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21 May 2018updated 24 May 2018 5:55am

Right-wing populism is rising as progressive politics fails – is it too late to save democracy?

The populist upheavals in the West are a response to political failure of historic proportions, but its most conspicuous casualties have been liberal and centre-left parties.

By Michael Sandel

These are dangerous times for democracy. Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and other countries that once offered democratic hope are now, in varying degrees, falling into authoritarianism. Democracy is also in trouble in sturdier places.

In the United States, Donald Trump poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional order since Richard Nixon. And yet, despite the floundering first year and a half of Trump’s presidency, the opposition has yet to find its voice.

One might think that Trump’s inflammatory tweets, erratic behaviour, and persistent disregard for democratic norms would offer the opposition an easy target. But it has not worked out this way. For those who would mount a politics of resistance, the outrage Trump provokes has been less energising than paralysing.

There are two reasons for the opposition’s paralysis. One is the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. The hope that Mueller’s findings will lead to the impeachment of Trump is wishful thinking that distracts Democrats from asking hard questions about why voters have rejected them at both the federal and state level.

A second source of paralysis lies in the chaos Trump creates. His steady stream of provocations has a disorientating effect on critics, who struggle to discriminate between the more consequential affronts to democracy and passing distractions.

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The Italian writer Italo Calvino once wrote, “I spent the first 20 years of my life with Mussolini’s face always in view.” Trump too is always in view, thanks partly to his tweets and partly to the insatiable appetite of television news to cover his every outrageous antic.

An economy of outrage

Moral outrage can be politically energising, but only if it is channelled and guided by political judgement. What the opposition to Trump needs now is an economy of outrage, disciplined by the priorities of an affirmative political project.

What might such a project look like? To answer this question, we must begin by facing up to the complacencies of establishment political thinking that opened the way to Trump in the US and to right-wing populism in Britain and Europe.

The hard reality is that Donald Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties have no compelling answer.

This means that, for those worried about Trump, and about populism, it is not enough to mobilise protest and resistance; it is also necessary to engage in a politics of persuasion that must begin by understanding the discontent that is roiling politics in the US and in democracies around the world.

The failure of technocratic liberalism

Like the triumph of Brexit in the UK, the election of Trump was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalisation that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary people feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind.

Some denounce the upsurge of populism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms, as a protest against the job losses brought about by global trade and new technologies.

But it is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view it exclusively as an economic complaint. To do so misses the fact that the upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions.

The right-wing populism ascendant today is a symptom of the failure of progressive politics. The Democratic Party in the United States has become a party of a technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. A similar predicament afflicted the Labour Party and led, following its defeat in the 2015 general election, to the surprising choice of the anti-establishment Jeremy Corbyn as party leader.

The roots of the predicament go back to the 1980s. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had argued that government was the problem and that markets were the solution. When they passed from the political scene, the centre-left politicians who succeeded them – Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany – moderated but consolidated the market faith. They softened the harsh edges of unfettered markets, but did not challenge the central premise of the Reagan-Thatcher era – that market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. In line with this faith, they embraced a market-driven version of globalisation and welcomed the growing financialisation of the economy.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration joined with Republicans in promoting global trade agreements and deregulating the financial industry. The benefits of these policies flowed mostly to those at the top, but Democrats did little to address the deepening inequality and the growing power of money in politics. Having strayed from its traditional mission of taming capitalism and holding economic power to democratic account, liberalism lost its capacity to inspire.

All that seemed to change when Barack Obama appeared on the political scene. In his 2008 presidential campaign, he offered a stirring alternative to the managerial, technocratic language that had come to characterise liberal public discourse. He showed that progressive politics could speak a language of moral and spiritual purpose.

But the moral energy and civic idealism he inspired as a candidate did not carry over into his presidency. Assuming office in the midst of the financial crisis, he appointed economic advisers who had promoted financial deregulation during the Clinton years. With their encouragement, he bailed out the banks on terms that did not hold them to account for the behaviour that led to the crisis and offered little help for ordinary citizens who had lost their homes.

His moral voice muted, Obama placated rather than articulated the seething public anger towards Wall Street. Lingering anger over the bailout cast a shadow over the Obama presidency and would ultimately fuel a mood of populist protest that reached across the political spectrum – on the left, the Occupy movement and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders; on the right, the Tea Party movement and the election of Trump.

