Michael Sandel at Cambridge Union: A Review of "The Tyranny of Merit" and the Future of Party Politics

By Maria Bregman

In a thought-provoking event at the Cambridge Union on 10th June 2024, renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel delivered a captivating lecture that delved into the core themes of his latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”. This gathering not only highlighted the intricate ideas presented in Sandel’s work but also spurred a lively debate on the relevance of traditional party politics in contemporary Britain.

Introduction to Michael Sandel and His Work

Michael Sandel, a distinguished professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, has gained international acclaim for his explorations into justice, democracy, ethics, and markets. His writings, translated into over 30 languages, have earned him titles such as “a rock star moralist” by Newsweek and “the world’s most influential living philosopher” by the New Statesman. Sandel’s impressive repertoire includes notable works like “What Money Can’t Buy,” “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?,” and “The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.” His public lectures have drawn vast audiences globally, underscoring his ability to engage the public in profound ethical discussions.

The Tyranny of Merit: An Overview

In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”, Sandel critiques the prevailing meritocratic framework that underpins modern societies. He argues that meritocracy, while ostensibly promoting fairness and equality, often exacerbates social divisions and fuels a sense of hubris among the so-called ‘winners’ while diminishing the dignity of the ‘losers.’ Sandel contends that this system neglects the common good and undermines social solidarity, as it places undue emphasis on individual achievement rather than collective well-being.

Meritocracy and Its Discontents

Sandel’s central thesis challenges the notion that meritocracy is inherently just. He posits that the meritocratic ideal, which rewards individuals based on their talents and efforts, overlooks the significant influence of social and economic conditions on one’s ability to succeed. This creates a society where those who succeed attribute their success solely to their own efforts, fostering a sense of superiority and entitlement. Conversely, those who struggle are often blamed for their failures, leading to resentment and social fragmentation.

The Common Good: A Forgotten Ideal

Sandel’s lecture at the Cambridge Union emphasized the need to rekindle the concept of the common good in political discourse. He argued that the focus on individual success has eroded the sense of community and mutual responsibility. By shifting the emphasis from individual achievement to collective well-being, Sandel believes that societies can cultivate a more inclusive and cohesive social fabric. This entails reevaluating policies and institutions to ensure they promote not just economic efficiency but also social equity and solidarity.

The Relevance of Party Politics Today

The theme of the event, “THB Party Politics is Dead,” provided a fitting backdrop for a discussion on the evolving landscape of political engagement in the UK. Over the past decade, British politics has witnessed unprecedented upheavals, including coalition governments, multiple elections, and a revolving door of prime ministers. This period of instability has prompted many to question the efficacy and relevance of traditional party politics.

The Rise of Activist Movements

One of the key points discussed was the increasing influence of activist groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion (XR). These movements have harnessed public discontent and frustration with the slow pace of political change, particularly on urgent issues like climate change. Their rise signifies a shift towards more direct and issue-focused forms of political engagement, challenging the traditional party system’s ability to address contemporary concerns effectively.

Interest Groups and Media Power

The discussion also touched upon the growing power of interest groups and the media in shaping political agendas. In an age where information is readily accessible and public opinion can be swiftly mobilized, these entities wield considerable influence over political discourse. This dynamic further complicates the role of political parties, which must navigate a landscape where policy decisions are subject to intense scrutiny and pressure from various stakeholders.

Is Party Politics Still Effective?

Against this backdrop, the debate at the Cambridge Union grappled with the question of whether political parties remain the most effective means of organizing political engagement. While some argued that parties provide essential structure and coherence to political processes, others contended that they are increasingly out of touch with the needs and aspirations of the electorate. The rise of independent candidates and non-traditional political movements suggests a growing disenchantment with party politics as a vehicle for meaningful change.

Sandel’s Vision for the Future

Drawing from the themes in “The Tyranny of Merit,” Sandel proposed a reimagining of political engagement that transcends the limitations of party politics. He advocated for a more participatory democracy where citizens are actively involved in decision-making processes. This could be achieved through mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies and deliberative forums, which facilitate inclusive and informed public debate on key issues.

Reconnecting with the Common Good

Central to Sandel’s vision is the idea of reconnecting politics with the common good. He urged a move away from the divisive rhetoric of meritocracy towards a more compassionate and inclusive political culture. By fostering a sense of shared purpose and responsibility, societies can address pressing challenges more effectively and equitably.

Education and Civic Engagement

Sandel also highlighted the role of education in cultivating a more engaged and ethically aware citizenry. He called for educational reforms that emphasize civic education and moral reasoning, enabling individuals to critically assess political issues and contribute constructively to public life. This, he argued, is essential for nurturing a vibrant and resilient democracy.

Michael Sandel’s lecture at the Cambridge Union was a compelling exploration of the tensions between meritocracy and the common good, set against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving political landscape. His insights challenge us to rethink the foundations of our political systems and consider new ways of fostering civic engagement and social solidarity. As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, Sandel’s call to prioritise the common good over individual success offers a hopeful vision for a more just and inclusive society.

In reflecting on Sandel’s message, it becomes clear that the future of political engagement may well depend on our ability to transcend traditional party politics and embrace more participatory and community-focused approaches. By doing so, we can build a political culture that truly reflects the values and aspirations of all citizens, ensuring that the pursuit of the common good remains at the heart of our democratic endeavours.