Winners and Losers

These are dangerous times for democracy. The danger can be seen in rising xenophobia and growing public support for autocratic figures who test the limits of democratic norms. These trends are troubling in themselves. Equally alarming is the fact that mainstream parties and politicians display little understanding of the discontent that is roiling politics around the world.
Some denounce the upsurge of populist nationalism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms, as a protest against 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. Like the triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered. It was 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.
The hard reality is that Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer. A similar predicament afflicts European democracies. Before they can hope to win back public support, these 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 thinking 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.
The mainstream parties and governing elites who find themselves the target of populist protest struggle to make sense of it. They typically diagnose the discontent in one of two ways: As animus against immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities or as anxiety in the face of globalization and technological change. Both diagnoses miss something important.
The first diagnosis sees populist anger against elites mainly as a backlash against growing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. Accustomed to dominating the social hierarchy, the white male working-class voters who supported Trump feel threatened by the prospect of becoming a minority within “their” country, “strangers in their own land.” They feel that they, more than women or racial minorities, are the victims of discrimination; and they feel oppressed by the demands of “politically correct” public discourse. This diagnosis of injured social status highlights the ugly features of populist sentiment—the nativism, misogyny, and racism voiced by Trump and other nationalistic populists.
The second diagnosis attributes working-class resentment to bewilderment and dislocation wrought by the rapid pace of change in an age of globalization and technology. In the new economic order, the notion of work tied to a lifelong career is over; what matters now are innovation, flexibility, entrepreneurialism, and a constant willingness to learn new skills. But, according to this account, many workers bridle at the demand to reinvent themselves as the jobs they once held are outsourced to low-wage countries or assigned to robots. They hanker, as if nostalgically, for the stable communities and careers of the past. Feeling dislocated in the face of the inexorable forces of globalization and technology, such workers lash out against immigrants, free trade, and governing elites. But their fury is misdirected, for they fail to realize that they are railing against forces as unalterable as the weather. Their anxieties are best addressed by job-training programs and other measures to help them adapt to the imperatives of global and technological change.
Each of these diagnoses contains an element of truth. But neither gives populism its due. Construing populist protest as either malevolent or misdirected absolves governing elites of responsibility for creating the conditions that have eroded the dignity of work and left many feeling disrespected and disempowered. The diminished economic and cultural status of working people in recent decades is not the result of inexorable forces; it is the result of the way mainstream political parties and elites have governed.
Those elites are now alarmed, and rightly so, at the threat to democratic norms posed by Trump and other populist-backed autocrats. But they fail to acknowledge their role in prompting the resentment that led to the populist backlash. They do not see that the upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions.

Excerpt From: Sandel, Michael J. “The Tyranny of Merit.”


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