Dec. 19, 2016

Stam: The promise and perils of populism

As in Europe, recent U.S. elections have heightened the appeal of and concerns about populism. Inside-the-Beltway policy elites have taken it on the chin.

The closed loop of pundits and pollsters sure of the Clinton restoration understandably fears the rejection of the status quo. Like Plato and Alexander Hamilton, they fear the passion of populists.

They write of unchecked “virulent” nationalism. They compare grassroots movements on the left and right to the rise of authoritarian rulers from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro — criminally failed nationalists all.

Rather than wringing hands and castigating voters who installed President-elect Donald Trump, analysts should seek to understand three lessons residing in the neo-populists’ response to the challenges facing the American people.

First, and foremost, the new populists reject the notion that elites know best. Policy insiders from Tip O’Neill to John Boehner have driven U.S. debt to unsustainable heights. John F. Kennedy’s best and brightest gave us the disaster of Vietnam. George W. Bush’s Ivy League team brought us the continuing disaster of Iraq. In his 2006 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” Phil Tetlock demonstrates that a flipped coin provides better forecasts than most policy experts.

Second, the new populists understand something about America and Americans the bi-coastal political and media elite do not. The Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns identified insider deals constituting a “rigged” system benefitting incumbents, lobbyists and the uber-wealthy. Their primary opponents each failed to offer robust, inclusive economic alternatives to globalization. Hillary Clinton was never credible as a blue-collar champion, especially after the millions in speaking fees her family has garnered and the dirty laundry of the Clinton Foundation was aired. She ran, essentially, as a “Never-Trump” politician committed to the status quo. That the mercurial billionaire Trump emerged as the champion of the little guy illustrates the political malpractice of Clinton’s inner circle.

Third, wage and job growth since the 1970s have accrued largely to capital, not labor. The nearly 80 straight months of job growth under the Obama administration have been concentrated in the tech and service industries, and the blue coastal cities, the solidly Democratic geographic edges of the United States. Americans who are not members of those communities have been left out, and felt abandoned by Democrats. They voted for change; this does not make them racist, sexist or xenophobic.

The 2016 election sharpened an increasingly divisive national focus on the politics of personal identity. The moment voters’ socially constructed individual identity becomes accepted as the righteous basis for their choice of candidate, we are doomed as a coherent exceptional nation.

A shared dedication to the interests of the American center might suggest a slate of reforms designed to discomfort entrenched incumbents. Populist unity that bridges the traditional left and right might make unsafe Congress’ meticulously gerrymandered seats, where only a half dozen members of the House lost seats in the change election of Nov. 8.

That is the result when a rigged system allows incumbents to pick their own voters. A populist consensus might successfully press the politicians to stop kicking the can down the road on national debt and the looming Social Security and Medicare shortfalls.

Since Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, Americans have been equally suspicious of concentrated power as well as too much democracy. Whenever political and economic elites lose sight of the common man’s needs, as they have at regular intervals in our nation’s history, populism rears its head.

If focused on common national purposes and common values, a revival of national populism can advance needed reforms while adding a large dose of common sense. It could focus on Americans’ shared sense of family and community responsibility. It could add a dose of humility and caution for those Wilsonian interventionists all too eager to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

It could build a consensus of true conservatives and people of faith to recognize our obligation to future generations to be wise stewards of our common inheritance: to protect our environment from the ravages of climate change and unchecked development.

A new populism could emphasize equality of opportunity and empower local and state governments to experiment best ways forward rather than imposing the federal government’s central will on all. A pragmatic neo-populism could help our country, renewing the optimism that has marked the best of the American character, that belief that our greatest days as a unified nation still lie ahead.

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Dean, Professor of Public Policy
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