These are dark times for democracy and for the European project. As the language of politics grows uglier and more xenophobic, Handelsblatt sat down with one of the most influential thinkers of our time, Michael Sandel, to talk about Brexit, populism and the meaning of Donald Trump.
When Mr. Sandel philosophizes about justice and inequality, the world listens. The 63-year-old Harvard professor is considered one of the most popular thinkers of our time. Thousands of students around the world attend his lectures. In Berlin the American spoke about his greatest concern at the moment, the downward spiral of political culture.
Handelsblatt: As an outsider, how do you regard the Brexit debate? Is it a weird Britishness, because it is a very old debate in that country, or are there other forces at play? How do you see the bigger picture of this debate?
Michael Sandel: Britain has a long history of ambivalence towards Europe, but I think other forces are at play in the Brexit debate. In general I would say it reflects a backlash against an uncritical version of globalization, promoted by established political parties, an elite, over the past two decades. And I think this backlash that we see in Britain has parallels in most democracies around the world.
The Trump phenomenon in the United States is animated by a similar set of frustrations and anxieties, partly about immigration, but it’s more than that. It’s frustrations and anxieties with the dominant terms of public discourse and in particular with what people see as the emptiness, the hollowness, of public discourse in democratic societies. There’s tremendous frustration in democracies around the world with established political parties, with politicians and with politics. And I think people are unhappy about the narrow technocratic terms of public discourse and they don’t really think that the established parties are addressing questions that citizens really care about.
What else is driving dissatisfaction with the establishment?
A second dimension of the Brexit issue and also the Trump phenomenon is that people feel that they are less and less in control of the forces that govern their lives and this is fundamentally a failure of representative democratic politics. One of the primary purposes of the nation state is to enable people with some meaningful say in how they are governed, some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern our lives. And I feel that in Brexit, in the populist movements across Europe and in Trump, we see a rebellion – a backlash against established political parties and against the way democracy is working today.
People feel their voice doesn’t matter. I think this is a common theme in the protest movements of populist parties of the Brexit campaign and of Trump. Now it sometimes takes ugly forms: hostility to immigrants, intolerance, racism, but I think that it’s a mistake to dismiss this protest, this sentiment of protest and anxiety and frustration simply as narrow minded bigotry — it’s much more than that and there is a legitimate concern that people have that ordinary people do not have a meaningful say in how they are governed and I think that’s really behind the Brexit sentiment.