things worse. Better to rely on elites to make binding decisions.
According to Michael Sandel, a Harvard political theorist and a leading public intellectual, the key division is not between Left and Right; rather it is between “winners” and “losers” in our competitive social race. The educated winners believe they deserve to win and that the losers (Hillary’s “basket of deplorables”) deserve to lose. This “meritocratic” formula, Sandel asserts, is not only “morally unattractive” but leads to contempt and condescension by the winners towards the losers. This in turn generates resentment on the part of the less-favored.
Meritocracy, allegedly the rule of the “meritorious,” is bound up with competitive market capitalism, especially its globalist manifestations, and by technocracy and the rule of experts. Because the obvious alternative to meritocracy is one of unearned hereditary privilege, meritocracy seems relatively egalitarian. It’s not. Meritocracy too sustains and justifies hierarchy and privilege. An individualistic “rhetoric of rising” assures the winners that one’s success is based on one’s own efforts. The losers had an equal opportunity to succeed but blew it. Hence the ‘winners’ have no responsibilities to them. Sandel holds recent political leaders, not only the Clintons but President Obama, responsible for cultivating these meritocratic tendencies because of their faith in technocracy and “experts”. The resulting condescension and resentment, Sandel thinks, produced the kind of faux-populism that produced Trump.
Colleges and universities, such as Sandel’s Harvard, are particularly toxic sites of condescension because of what he calls “credentialism,” elites regarded as superior by their academic degrees, supposedly a mark of “merit.” Although meritocratic admissions and hiring standards in universities developed in opposition to entrenched privilege, especially in places like Harvard with its legacies, family connections, and influences through wealth and power, the meritocratic alternative in academia is every bit as elitist. The current conservative/populist distrust and resentment of higher education are due in large part to a reaction against credentialism. Though I’m not certain that resentment of higher education is entirely a consequence of elite condescension, there certainly is a perception that elites are contemptuous of the less educated. (On the other hand, some upper-middle class white college students, forgetting that they are part of a credentialed elite, tend to be consumed with liberal guilt about their own privileges. We might wonder, too, how meritocratic privilege intersects with race and gender, as the old ‘aristocratic’ system did.)
A more basic question is whether the prevailing value-standards of “merit” are morally right or appropriate. Are the dominant social and cultural values worthy ones? Sandel acknowledges this question and calls for a renewed notion of “common good,” by which he seems to mean strengthened social bonds and obligations. David French, in contrast, is hostile to any notion of ‘common good’ for fear that it is only a term for ‘preferences’ imposed on others. On this point I tend to side with Sandel. But Sandel could also suggest alternative cultural, social, and political values that are superior to meritocratic values. Green alternatives, such as common concern for environmental protection and ecology, might work.
Although Sandel has plenty to say about preserving the dignity of work and jobs, including jobs in extractive industries, it’s puzzling that he hardly mentions the decline of labor unions, which not only protected the dignity of work but provided a locus of community bonds. Surely that decline, encouraged by conservative and even centrist technocratic politicians, has had disastrous implications for worker solidarity and political power.
We can see the limitations of French’s and Sandel’s approaches more clearly if we examine how their respective analyses might bear upon the politics of climate change in a severely polarized society. David French barely mentions environmental protection. When he does, he conceives it as a mere preference, expressed in progressive places (California) more than conservative ones (Texas?). We should be tolerant of climate deniers. This will not do. It is to ignore not only the science but the probable “common bads” of unpredictable global warming. It ignores the irreversible quality of much environmental damage, as well as the national and global consequences of environmental deterioration such as drastic climate change. Indeed, environmental degradation is becoming so serious that French’s ‘pluralism and tolerance’ might need to be challenged. Sustainable policies over conservative objections (even mild ones such as a carbon tax, let alone more radical possibilities such as a Green New Deal) might have to be imposed on adversaries, rather than treating environmental protection and climate change as only one ‘pluralist’ preference among many.
French’s approach of letting the Californians protect their environment if they want to, and let Texans make different “choices” is no better. Radical local autonomy is no solution. To be sure, some social issues could benefit from decentralized policies — gun control might be one. But with respect to environmental issues, French’s ideas would be disastrous because of the ‘externalities’ affecting not only entire regions but the nation as a whole. Do we really want West Virginia to develop its own coal policy without regard for sea-level rise in Florida? Should Alaskans be empowered to decide whether to permit mining on the North Slope or logging in the Tongass? These issues are interconnected and cross regional and national boundaries.
COVID-19 policy has parallels. Would French see public health as a mere ‘preference’ that some places (Ohio) value more than others (South Dakota), so that masks and distancing would be required in some places but not others, depending on citizen preferences? We already are experiencing that policy under President Trump. How well has that worked?
Related to this, French also ignores pertinent issues of political power in a capitalist society. Fifty years ago, Grant McConnell’s classic Private Power and American Democracy showed how private, corporate power dominates local areas (think West Virginia coal country) in a way that it cannot on the national level. French’s decentralized America would be a haven for corporate interests, especially those that benefit from environmental deregulation. Indeed, French seems utterly innocent of the influences of corporate power and money on American politics.
Sandel, at least, acknowledges climate change in a short passage midway through his book. His purpose, however, is to point up the limits of knowledge and therefore question the authority of scientific “meritocracy.” Sandel correctly points out that climate change is not a purely scientific issue and that it must address moral and political considerations, such as pervasive distrust in government regulation. But in so doing he also undermines the notion that natural science, or experts, should have a prominent role in public life. He correctly makes the point that providing more scientific information doesn’t necessarily lead to public support for climate policy. Citing Newport and Dugan’s recent study, Sandel notes that the more people know about climate change the more (not less) ideologically partisan they become about the issue. He rejects the naïve notion that all folks need to do to accept the “right” climate policy is to absorb more scientific information. But he leaves the matter there. Should we reject expertise altogether because it’s a form of meritocratic privilege? Compare Covid-19 again: should those with superior knowledge of epidemiology (Dr. Fauci), compared to elected politicians, have any practical authority?
Sandel is right that a sizable number of people do not trust climate scientists. Does this mean that scientific credentials shouldn’t matter in weighing authority claims about public health and about climate? Surely we can respect expertise without regarding the experts as morally superior — or their audience as morally inferior. Because we cannot all grasp what scientists grasp, credentials are a necessary short cut to help us make decisions about scientific authority, whether the issue is carbon emissions or wearing masks. This matter isn’t just about credentialism; it’s that regulations are seen as pushing people around. We need to think more carefully about these questions of authority where regulatory action is urgently needed despite ‘popular’ resistance. Basically: is scientific authority compatible with democracy, and if so, how?
Fortunately, the news is not entirely bleak. Even though climate change is not yet the most salient of political issues for most citizens, especially in this year of Covid and economic crisis, public opinion is gradually changing in a positive direction as climate science and lived experience of disasters increasingly coincide. We may hope for much less polarization about climate change. The danger to democracy is not only that legitimate scientific authority is in tension with popular rule, but that ultimately the catastrophe of climate change becomes so extreme that authoritarian ‘solutions’ to climate change will deeply compromise democracy. Against these possibilities we can only hope that science can combine with lived experience and can be accommodated through democratic politics.