The Harvard moral philosopher and author of the highly acclaimed What Money Cant Buy examines the febrile mood of his nation
The tumultuous early months of the US presidential primaries reflect a populist moment in American politics. Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders, the only self-proclaimed socialist in the Senate, has shown surprising strength against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was expected to win the Democratic nomination virtually unopposed. Among Republicans, Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and television personality, has vaulted to front-runner status over a crowded field of politicians, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W Bush. Despite having raised more than $100m in campaign contributions, Jeb Bush failed to connect with voters and ended his candidacy.
In different ways, both Sanders and Trump have defied conventional wisdom by challenging the complacencies of the political establishment. Although Clinton remains the front runner for the Democratic nomination, polls show her lead over Sanders among Democratic voters has shrunk from 25 percentage points two months ago to only six percentage points today. Clintons shrinking lead has partly to do with voters doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness. Many voters find Bernies gruff, plain-spoken manner refreshingly authentic, in contrast to Hillarys cautious, calculating style.
The two candidates differ in substance as well as style. Sanders has risen from obscurity on a platform of reducing inequality, breaking up the big banks and challenging the power of money in politics. He argues that Clinton, like other Democratic politicians in recent years, is too close to Wall Street to stand up to the banks. Her campaign has received $15m from the financial industry, while his is funded by small donations from ordinary Americans. She also benefited personally from corporate largesse, earning more than $20m from paid speeches after leaving her job as secretary of state. The investment bank Goldman Sachs paid her $675,000 for three speeches.
Sanders does not think the regulatory reforms that followed the financial crisis of 2008 went far enough. He wants to break up the big banks and to separate commercial banking from high-risk investment banking. He would levy a tax on financial speculation and use the revenue to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. Sanders also wants to go beyond President Obamas healthcare reform, which left private insurance companies in place, and create a universal, single-payer health system. Clinton argues that these proposals are unrealistic and favours more modest, incremental reforms. She claims that Sanderss emphasis on economic inequality and the power of money in politics makes him a single-issue candidate. Clinton cites her extensive foreign policy experience as evidence that she is better qualified to lead America in the world. Sanders replies that good judgment matters more than experience. He voted against allowing the Bush administration to go to war with Iraq, while she voted in favour.