This summer, two of the most engaging and important leaders of the center left — political philosopher Michael Sandel and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 — had a conversation on the topic “Reimagining the Future of the Democratic Party,” at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival.
The party’s short-term prospects, to be unveiled in November’s midterm elections, have recently improved from hideously grim to very grim. Though this change can be attributed to a variety of causes, one is surely the paucity of sane, ethical, center-right GOP Senate candidates in crucial states.
But very grim still isn’t great. And the Democrats’ likely loss of the House will throw a wrench in any hope they might have of reimagining their ideological future. Republicans’ ascendancy will almost certainly cause a dam break of committee investigations and impeachment proceedings — which will occupy and exhaust Biden administration officials, complicate the president’s campaign message relaunch and inject a lot of chaos, blame and desperation into Democratic strategizing.
Listening to Sandel and Bennet before the deluge would be wise and clarifying. At Aspen, the two set out an argument (stated more comprehensively in Sandel’s excellent book “The Tyranny of Merit”) that the United States’ uncritical and unrealistic approach to globalization has been a bipartisan disaster.
Both Republican and Democratic presidents until Donald Trump employed what Sandel calls “the rhetoric of rising.” They described the country as a meritocracy, in which hard work, self-reliance and education could reliably deliver the American Dream. Sandel has summarized the empty promises of the era: “What you earn will depend on what you learn; you can make it if you try.” That is, it’s not the economy’s fault if you’re struggling — it’s a problem of self-motivation.
Elites welcomed this view of the economy in part because it was value neutral. If your only goal is to maximize consumer welfare, then you don’t have to talk about the common good or what constitutes human flourishing.
There were two main problems with selling globalization as a triumph of the American Dream. First, it didn’t work. Economic gains went mainly to the wealthy. American economic mobility fell behind that of other nations. Writes Sandel: “The American Dream is alive and well and living in Copenhagen.” Millions of Americans found themselves living in the ruins of an industrial economy where dignified work was rare and oxycodone was common.
Second, this depiction of the economy was not morally neutral. Those who succeed in a meritocracy are prone to hubris. Those who don’t succeed are subject to humiliation. Higher education, according to Sandel, can become a “sorting machine” that exaggerates credentialism and perpetuates privilege.
Both Sandel and Bennet argued that the smugness of meritocratic elites contributed to the populist backlash that produced Trumpism. “Lack of social esteem for working people,” Bennet said, “paved the way for Trump.” The speakers acknowledged that other forces, including racism and xenophobia, played roles in Trump’s rise. But it is hard to disaggregate such motives. In Trump’s distorted, populist vision, migrants, Muslims, refugees and “woke” activists are out to destroy the United States, while liberal elites help or applaud them.
Sandel and Bennet’s argument — that the dignity of production is more important than the level of consumption — hearkens to the speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. He argued that the most important things in our lives do not come from “just buying and consuming goods together.” What people need is “dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a person say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country.’”
The cupboard of policy ideas that serve such a social good is not entirely empty. Both speakers were inclined to shift the tax burden away from work and toward consumption and financial speculation. One of Sandel’s ideas — eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with taxes on consumption, wealth and financial transactions — might be revolutionary in a good way. It would certainly symbolize a shift in our country’s attitude toward labor.
There was one false note by Bennet, who set out his belief in abortion rights as one of his motivating reasons for building a center-left populism.
“For the first time in American history,” he said, “we have lost a fundamental, constitutional, human right in this country because we did not have the ability to beat Donald Trump.”
He might consider the question: Is it possible to assemble a winning, center-left coalition without peeling off center-right voters who are pro-life — people who think the protection of nascent life is a matter of human rights?
That said, the United States does need a creative, responsible center-left party. And the theory set out by Bennet and Sandel might be the best of the realistic options.