Is Populist Inherently Bad?
As the United States enters the second year of the Trump Era
with more of a whimper than a bang on the heels of a government shutdown that further exposed the fragmentation of the Republican Party, the populist movement that swept the west between 2015 and 2017 appears to be experiencing stagnation after a meteoric rise to prominence. While “Make America Great Again” and “Feel the Bern” still inspire passion in the minds of millions of Americans, many long for a return to political orthodoxy, namely the use of less antagonizing themes. Across the Atlantic, the populist messages championed by Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen have also struggled to maintain their footing despite England & Wales successfully driving the Brexit and populist candidates winning office in Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland, the last of which just made it illegal to blame Poles for any Nazi atrocities that occurred on their soil during World War II. The Italian 5 Star Movement, with small numbers of elected officials in the Chamber of Deputies (House), Senate and European Parliament has looked increasingly competitive, capitalizing on fear of mass immigration and an economy that has grown increasingly less relevant from a global perspective since the early 20th Century. These successes prompt the question: should the establishment look to selectively adopt some populist goals?
At the very root of populism lays antagonistic rhetoric, typically highlighting the gap between political elites and the upper class, and the average citizen. This can be seen on both sides of the isle, as Joseph Stalin oft attacked the Romanovs in Pravda, the underground Bolshevik newspaper, in the same way that Candidate Trump described the Washington “swamp”, specifically the Bush and Clinton families. Populists frequently see the media as a tool of the establishment and in some cases seek to censor it, as the Bolsheviks did by force and President Trump has through promotion of the “fake news” label and frequent attacks on Twitter. They are able to vividly communicate voters’ discontent by embracing the power of nostalgia, creating an enemy out of a group vulnerable to marginalization, and doing their best to come across as genuine and unscripted. When campaigning in heavily Catholic Southern Louisiana, Huey Long would tell stories of attending Church as a child, fabricating nearly everything. While this would be nearly impossible to do in the age of social media, humanity’s gravitation toward likeable and relatable candidates will never change. Modern American populism often guides its practitioners to adopt policies from a few key issues from which it is easy to ignite passion and hatred in the minds of voters and victims alike. Most recently, globalism and mass immigration have been used to create divisiveness over America’s role in keeping world order, with the alt-right shunning globalism and the far-left proposing dangerous mass-immigration solutions. Shifting social values, especially those relating to the battles surrounding gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights, and a disappearing sense of community provoke strong reactions in both bases and allow candidates to promote “innovation” in the societal structure. Using the 2016 election as an example again, both Trump and Sanders, with Clinton opportunistically following closely behind, blasted existing trade deals, especially NAFTA, as damaging to the American working class, who ultimately sided with the candidate most vehemently opposed to it. The eventual President used this to even further capitalize upon animosity against Mexico, while Senator Sanders was able to force light upon Hillary and the Democratic establishment’s failure to keep blue-collar Americans’ interests in mind.
Despite losing in the Primary, Sanders was able to revive socialism’s status as a mainstream political ideology in the United States, especially amongst youth, college students and low income or highly leveraged individuals. On a side note, the American Socialist movement could continue to gain traction at the hands of the Universal Basic Income study that is currently being conducted in Finland.
Needless to say, there is hardly any shortage of ideas from which reformers can mine policy. America should look toward the post-World War II German and Japanese focus on on-the-job training for ways to assist newcomers and refugees looking for vocation and Americans who have lost jobs to automation. However, the claim that we should be more like Canada in providing a safety net, or other facets of economic liberalism, to people who have yet to contribute to society is certainly debatable. Self-reliance and a sense of rugged individualism are the foundation of the American identity and ensured that only the boldest and best-prepared would take major financial risks in the early days of new western entrepreneurship.
Ultimately, while the word “populist” may prompt feelings of disdain in the minds of most voters, many Americans benefit from, or support, programs proposed by one. Going back to the late 19th century, reformers were able to dismantle Marxist and agrarian “People’s Party” candidates hopes at holding office by adopting some of their ideas. In the midst of America’s rise as an Imperial Power during the McKinley Presidency through its establishment as a World Power during World War I, Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson fought oil and rail tycoons and advocated for consumer protection. Overseas, Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed “The People’s Budget”, prompting several tax increases to support liberal welfare reforms including free school lunches and elderly pensions. Nearly a century after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of The German Empire created the world’s first welfare state, Lyndon Johnson was able to push his “Great Society” legislation through Congress on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. This, in conjunction with the New Deal, is considered the pinnacle of 20th Century American progressive reform. Following in their paths, current lawmakers should be looking to adopt some stances proposed from the fringes of their parties in order to create more welcoming campaigns and a more inclusive political environment. These could range from killing aid to countries we feel are not adhering to our foreign policy agenda (see: Pakistan & Directorate S) to granting pardons to anyone incarcerated for marijuana possession. At the end of the day, fragmented societies and increasingly polarized politics make it highly unlikely that populism will retreat anytime soon. However, these movements on the left and right have presented both major parties with the opportunity to innovate their platforms so that they are better tailored to the needs of diverse bases. Because of this, populism should surely be viewed as less of a curse and more of a blessing in the long-run as solving the problems of the electorate will always bear fruit.