The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

The failure of the elites gave us Brexit and Trump

Michael Sandel, one of the world's best-known political philosophers, says liberal democracies — and the elites who run them — are failing, by rejecting appeals to national purpose.
Pro-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on November 23, 2016 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will not delay triggering article 50, the formal process of leaving the European Union, but wants to avoid a "cliff edge". (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

2016 has been, by most reckonings, a brutal year — marked by the deaths of beloved icons, the continuing refugee crisis and ceaseless brutality in Syria, and terrorist attacks around the world. 

Depending on your perspective, it's also been an alarming, even terrifying year politically. Angry, populist uprisings set the tone for politics in liberal democracies in 2016. Disgruntled voters confounded political wisdom and apparently their own best interests, siding with demagoguery and delivering an uppercut to so-called elites. 

A pro-Brexit demonstrator holds up a sign which reads 'Nation State Democracy trumps Elitist Superstate of Europe' sign during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament on November 23, 2016 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

It may be creative destruction, rolling the dice with inexperienced politicians who have little more than a passing acquaintance with facts and the workings of government. Or it may be merely self-destructive, risking harsh economic consequences or slipping toward nativist, authoritarian rule. Some see this period as the darkest days for liberal democracy since the Cold War era.

It's something that Michael Sandel has seen coming for a long time, and that he thinks has a lot has to do with the failures of those liberal democracies and the elites who run them.

Harvard professor and philosopher Michael Sandel. (CBC)

Sandel is one of the world's best-known political philosophers. Millions of people have viewed his free online course called Justice, and he lectures around the world to crowds numbering in the thousands.

He is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, and he's the host of the BBC series, The Global Philosopher. His books include What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy and Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Click the button above to hear Michael Enright's interview with Michael Sandel. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?