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Sandel Talks Globalization and Democracy at Center for American Political Studies Panel

The Center for American Political Studies is run by Harvard's Government Department.
The Center for American Political Studies is run by Harvard's Government Department. By Delano R. Franklin
By Jonah C. Karafiol, Leah J. Lourenco, and Linda Zhang, Contributing Writers

Government Professor Michael J. Sandel discussed the impact of finance-driven globalization on the United States and the world at a panel Tuesday evening.

The event, organized by the Center for American Political Studies, focused on Sandel’s updated edition of his 1996 book titled “Democracy’s Discontent,” which analyzes how bipartisan support for a financialized economy has contributed to today’s political climate. CAPS director Ryan Enos moderated the panel, which included professors Brandon M. Terry ’05, Jennifer L. Hochschild, and Archon Fung.

Sandel discussed how three practices — globalization, financialization, and meritocracy — have affected capitalism and, in turn, democracy.

By regarding these three ideas as necessary, politicians have given too much power to financial institutions, Sandel said.

“Necessity only arose in the first place, because big financial institutions now inserted such a stranglehold on the economy in such outsized political power, that they were too big to fail,” he said.

Sandel said politicians have demonstrated they are willing to trade democratic control of the economy to revive the financial system when it fails, citing the bank bailout of 2008 and Obama’s aid package for Wall Street.

“At such an enormous cost to taxpayers in the economy, [Obama] and his administration put the finance-dominated version of capitalism back together again,” Sandel said.

Actions like these contributed to former President Donald J. Trump’s rise to power, Sandel said.

“After eight years of the Obama administration, 75 percent told pollsters they were looking for a leader who would ‘take the country back from the rich and the powerful at the end of the Democratic administration,’” he said.

Sandel said that in prioritizing meritocracy, politicians in both parties place blame on individuals rather than structural problems in the economy.

“Implicit in the insult was this: if you didn't go to college and if you're struggling in the new economy, your failure must be your fault,” he said. “‘The problem is not with the economic arrangements we devise,’ they said in effect, ‘the problem is that you fail to acquire the credentials necessary for success in a technologically advanced globalized world.”

In response to a question from the audience regarding Trump’s 2020 loss, Sandel said it was surprising the former president was still able to garner so many votes despite his failure to follow through on promises to the working class.

“The real question to answer is, how did he get 74 million votes?” Sandel said. “After bungling the pandemic, not serving the interests of the working-class voters who had voted for him — to say nothing of violating constitutional norms — people stuck with him.”

Still, Sandel attributed Trump’s previous success to the “failure” of liberal politics to defend working class America.

“The success of right wing nativist-populism — of the Donald Trump rise — is generally a symptom of the failure of progressive politics,” Sandel said. “When liberals failed to defend the people against the powerful by holding economic power to democratic account, the people look elsewhere.”

Correction: October 29, 2022:

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Michael Sandel said American politicians have traded civil liberties for economic prosperity. In fact, he said politicians have been willing to sacrifice democratic control of the economy to revive the country’s financial system.

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Harvard Kennedy SchoolGovernmentPhilosophy