The populist uprising in the US, Britain, and Europe is a backlash against elites of the mainstream parties, but its most conspicuous casualties have been liberal and centre-left political parties – the Democratic Party in the US; the Labour Party in Britain; the Social Democratic Party in Germany, whose share of the vote reached a historic low in the last federal election; Italy’s Democratic Party, whose vote share dropped this year to less than 20 per cent; and the Socialist Party in France, whose presidential nominee won only 6 per cent of the vote in the first round of last year’s election.

Rising up: reduced social mobility and the loss of jobs and status are fuelling populist protest. Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/EPE-EFE/Rex

Rethinking progressive politics

Before they can hope to win back public support, progressive parties must rethink their mission and purpose. To do so, they should learn from the populist protest that has displaced them – not by replicating its xenophobia and strident nationalism, but by taking seriously the legitimate grievances with which these ugly sentiments are
entangled. Such rethinking should begin with the recognition that these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.

Here are four themes that progressive parties need to grapple with if they are to hope to address the anger and resentments that roil politics today: income inequality; meritocratic hubris; the dignity of work; and patriotism and national community:

Income inequality

The standard response to inequality is to call for greater equality of opportunity by retraining workers whose jobs have disappeared due to globalisation and technology; improving access to higher education; and removing barriers of race, ethnicity and gender. It is summed up in the slogan that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.

But this slogan now rings hollow. In today’s economy, it is not easy to rise. This is a special problem for the US, which prides itself on upward mobility. Americans have traditionally worried less than Europeans about inequality, believing that, whatever one’s starting point in life, it is possible, with hard work, to rise from rags to riches. But today, this belief is in doubt. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, 43 per cent will
remain there, and only 4 per cent will make it to the top fifth. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada, Germany, Sweden and other European countries than it is in
the US.

This may explain why the rhetoric of opportunity fails to inspire as it once did. Progressives should reconsider the assumption that mobility can compensate for inequality. They should reckon directly with inequalities of power and wealth, rather than rest content with the project of helping people scramble up a ladder whose rungs grow further and further apart.

Meritocratic hubris

But the problem runs deeper. The relentless emphasis on creating a meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it). The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue – and to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves. Those who lose out may complain that the system is rigged, that the winners have cheated and manipulated their way to the top. Or they may harbour the demoralising thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed.

When these sentiments coexist, as invariably they do, they make for a volatile brew of anger and resentment against elites that fuels populist protest. Though himself a billionaire, Donald Trump understands and exploits this resentment. Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who spoke constantly of “opportunity”, Trump scarcely mentions the word. Instead, he offers blunt talk of winners and losers.

Liberals and progressives have so valourised a college degree – both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem – that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgement it imposes on those who have not gone to college. Such attitudes are at the heart of the populist backlash and Trump’s victory.

The dignity of work

The loss of jobs to technology and outsourcing has coincided with a sense that society accords less respect to the kind of work the working class does. As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsized rewards on hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, the esteem accorded work in the traditional sense has become fragile
and uncertain.

New technologies may further erode the dignity of work. Some Silicon Valley visionaries anticipate a time when robots and artificial intelligence will render many of today’s jobs obsolete. To ease the way for such a future, they propose paying everyone a basic income. What was once justified as a safety net for all citizens is now offered as a way to soften the transition to a world
without work.

Whether such a world is a prospect to welcome or to resist is a question that will be central to politics in the coming years. To think it through, political parties will have to grapple with the meaning of work and its place in a good life.

Patriotism and national community

Free trade agreements and immigration are the most potent flashpoints of populist fury. On one level, these are economic issues. Opponents argue that free trade agreements and immigration threaten local jobs and wages, while proponents reply that they help the economy in the long run. But the passion these issues evoke suggests something more is at stake.

Workers who believe their country cares more for cheap goods and cheap labour than for the job prospects of its own people feel betrayed. This sense of betrayal often finds ugly, intolerant expression – a hatred of immigrants, a strident nationalism that vilifies Muslims and other “outsiders”, a rhetoric of “taking back our country”.

Liberals reply by condemning the hateful rhetoric and insisting on the virtues of mutual respect and multicultural understanding. But this principled response, valid though it is, fails to address an important set of questions implicit in the populist complaint. What is the moral significance, if any, of national borders? Do we owe more to our fellow citizens than we owe citizens of other countries? In a global age, should we cultivate national identities or aspire to a cosmopolitan ethic of universal human concern?

These questions may seem daunting, a far cry from the small things we discuss in politics these days. But the populist uprising highlights the need to rejuvenate democratic public discourse, to address the big questions people care about, including moral and cultural questions.

