The Current

People are hungry for public discourse on equality, says Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel

"People are hungry for a public discourse that addresses big questions about equality and inequality ... What we owe one another as citizens."
Harvard University's Michael Sandel, known as the most popular philosopher of our time, uses philosophy as a guide to re-think our views in society. (Harvard University)

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NFL games became a platform for waves of protests on Sept. 24, as defiant athletes, coaches, and even owners offered visible support to those athletes U.S. President Donald Trump attacked in his latest speeches and tweets.

The division over not standing for the national anthem is emblematic of the divide in the U.S. and beyond over race, rights, social justice, and equality.

"It's not an accident that [Trump] first attacked the kneeling football players in a rally in Alabama," says Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, who argues Trump's denial that his comments are race-related means "race is entangled."

"One could almost call it a dark genius for changing the subject whenever the failures of his policies or his attempts to enact policies become evident, he changes the subject with headline-catching riveting irresistible provocations."

Buffalo Bills players take a knee during the playing of the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sept. 24. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press)

Sandel says what is worrying beyond Trump himself is that the opposition — the Democrats — troubled by Trump's politics are unable to offer a compelling alternative.

People are hungry for a public discourse that addresses big questions about equality and inequality.- Michael Sandel

"[Trump] manages to keep himself at the centre of events, and I think this is because he and his politics are a symptom of a hollowed-out public discourse ... that's unfolded in recent decades," Sandel tells Tremonti.

"People are hungry for a public discourse that addresses big questions about equality and inequality. What makes for a just society. What we owe one another as citizens," Sandel says.

He argues the lack of reasoned discussion and debate questioning values publicly creates an empty space that is being filled by right-wing nationalists and populists.

Twitter wars are rhetorical polemical volleys.- Michael Sandel

"I think that's what liberals and progressives and centrist parties need to recognize. They need to find a way to fill that empty space, to enrich public discourse. Otherwise, the kind of xenophobic nationalist populists will really have the field to themselves."

So how do you fill that empty space without just countering it with rhetoric that is as provocative?

Sandel suggests resisting the simple temptation "to enter into a volley of provocation."

"Twitter wars are rhetorical polemical volleys."

The alternative, Sandel believes, is to engage more directly with ethical and moral questions that people care about, "that have to do with our responsibility as citizens for one another — whether that particular issue is health care or tax policy, or for that, matter immigration."

Sandel tells Tremonti what's needed in public discourse is progressive parties, centrist parties need to find a moral language to address big questions in politics.

"Rather than to do as we've done in recent decades, essentially outsource public discourse to a kind of market reasoning and a kind of technocratic public talk."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.