Comment: Reciprocity and the Rise of Populism


It has recently been contended that the rise of populism in the US, culminating in the election of Donald Trump, vindicates liberal political theory, and the liberal political theory of John Rawls in particular. For the election of someone like Trump is just what Rawls’s theory would lead us to expect. Rawls’s theory would lead us to expect it because Rawls thought that if a liberal democracy is to be stable, it must satisfy the demands of reciprocity. But there is ample evidence that the contemporary US flouts those demands, and so an angry backlash of the sort that carried Trump to the White House is not surprising. I draw on research sociologist Arlie Hochschild did among voters on the American right to show that the failure of reciprocity which explains Trump’s election is not a failure of exactly the form of reciprocity Rawls had in mind. The difference between the two forms of reciprocity is suggestive. It suggests the sort of policy conclusions liberals and progressives ought to draw from Rawls’s theory to address our current predicament.

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  1. 1.

    Hochschild (2016a) distills the findings Hochschild presented at much greater length in her Hochschild (2016b), where the deep story is spread over pp. 136–140.

  2. 2.

    See Scheffler (2019), the reasoning of which is summarized in the second and third paragraphs of the next section.

  3. 3.

    Scheffler adduces other evidence that American institutions have not worked for mutual benefit. ‘But', he says, ‘perhaps it is sufficient to take note of the skyrocketing economic inequality that characterized U.S. society during the years' leading up to Trump's election.

  4. 4.

    The phrase in the square brackets occurs two lines before the passage into which it has been inserted.

  5. 5.

    Hochschild documents the extent to which her interviewees are ill-informed about these matters in her 2016b, Appendix C, pp. 255–262.

  6. 6.

    I say 'most of them' because of a divide among Hochschild's interviewees that she discusses at her 2016a, p. 28.

  7. 7.

    Rawls's reasoning is lucidly explained at Scanlon (2014), pp. 15–17.


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  3. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016b. Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. New York, NY: The New Press.

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  4. Rawls, John. 1999. A theory of justice, rev edn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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  5. Scanlon, T.M. 2014. When does inequality matter? Accessed 26 August 2019.

  6. Scheffler, Samuel. 2019. The Rawlsian diagnosis of Donald Trump. Accessed 26 August 2019.

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I am grateful to Daniel Brudney, to Dustin Crummett, to William Edmundson, to Brian Leiter and to an anonymous referee for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Paul Weithman.

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Weithman, P. Comment: Reciprocity and the Rise of Populism. Res Publica 26, 423–431 (2020).

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  • John Rawls
  • Reciprocity
  • Populism
  • Samuel Scheffler
  • Arlie Hochschild
  • Progressivism