The State of the Resistance

What’s needed now are priorities, and an affirmative political project.

By Michael Sandel

Tagged Donald Trumppolitics

Despite the floundering first months of Donald Trump’s presidency, Democrats have not begun to win the argument. Yes, Democrats in Congress have displayed unity in opposing the repeal of Obamacare and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. But they have not changed many minds. Despite Trump’s low approval ratings, few of his voters regret their choice. In fact, one poll in early April showed that, were the election rerun, Trump would now defeat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.

The torrent of provocations emanating from the White House, the policy stumbles, the persistent disregard for democratic norms, would seem to offer Democrats an easy target. But it has not worked out this way. Trump’s inflammatory tweets and erratic behavior have provided rich fodder for late-night television comedians. But for those who would mount a politics of resistance, the outrage Trump provokes has been less energizing than paralyzing.

This is due partly to Trump’s penchant for changing the subject. Abetted by the fevered, distractible coverage of cable news and social media, Trump has brought us the first attention-deficit presidency. This poses a challenge for the opposition. The steady stream of provocations has a disorienting effect on critics, who struggle to discriminate between the more consequential affronts to democracy and passing distractions.

A further challenge for Trump’s critics is that some forms of resistance amplify the chaos and confusion Trump sows and thrives on. Typically, bungled policy rollouts erode the authority of presidents; when the Obamacare website crashed, it damaged public confidence in the Affordable Care Act and embarrassed the Obama Administration.

For Trump, however, chaos helps. When his first travel ban brought protests at airports, confusion among airport officials about how to implement the executive order, and then a court ruling suspending it, Trump gained from the tumultuous tableau. It reinforced his presence at the center of events, posing as a bulwark against disorder.

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

Conceiving such a project is not an easy matter. It requires facing up to the complacencies of establishment political thinking that opened the way to Trump in the United States and to right-wing populism in Britain and Europe. And it requires reimagining the mission and purpose of progressive politics.

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 offered no compelling answer.

This means that, for those worried about Trump, it is not enough to mobilize a politics of protest and resistance; it is also necessary to engage in a politics of persuasion. Such a politics must begin by understanding the discontent that is roiling American society and politics.

Populist uprisings in the U.S., U.K., and Europe are against
elites of all mainstream parties, but their victims have been center-left parties.

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 globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary people feeling disempowered. It is 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 as only an economic complaint. To do so misses the fact that the upheavals of 2016 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 afflicted Britain’s Labour Party, at least until Jeremy Corbyn’s recent left-populist resurgence.

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 center-left politicians who succeeded them—Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schroeder 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 globalization and welcomed the growing financialization 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 characterize 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 advisors 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 behavior 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 toward Wall Street. Lingering anger over the bailout cast a shadow over the Obama presidency and would 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 United States, Britain, and Europe is a backlash against elites of the mainstream parties, but its most conspicuous causalities have been liberal and center-left political parties—the Democratic Party in the United States, the Labour Party in Britain, and the Socialist Party in France, whose presidential nominee won only 6 percent of the vote in the April election.

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 hope to address the anger and resentments that roil politics today: income inequality; meritocratic hubris; the dignity of work; patriotism and national community.

Income 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 United States, 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 percent will remain there, and only 4 percent 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 United States.

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 fair 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 harbor the demoralizing 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 speak constantly of opportunity, Trump scarcely mentions the word. Instead, he offers blunt talk of winners and losers.

Liberals and progressives have so valorized 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 judgment it imposes on those who have not gone to college. Such attitudes are at the heart of the populist backlash and Trump’s victory.

One of the deepest political divides in American politics today is between those with and those without a college degree. To heal this divide, Democrats need to understand the attitudes toward merit and work it reflects.

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 technology 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 labor 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? Is patriotism a virtue or a vice, a prejudice for our own kind? 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 Trumpian moment highlights the need to rejuvenate democratic public discourse, to address the big questions people care about, including moral and cultural questions.

Disentangling the intolerant aspects of populist protest from the legitimate grievances it conveys is no easy matter. 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.

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Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University, and is the author, most recently, of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Portions of this essay were adapted from a commentary originally published by Project Syndicate.  

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