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The November of our discontent

A man sits on the curb during a protest against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. AP

Twenty years ago, in “Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy,” Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel offered a critique of technocratic liberalism presaging the kind of revolt that has brought Donald Trump to power. A different face of that revolt also underpinned wide support for Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. Sandel argued that the best American tradition had “taught that to be free is to share in governing a political community that controls its own fate.” That tradition was eroding. An unraveling of the “moral fabric of community” and a fear that we were losing self-governance of our communities were driving a backlash. As politicians merely dodged the “moral dimension of public questions,” debate was degenerating into “the scandalous, the sensational, and the confessional.”

Ideas spoke with Sandel in his office to look back on his argument of two decades ago and bring it up to date. Below is an edited excerpt.


IDEAS: When you wrote “Democracy’s Discontent,” the economy was humming along, the Soviet Union had collapsed, yet you saw growing discontent. What was it?

SANDEL: As globalization gathered momentum, there was a growing sense of disempowerment. People felt they were losing control of the forces that governed their lives. There was also concern about the erosion of community — the unraveling of forms of association that situate us in the world and give us a sense of who we are. Two decades later, these discontents have only deepened.

The 2016 election was a moment of reckoning for an era of globalization that benefited those at the top but did little for everyone else. But it isn’t only the inequality that angers people. It’s that many, especially those without a college degree, feel their work is not honored or recognized. It’s as if the meritocracy has hardened to a point where those on top look down with disdain. Those who struggle economically feel they’re not respected and lack a meaningful say in how they are governed. Something similar animates populist protests in many European countries. The vote in Britain to leave the European Union, like the Trump election, shocked and puzzled elites across the major parties. Voters were expressing their resentment of elites and protesting a growing sense of disempowerment.


IDEAS: The barrage of e-mails I kept getting from mainstream politicians during the campaign — screaming, Jonathan, we desperately need money! — only seemed to underline voter disempowerment. I mean, why Jonathan? The candidates have no idea who I am. And all they wanted was money or maybe another supporter at mass rallies.

SANDEL: We’ve seen a hollowing out of democratic citizenship. People feel that their voices don’t matter, that the institutions of democratic government, whose job it is to enable their voices to be heard, have not been working. Progressive politics has to find a way of addressing the disempowerment and dislocations associated with globalization. Otherwise, it will be incapable of providing an alternative to the dark side of populism. Unfortunately, while Hillary Clinton had an impressive mastery of policy, she lacked a compelling vision that could address the inequality, disempowerment, and dislocation that many communities are experiencing.

IDEAS: You tie Americans’ discontent to our beliefs, our “public philosophy.” You speak of American liberalism differently than most of us do in political campaigns. You see it as a philosophy underlying mainstream Democratic and Republican views alike. This liberalism sees government as a neutral framework of rights within which individuals can — quoting from your book — “pursue their own conceptions of the good, consistent with a similar liberty for others.” Politics is not about seeking a common good and shared purposes, only about enabling individuals to pursue their own interests and ends.


SANDEL: Yes. This individualist idea of freedom — this consumerist idea of freedom — has crowded out a civic conception of freedom as participation in self-governing communities. Think back to the 1980s. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher argued that government was the problem, an obstacle to individual freedom, and they claimed that the market was the expression of freedom. In the 1990s, they were succeeded by center-left politicians — Bill Clinton here, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany — who moderated but consolidated that market faith. They did not challenge the assumption that markets are the primary instruments for achieving individual freedom and the public good. And so we did not have, and still have not had, a public debate about that idea.

IDEAS: Why didn’t the center-left insist on that debate?

SANDEL: Part of the appeal of the market faith — and this goes to a distinctive feature of liberalism — is not just that markets are efficient and deliver the goods. A deeper, maybe more powerful appeal is that markets seem to provide a value-neutral way of resolving contentious political questions. In pluralist societies, people disagree about morality, religion, and the meaning of the good life. So it is tempting to try to conduct our public life without becoming embroiled in controversial moral issues. This is why the idea of liberalism as protecting individual freedom while being neutral toward the good life has gained prominence.


IDEAS: So we end up with a bureaucracy in Washington and another in Brussels for the European Union that administer supposedly neutral regulations.

SANDEL: I call it liberal proceduralism. It is an attempt to make public policy without engaging in messy, contentious debates about substantive moral and civic questions. But it’s not really possible to decide the most important issues in a way that is value neutral.

IDEAS: An example might be immigration?

SANDEL: Yes. It raises questions of great moral and civic importance — who and how many immigrants to welcome — and there’s no technocratic way of resolving them. It looms large in the politics of protest, for Trump’s supporters and also for right-wing populists throughout Europe. The failure of liberal proceduralism to address these questions may reflect an understandable fear of the ugly sentiments that might be voiced. But ignoring these sentiments did not make them disappear. Pretending they could be avoided just pushed them underground, where they fueled a politics of anger and resentment.

