Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sandel on populism in The Guardian-2/27/16

The conclusions Sandel reaches at the end of this excellent piece are similar to the premise of my PhD dissertation (2004) on the myth of equality in writing during the the American Revolution and early Republic periods. My further point was that equality survived as a motivating and even a unifying rhetoric during that period because it was elastic and empty and easily shifted content between an equality that meant "everybody shares the community bounty" to an equality that meant "somebody wins big, lots of people lose big, but nature or merit or God fairly arbitrates that outcome." American writers in the late 18th, early 19th century wielded "equality" like a flag, using it to promote a sense of national definition and purpose--even though what equality meant was quite unstable--moving between those two very different referents. We see a similar polarization in definitions of equality now, even--as Sandel points out--among populists. The difference between now and then seems to be that, because polarization is sharper now and spelled out constantly in internet memes, the myth of equality no longer describes our collective identity but underscores our contentious multiplicity. The contentiousness and division are nothing new but only less well obscured these days by a murky but encompassing myth. 

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