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Opinion | Who Can Win America’s Politics of Humiliation?

I’ve seen firsthand the power of humiliation in foreign policy: Vladimir Putin’s macho act after Russia’s humiliation at losing the Cold War; Iraqi Sunnis who felt humiliated by a U.S. invasion force that pushed them out of Iraq’s army and government, stripping them of rank and status; Israeli Sephardic Jews who felt humiliated by Ashkenazi Jewish elites, something Bibi Netanyahu has long manipulated; Palestinians feeling humiliated at Israeli checkpoints; Muslim youth in Europe feeling humiliated by the Christian majority; and China questing to become the world’s dominant power, after what Chinese themselves call their “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.

When George Floyd was being held down by three policemen, one with a knee on his neck, as he pleaded for his mother and onlookers filmed on their phones, he was not just being restrained — he was being humiliated. Resistance to the daily humiliations of racism has fueled the Black civil rights movement from its inception to Black Lives Matter.

In a much talked-about new book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel (disclosure: he is a close friend) says “the politics of humiliation” is also at the heart of Trump’s appeal.

“Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer,” Sandel notes. These grievances “are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.”

Unless Biden finds a way to speak to the sense of humiliation felt by many working-class voters, Sandel warns, even Trump’s failure to deal with the pandemic may not be enough to turn these voters against him. The reason? “Resentment borne of humiliation is the most potent political sentiment of all,” Sandel explains.

Sandel argues that the polarized politics of our time, and the resentments that fuel it, arise, paradoxically, from a seemingly attractive ideal — the meritocratic promise that if you work hard and go to college, you will rise. But this ideal sends a double message.

“It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers,” he writes, because it creates the impression that a “college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem” — while devaluing the contributions of those without a diploma. This has led many working people to feel that elites look down on them, creating the conditions for the “politics of humiliation” that Trump exploits.

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