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Meritocracy and its Discontents

Understanding how Donald Trump came to be elected President in 2016 and maintains such fervent commitment among many of his supporters is critical to addressing the underlying challenges that the United States faces today, as well as to preventing further political, economic, and cultural deterioration in the country. According to most analysis, a toxic mix of racial and economic anger among mostly white men, coupled with huge partisan political divides, helped propel Trump to victory. Though researchers don’t completely agree on which of these factors is most important, trying to make sense of the United States today typically requires grappling with racism, sexism, nationalism, and partisanship, as well as wage stagnation and economic inequality.

Yet, Michael Sandel’s important, but uneven and sometimes frustrating, new book, The Tyranny of Merit, instead argues that another factor is primarily at work–meritocracy and its downsides. The Tyranny of Merit aims to show that a rising belief in the justice of supposedly meritocratic outcomes–which leads government to focus on promoting opportunity and reward for the deserving over broadly lifting society—has fueled much of the toxicity in America today and must be replaced with something better in order for the country to be properly governed.

The above excerpt was originally published in Democracy Journal. Please click here to view the full book review.