Philosopher Michael Sandel warns for simplistic explanations of populism. At the same time, he hopes that more and more Republicans will begin to criticize President Donald Trump.


Sweat drops are appearing on the head of the only philosopher with rock star status, Michael J. Sandel, the author of, most recently, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It’s the summer of 2017 and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government has traded his gigantic auditorium at Harvard University for a small, hot room in Venice. At a seminar on populism Sandel holds a lecture, hammering home his favorite point: the lack of moral discourse in politics. ‘Three decades of market-driven globalization and technocratic liberalism have hollowed out democratic public discourse, disempowered ordinary citizens, and prompted a populist backlash that seeks to cloth the naked public square with an intolerant, vengeful nationalism.’ After his lecture, which has been integrated into this interview, I talk to Sandel about what he considers to be ‘the most pressing political challenge of our time’.

We see populist uprisings all over the world. It takes different forms. We have it in Turkey, with Erdoğan, but also in the Netherlands, France, Latin-America and so on. Is there something about Donald Trump that makes him a typically American phenomenon?

‘He is similar in many respects to the right wing populists you see in Europe. What makes him distinctly American are two things, I think. One, he is using skills that he developed as a reality television host. He’s using those skills quite effectively in politics. He’s drawing on that experience, and it’s helped him. To the extent that reality television is a kind of an American phenomenon, that’s the first element.

‘The second way in which Trump is a distinctly American version of a right wing populist is that he plays up the fact that he is a wealthy man, and that he is a winner. His language is of being a winner, and he’s assimilating being a winner to being wealthy. This is an American thing. (laughs) You don’t see this too much in Europe. These two aspects are a characteristically American version of populism.

But do you feel that he could move even further, like undermining the Constitution or even becoming a kind of ‘fascist’ ruler?

‘It’s a serious question. I myself believe that the American constitutional system and the separation of powers will provide an effective restraint on his autocratic impulses. I hope that will be the case, and I think that will be the case.

You’re still optimistic about that?

‘Yes. The American system was designed, more than European systems, to prevent the abuse of power by the executive. Unfortunately, that whole constitutional structure will be tested now as it has not been since Nixon. But I think it will hold.

And when you compare the accusations of Trump’s collusion with Russia with Nixon’s Watergate scandal, which one is worse?

‘It’s hard to compare. Trump, like Nixon, is presenting the American system with a stress test, to borrow the word they use for banks. Again, I think the constitutional order will hold, but the very fact that we have to speculate about this shows how grave the problem has become.

Personally, I never thought something like this could ever happen in the USA. Before Trump’s election, did you ever think it could?

(shaking his head) ‘No.

In his lecture, Sandel warns for simplistic explanations of populism: ‘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 only as an economic complaint.  To do so misses the fact that the upheavals of the past year were 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 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 afflicts Britain’s Labour Party.

‘His moral voice muted, Obama placated rather than articulated the seething public anger toward 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.

‘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.

What should we do about, for instance, the rising inequality?

‘The standard response to inequality is to call for greater equality of opportunity—retraining workers whose jobs have disappeared due to globalization and technology; improving access to higher education; 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 U.S., 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 four 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 U.S.

‘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.

Hoe does Trump’s election relate to the humiliation that many people from the working class seem to have experienced?

‘As I pointed out in my lecture: 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 cut health care for many of his working class supporters to fund massive tax cuts for the wealthy. But to focus solely on this hypocrisy misses the point.

‘When he withdrew the U.S. 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 to laugh at us anymore.”

‘Liberating the U.S. 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 globalization, 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.

And where does fear fit into the ‘legitimate grievances’ of populism that you talk about in your lecture? Especially the fear of Islam and terrorism, one of the major points that Donald Trump made in his campaign, and with his so called Muslim Ban.

‘I think fear is an important source of populism, and in this moment fear of terrorism clearly animates some populist rhetoric. And I think that mainstream parties can and should address this fear directly: to name it and to say what they propose to do about it. Look… Fear that descends into hatred of Islam is a very dangerous thing, but I still think that the mainstream parties can and should address the fears people have about terrorism, in a way that prevents populists from associating the fear of terrorism with hatred of Islam in general.

And you believe this can be done in the same way as you propose for the other legitimate grievances of populism, like the loss of jobs? Which is to bring it into a more moral kind of discourse?


Have the Democrats been doing this enough?

‘I think they have done it to some extent. I believe this is an area, unlike some of the other areas that I was discussing, where the mainstream parties have articulated – at least to some degree – the questions of security and the fear of terrorism. That is also why I did not emphasize it as much in the lecture, because this is something that has been getting attention in the political rhetoric of the mainstream parties.

Talking about fear leads us to its opposite: courage, and thereby I mean especially moral courage. Why didn’t the Republican Party oppose Trump – a candidate who said things that are clearly over the line – more strongly?

‘Well, there have been a few Republican voices critical of Trump: John McCain and Lindsay Graham. These two senators have been quite outspoken in their criticism of Trump and I hope that with time there may be others. So far it’s a small handful of Republicans who have spoken out against Trump, and the most important political thing to watch is: will more and more Republicans in the Senate and in the House of Representatives begin to criticize Trump? I hope they do, but unfortunately, many of them are so focused on – what they hope will be – tax cuts for the wealthy and getting rid of Obamacare, that they are putting up with Trump rather than criticizing him. I hope that will change.

(An extended version of this interview will be published in my book: “Ik brul, dus ik ben” – Dutch for “I roar, therefore I am”, consisting of interviews with philosophers from all over the globe on populism, appearing in November 2017 at Boom Publishers, Amsterdam)

Journalist en columnist. Schrijft over alwat voor zijn pen komt, van Haagse politiek tot terrorisme. Beukt er graag op los met de filosofenhamer. Classicus en volgeling van Dionysus, liefhebber van spot en ironie, slaat nooit een cappuccino af.