The Philosopher's View

Brexit, Trump and the Populist Backlash

Supporters cheer for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Supporters cheer for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Brexit campaign and the U.S. election campaign have been increasingly nasty, pointing to the downward spiral of political culture.

  • Facts


    • The United Kingdom is to vote on June 23 on whether to leave the European Union.
    • Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the United States and has run an outsider campaign with an anti-immigrant platform.
    • There are fears that if the United Kingdom does vote to leave the European Union, it could spur other nationalist movements in other European Countries.
  • Audio


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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.

For example?

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.

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.

Should we expect more violence in the public arena after the tragic death of the British MP Jo Cox?

The harsh and angry political rhetoric we hear these days contributes to a climate of incivility. It is hard to draw a direct connection between violent words and violent deeds. But a climate of incivility and resentment is a dangerous thing. Previously unthinkable acts, such as the murder of this gifted and dedicated British MP, are, sadly, no longer inconceivable. It’s all the more reason to try to repair the broken state of our public discourse.

Where did politicians really fail? Was it a matter of complacency or the fact that there is more and more complexity in our world, with few easy answers for issues?

It’s certainly the inability of politicians to better explain the complex world, but I think it’s more than that. It’s not only that people don’t understand the role of trade and technology and immigration. With trade I don’t think people are objecting to trade itself, they’re objecting to free trade agreements and a certain porousness of national boundaries. It’s not that politicians have not explained the benefits that come to economies from trade; they have explained that and economists have explained that, but what hasn’t happened is the benefits of trade have not been widely shared. Most of the benefits of trade, technology and immigration have not been evenly distributed. The benefits have flowed to those at the top and most of those in working class and middle class feel that they have to compete for jobs and wages and the benefits of trade have not flowed to them. To the contrary, the opposite – manufacturing jobs have been outsourced.

Are referendums such as the Brexit good for democracy?

They’re good and bad. If referendums are used too frequently they are a symptom of people losing trust in representative democracy. At the same time referendums, if they are well-defined and used in relation to appropriate questions, can be a valuable source of participatory democracy. One example of this came last year with the Scottish referendum on independence. This is a legitimate question to decide by referendum and it did generate a lot of very healthy democratic activism and participation.


14.06.2016, Berlin - Interview und Portraits mit dem Philosophen Michael Sandel. photo: Marko Priske © 2016 phone: +49 170 4818957
Michael Sandel. Source: Marko Priske for Handelsblatt

Is the increase of nationalism understandable?

There are affirmative forms of nationalism – a shared sense of belonging, a national identity and appreciation of a shared history. But the nationalism that we worry about today is a darker force, that is a reaction against an embrace of outsiders or others. It’s a nationalism of fear and suspicion. It often slides into racism and I do think we are seeing this danger today and it is a reaction against the encounter with outsiders.

Why is there a growing desire for a “strong man” in many countries?

The trend towards authoritarian leaders is part of the backlash against the technocratic tendency of recent decades. One form the backlash takes is nationalism, another form it takes is populism and a third, but closely related, is an embrace of authoritarian leaders that we see in many parts of the world. The only way to deal with this is not to reassert and try to explain the technocratic imperatives of governance, of trade and of technology. Instead the response is to revitalize democratic institutions so that there is not this emptiness in the public discourse.

How else should we respond?

We need to build a pluralistic culture of appreciation of the contributions and distinctive ways of life that we can learn from. Immigration is a great opportunity to take advantage of this diversity. The challenge is how to make immigration not just a way of helping people who are fleeing persecution, violence or poverty. Ideally we should develop a public culture of appreciation of how immigration can contribute, and not only the economic benefits, but also the broadened cultural horizons.

Is there a limit beyond which society can’t handle issues such as immigration?

It depends on what you mean by a limit. I think the limits are better described as the limits to the moral and cultural and political imagination.

What is important here in particular?

The limits will vary according to how confident the citizens of the society are about their economic prospects and the basis of-self esteem that they have. In those times and places when many citizens are worried and anxious about their economic prospects, about whether the work they do is respected by wider society, in those times and places you’ll hit the limits very soon. There will be less hospitality, less openness, less welcoming outsiders and appreciating outsiders. In societies that are less vulnerable in this way, that have more confidence in their economic prospects and that have a sense that the contributions that they make are valued and appreciated, those populations in those times and places are more apt to be welcoming of outsiders. Part of what’s happened to generate the limits to accepting refugees or immigrants is that the wave of immigration has come at the same time that working class or middle class populations were already feeling very insecure because of widening inequality, limited social mobility, declining job prospects, especially in the manufacturing sector. So if you add on top of those insecurities immigration, it’s going to be a volatile difficult mix, but if instead you had different social political background conditions — less inequality, a greater respect for work, a more settled sense of the future economically — then I think it’s easier to invite people to appreciate and be welcoming of outsiders. The threat of terrorism is a second, very significant factor that fuels anxiety and anger about immigrants and makes it more difficult to cultivate a welcoming attitude.

Mr. Sandel, thanks for the interview.


Torsten Riecke, Handelsblatt’s international correspondent, conducted this interview. To contact him:

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