Michael Sandel. Credit: Jared Leeds

Revitalising public discourse

Any attempt to address such questions, to reimagine the terms of democratic public discourse, faces a powerful obstacle. It requires that we rethink a central premise of contemporary liberalism. It requires that we question the idea that the way to a tolerant society is to avoid engaging in substantive moral argument in politics.

This principle of avoidance – this insistence that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions outside when they enter the public square – is a powerful temptation. It seems to avoid the danger that the majority may impose its values on the minority. It seems to prevent the possibility that a morally overheated politics will lead to wars of religion. It seems to offer a secure basis for mutual respect.

But this strategy of avoidance, this insistence on liberal neutrality, is a mistake. It ill-equips us to address the moral and cultural issues that animate the populist revolt. For how is it possible to discuss the meaning of work and its role in a good life without debating competing conceptions of the good life? How is it possible to think through the proper relation of national and global identities without asking about the virtues such identities express, and the claims they make upon us?

Liberal neutrality flattens questions of meaning, identity and purpose into questions of fairness. It therefore misses the anger and resentment that animate the populist revolt; it lacks the moral, rhetorical and sympathetic resources to understand the cultural estrangement, even humiliation, that many working-class and middle-class voters feel; and it ignores the meritocratic hubris of elites.

Donald Trump is keenly alive to the politics of humiliation. From the standpoint of economic fairness, his populism is fake, a kind of plutocratic populism. His health plan would have cut health care for many of his working-class supporters to fund huge tax cuts for the wealthy. But to focus solely on this hypocrisy misses the point.

When he withdrew the US from the Paris climate change agreement, Trump argued, implausibly, that he was doing so to protect American jobs. But the real point of his decision, its political rationale, was contained in this seemingly stray remark: “We don’t want other countries and other leaders laughing at us any more.”

Liberating the US from the supposed burdens of the climate change agreement was not really about jobs or about global warming. It was, in Trump’s political imagination, about averting humiliation. This resonates with Trump voters, even those who care about climate change.

For those left behind by three decades of market-driven globalisation, the problem is not only wage stagnation and the loss of jobs; it is also the loss of social esteem. It is not only about unfairness; it is also about humiliation. Mainstream liberal and social democratic politicians miss this dimension of politics. They think the problem with globalisation is simply a matter of distributive justice; those who have gained from global trade, new technologies, and the financialisation of the economy have not adequately compensated those who have lost out.

But this misunderstands the populist complaint. It also reflects a defect in the public philosophy of contemporary liberalism. Many liberals distinguish between neo-liberalism (or laissez-faire, free market thinking) and the liberalism that finds expression in what philosophers call “liberal public reason”. The first is an economic doctrine, whereas the second is a principle of political morality that insists government should be neutral towards competing conceptions of the good life.

Notwithstanding this distinction, there is a philosophical affinity between the neoliberal faith in market reasoning and the principle of liberal neutrality. Market reasoning is appealing because it seems to offer a way to resolve contested public questions without engaging in contentious debates about how goods are properly valued. When two people make a deal, they decide for themselves what value to place on the goods they exchange.

Similarly, liberal neutrality is appealing because it seems to offer a way of defining and justifying rights without presupposing any particular conception of the good. But the neutrality is spurious in both cases. Markets are not morally neutral instruments for defining the common good. And liberal public reason is not a morally neutral way of arriving at principles of justice.

Conducting our public discourse as if it were possible to outsource moral judgement to markets, or to procedures of liberal public reason, has created an empty, impoverished public discourse, a vacuum of public meaning. Such empty public spaces are invariably filled by narrow, intolerant, authoritarian alternatives – whether in the form of religious fundamentalism or strident nationalism.

That is what we are witnessing today. Three decades of market-driven globalisation and technocratic liberalism have hollowed out democratic public discourse, disempowered ordinary citizens, and prompted a populist backlash that seeks to clothe the naked public square with an intolerant, vengeful nationalism.

A vacuum of public meaning

To reinvigorate democratic politics, we need to find our way to a morally more robust public discourse, one that honours pluralism by engaging with our moral disagreements, rather than avoiding them.

Disentangling the intolerant aspects of populist protest from legitimate grievances is not easy. But it is important to try. Understanding these grievances and creating a politics that can respond to them is the most pressing political challenge of our time. 

Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University and is the author of “What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets”, which is the basis of a new video series available here

This essay is adapted from a lecture given at the American Academy of Berlin and the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. It draws upon material from Sandel’s articles “Lessons from the Populist Revolt”, in Project Syndicate, and “Populism, Liberalism, and Democracy”, in Philosophy & Social Criticism (2018). It was first published on

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This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war