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Michael Sandel

Harvard's Sandel says both US parties must evolve in Trump era

Political philosopher cites failure of status quo to address concerns of ordinary citizens

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump finds himself in the Oval Office due to his ability to tap into the deep frustration felt by American voters against the powers that be.

But as Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel told The Nikkei in a wide-ranging interview, the backlash against the elites could take a dark turn toward the type of authoritarianism seen in other parts of the world. In order to combat this anger, he says, ordinary citizens must feel more invested in democratic institutions.   

Q: How do you explain the rise of Trump?

A: I think the election of Donald Trump reflects a deep dissatisfaction in the U.S. with two to three decades of the way globalization has gone, and there is anger and resentment that the benefits of globalization have gone mainly to those at the top.

Most working-class and middle-class people have not enjoyed the benefits. And this has been a trend for the last two or three decades. There has been deepening inequality and the anger had built during this period, and it came to a sudden expression with the election of Donald Trump.

I think we do have to take a serious look at the future of democracy and also the future of capitalism, and to ask fundamental questions about how to come up with new models of democracy and capitalism that can address the deep discontent.

Q: This task applies not just to the U.S. but to other advanced democracies as well?

A: We're seeing [the discontent] in the rise of populist parties in Europe, and so I think this is a moment that requires a fundamental rethinking about democracy and capitalism.

In the case of democracy, people increasingly feel that the institutions -- the traditional institutions -- of representative government have been captured by money and corporate interests and that the average citizen does not truly have a voice. That's the frustration with democracy.

The frustration with capitalism, as it has developed with globalization and technology in recent decades, the frustration is it is producing deepening inequality. And this needs to be addressed.

In the realm of politics, we need to find ways to give a more meaningful voice to ordinary citizens. And, in the area of economics, we need to find ways to enable the benefits of technology and globalization to be more widely shared.

Q: That would make Trump's victory into a sort of social revolution.

A: Yes. [With] Brexit, you find the exact same attitude. It's partly economic but it also is a social and cultural backlash against the perception that elites are looking down on ordinary working people.

Q: So what is needed to deal with the resentment and frustration that gave rise to the Trump phenomenon?

A: Inequality did not just begin last year. Those of us who have been emphasizing this question have been writing about it for the past two decades. The Democratic Party, which is supposed to be the party of working people, became more and more closely associated with the professional classes.

In the American tradition, Americans have always worried less about inequality, out of the belief that we have upward mobility. So even if you start life poor, you can rise. This is "the American Dream," the dream of rising.

But now that is less and less the case. Seventy percent who are born poor now will not reach even the middle class. Seventy percent!  And, to reach the top one-fifth, the top 20%, if you're born poor the chances now are 4% only. The rates of upward mobility in most European countries are higher than in the U.S.

This is a crisis of the American dream, and we have to find a way to address it. If we can no longer tell ourselves, or our children, "Don't worry about inequality, because you can always rise," if mobility is less and less possible, then maybe we have to think more about equality and solidarity.

Q: Those sound like the trappings that give rise not just to populism, but to nationalism as well.

A: I share that concern, that populism of the intolerant kind, and extreme nationalism, may become attractive to people if we don't find a responsible way of reinvigorating democracy and making capitalism and globalization work for everyone, not just those at the top.

Q: So you are saying there are various ways to interpret Trump's victory?

A: I do not expect that Donald Trump will lead to the kind of constructive reform that will solve these problems. I hope it will be a shock that prompts the responsible leaders in both parties to have a fundamental redefinition of their party platforms.

I think the responsible parties and the responsible figures in the Democratic and Republican parties need to find a way to address those legitimate grievances, about a growing sense of powerlessness [and] how to give citizens more of a voice.

Q: What kind of future lies ahead for American democracy and politics?

A: I am concerned about the future of democracy, and also about the future of free speech, for different reasons. Let's take free speech first.

Free speech, I think, is under pressure, partly because of the changing media landscape and the rise of social media, where anything can be said, and where the distinction between truth and falsehood becomes very difficult to sort out. 

Increasing numbers of Americans, especially young people, do not get their news from The New York Times or even from the major networks. They get their news from social media and from late-night comedy programs. It makes it difficult to conduct meaningful political discourse if much of the population doesn't have a reliable source of news. There's a fragmentation of the media landscape. 

There's a second problem that makes me worry about free speech -- the rise of extreme nationalist and authoritarian politics. As people become more and more frustrated with democracy and representative institutions, we see the rise of "strong men" and autocrats. We see that in Russia with Putin, we see it in Turkey with Erdogan. Trump during the campaign attacked the media.

Q: He continues to lash out at the media even after the election.

A: He said during the campaign he would change the libel laws to make it easier for people like him to sue the New York Times, or any newspaper, if they felt there was an unfair story about them.

We're seeing in many parts of the world an authoritarian turn, a turn that I think if left unchecked poses a long-term threat to freedom of speech.

Q: So we in the media should take more responsibility?

A: I think Trump will not succeed in changing the libel laws to enable people to sue newspapers, in the way he proposed. The media has not performed its role well, because it has allowed sensationalism and celebrity politics.

The amount of free media time that Trump enjoyed during the primaries alone, because he said so many outrageous things, but it increased the ratings ... was worth $2 billion. This is not a responsible way for the media to cover presidential campaigns -- to go for the most entertaining or outrageous. I think the future of democracy depends on finding ways to strengthen responsible news sources and media outlets.

There are legitimate grievances to do with justice and injustice, equality and inequality, and the ability of ordinary citizens to have a meaningful say in how they are governed. On all of these dimensions, the mainstream parties have not done very well. They have not understood the anger and frustration.

I think it would be a mistake simply to ignore these populist movements saying, "This is phobia, this is intolerance, we need to ignore it."  I think it's important to confront and combat xenophobia and intolerance. I think it's also important to provide an alternative, more constructive, outlet for those legitimate grievances that have been building up over the last two decades.

Q: Do you think people like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has taken up a banner against Wall Street, will pull the Democratic Party to the left?

A: I do have concern about the future of the political system in the U.S. I think that the future of the two-party system in the U.S. will depend on the ability of both parties to reinvent themselves in a way that is more responsive to ordinary people and less responsive to the power of money in political campaigns.

In the case of the Republican Party, they hold not only the presidency but both houses of Congress. They control the vast majority of governorships in the states. They control state legislatures within the states. And soon they will have a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court. So, for the first time in a long time, one party will control all branches of government, and in the majority at all levels of government -- federal and state.

This will make it more difficult for the Republican Party to redefine themselves, and their future will largely depend on whether Trump succeeds or fails.

Interviewed by Nikkei senior staff writer Tsuyoshi Sunohara

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