IDEAS: Both Trump and Sanders raised moral issues, though very different ones.

SANDEL: Yes. Inequality is a moral issue, as are the distributional consequences of trade. Trade and immigration have something in common. Both require us to think about the moral significance of national borders and the meaning of sovereignty and citizenship. Trump often says: “If we can’t control our borders, we don’t have a country.” There is a tendency to dismiss that kind of talk as xenophobic and jingoistic, and to an extent it is. But procedural liberalism has left itself open to that kind of political appeal because it hasn’t spoken convincingly about patriotism or the meaning of national citizenship.


IDEAS: Your term for a politics that would raise these matters — that asks us as members of a community to shape the common good — is civic republicanism, with a small r. We belong to this family, this community, this nation, and these ties are morally important.

SANDEL: They locate us in the world. Identifying with the particular communities that define us helps equip us to deliberate about the common good. It creates “habits of the heart,” as Alexis de Tocqueville called them in his classic study of American democracy. We practice self-government in the small sphere within our reach, but as the sphere enlarges, our reach expands. The civic abilities that we cultivate in smaller forms of community equip us to be citizens of the nation and ultimately to be global citizens. Developing a sense of cosmopolitan citizenship is important, especially to deal with challenges such as climate change. But we can’t become citizens of the world until we learn how to deliberate with fellow citizens in forms of association closer to home.

IDEAS: As you yourself note, the republican tradition in America has co-existed with terrible wrongs — slavery, exclusion of women from politics, deep hostility to immigrants. But you argue that it doesn’t have to. You point to Robert F. Kennedy as perhaps the preeminent republican politician — with a small r — in perhaps the last 50 years who was no way exclusionary. He garnered powerful support from working-class whites and blacks in his 1968 presidential campaign.

SANDEL: Robert Kennedy is a great hero of mine. He gave eloquent expression to the aspiration for community and self-government. He was not a procedural liberal. He did not hesitate to bring moral and spiritual arguments to bear in his case against the Vietnam War, his argument for racial equality, and his insistence on confronting poverty.

Barack Obama, in his 2008 presidential campaign, inspired a moral energy and civic idealism that we hadn’t seen in national politics since Robert Kennedy. Many of us hoped he could reinvigorate liberalism with a politics of the common good. But he found it difficult to translate the moral and civic idealism of his campaign into his presidency.

I think this failure has partly to do with the way he handled the financial crisis. Lacking experience in finance, he appointed as his chief economic advisers many of the same people who had been leading advocates for deregulating the financial industry during the Clinton administration. The banks were bailed out on terms that did not hold them to account for the behavior that led to the crisis. I think this choice cast a shadow over the Obama presidency in ways we haven’t fully realized. The technocratic side of Obama gained the upper hand. In moments, we caught a glimpse of the earlier promise. One of the most remarkable presidential speeches in my lifetime was the eulogy he gave in Charleston, S.C., after a shooting massacre in the church.

But in the end, Obama did not rejuvenate liberalism or elevate the terms of public discourse. The bank bailout left a seething sense of injustice on both sides of the political spectrum. On the left, it fueled the Occupy Movement, and later Bernie Sanders. On the right, it helped fuel the Tea Party movement and ultimately Donald Trump.

IDEAS: Despite its problems, doesn’t liberalism provide a firmer foundation for respecting individual rights and differences?

SANDEL: Finding a basis for mutual respect in the face of moral disagreement is one of the most important tasks of any political theory. But I don’t think this can be achieved by asking citizens to leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. That impulse has led to the empty public discourse we have today — shouting matches on cable television, rancorous fights in the halls of Congress. I think we best respect our fellow citizens not by ignoring their moral convictions but by engaging with them.

Take same-sex marriage. It wasn’t just a matter of toleration. The acceptance of same-sex marriage represents a moral transformation. The majority of Americans came to respect same-sex unions and the love expressed in them not by avoiding the underlying moral question but by deliberating, changing hearts and minds, and coming to a new understanding. The same was true of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t just that the law forced people to tolerate integrated lunch counters. The achievement of the civil rights movement was to change hearts and minds. Not fully, not adequately. But the great advances of justice in our time have not followed the formula of liberal neutrality. They have involved moral argument, persuasion, and transformation.

We need to cultivate the ability to reason together in public about big moral and civic questions. A morally more robust democratic politics is our best hope of avoiding the dark clouds of intolerance gathering on the horizon.

Jonathan Schlefer is a senior researcher in the Business, Government, and International Economy unit at Harvard Business School.