A Political Philosopher Is Hopeful About the Democrats

Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker:

What is the matter with the Democrats? On one level, the answer is simple. Voters with college degrees are increasingly siding with the Party, while those without are moving toward the Republicans, and there are more people in the second category than the first: about two in five voters in the 2020 Presidential election were college graduates. The Party’s prospects in the midterms do not look bright, and everyone involved in Democratic politics is exhorting the Party’s elected officials to do something about it. This has created a slightly comic situation, in which a group of highly credentialled people urgently instruct one another in how to appeal to those who are not.

On Twitter, the self-proclaimed popularists—a cadre of political consultants and opinion journalists alarmed about these trends—argue that policy might be the problem: the Democrats need to shake the influence of their activist élites and stop talking about issues likely to spook working-class voters, such as liberalizing immigation policy and defunding the police. To many, the Party’s fate hinges on the earthy personas of a few red-state survivors—Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana—as if the only thing keeping the center left from a total wipeout is, as one Montana Democratic operative put it to me last week, in describing Tester, “a flat-topped, three-fingered dirt farmer.” Pick different candidates, Democrats tell their leaders, and say different things. Republicans shout for their candidates, full-throatedly, as if they were the Ohio State Buckeyes. Democrats shout at theirs.

But there is another way of thinking, in which the Democrats’ problem runs deeper than political positioning, to the question of who gets ahead and why. The chief proponent of this perspective is Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard. Sandel, who is in his late sixties, first made his mark as a critic of John Rawls, but has also long been engaged with non-professional audiences, in part by teaching a storied Harvard course called Justice that in 2016 was adapted as a series by BBC Radio 4. As globalization lost its early gloss and produced some discontents, Sandel argued, in “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” that markets had usurped civic decision-making, and that the decisions that ought to be left to a democratic citizenry had wrongly been handed over to economic experts. This line of thinking made him a figure of mass interest—when he spoke in Seoul in 2012, it was to an audience of fifteen thousand.

More here.