By Allan Stam
Recent American elections, mirroring those in Europe, have heightened the appeal of and concerns about, populists. From the outsider campaign of former community organizer Barack Obama in 2008 to the Tea Party wave in 2010, to the rejection of the Bush-Clinton consensus by many voters in both major parties’ primaries in 2016, inside-the-Beltway policy elites have taken it on the chin.
The closed loop world of pundits and pollsters who were 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 of voters on the left and right to the rise of authoritarian rule. Images of Hitler and Mussolini, Chavez and Castro—criminally failed nationalists all—are conjured in the press. Rather than wringing their hands and further castigating the voters who installed Donald Trump, analysts should seek to understand three valuable lessons residing in the neo-populists’ response to the challenges facing the American people.
First, and foremost, the new populists reject the idea that elite policy analysts always know best. Policy elites and party regulars from Tip O’Neill to John Boehner have driven U.S. debt to unsustainable heights once deemed unimaginable. John F. Kennedy’s best and brightest gave us the disaster of Vietnam. George W. Bush’s Ivy League team brought us what has evolved into 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. The subprime mortgage induced Great Recession demonstrated the utter failure of the dominant finance models built on multiple Nobel winners’ Efficient Market Hypothesis. The Obama Administration’s initially uncritical enthusiasm for the Arab Spring has left the Middle East in tatters. One might think that it goes without saying that it is high time to look beyond the Beltway and Academia for fresh ideas. The anti-Trump howls from the print and broadcast media indicate it needs to be said. It is time to look outside the Beltway and Academia for fresh ideas.
Second, the new populists understand something about America and Americans the bi-coastal political and media elite do not. Frederick Turner noted at the 19th century’s close that the presence of the frontier had fundamentally altered the American spirit and culture. The frontier had created a distinctive version of nationalism not shared in Europe or elsewhere. The persistent restlessness of the American people—who unrelentingly seek more for less, what economists refer to as a search for greater efficiency—requires of leaders a keen ear to the ground to be able to separate the signal from the noise. With the closing of the frontier, disaffected would-be voters can no longer flee the cloistered and corrupt minds of the elite by moving west. Instead, they simply throw the rascals out of office.
To dismiss populism, the way German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently did “as people looking for simple or negative answers” is to fall prey to a great failing of weak leaders – to believe one’s own press releases. The Sanders and Trump campaigns along with documents revealed by WikiLeaks identified insider deals and dismissive attitudes constituting a ‘rigged’ system benefiting incumbents, lobbyists, and the uber-rich as the real problem facing America today. Their partisan primary opponents each failed to offer robust, inclusive economic alternatives to endless, uncritical support of 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. Her observation that the elite must present a public set of proposed policies and a private set of true beliefs further alienated those already disenchanted with a political system no longer serving the working American. She ran, essentially, as a “Never-Trump” politician committed to the status quo, and ever increasing mobility of capital. That the mercurial Donald Trump, a billionaire made rich through real estate deals and judicious exploitation of tax laws, managed to emerge as the champion of the little guy illustrates the political malpractice of Clinton’s inner circle.
The third populist nail in the elites’ coffin lies in the reality of the distribution of wage and job growth since the elimination of US capital controls in the 1970s. Since then, the vast majority of the returns to ever-rising economic productivity have accrued to capital, not labor. As for jobs, the past seventy-five straight months of job growth under the Obama Administration has been concentrated in the cities, the tech and service industries, and the blue coasts, the solidly Democratic geographic edges of the United States. The majority of all Americans who are not members of those communities have been increasingly forced to turn to entitlement programs to sustain their families – a turn that erodes their sense of dignity and has led a majority of them to conclude that their historical ally, the Democratic Party, has abandoned them. Millions in the agricultural and manufacturing heartlands rightfully feel left behind, unheard, and most importantly, ignored. That a solid majority of America’s working class voted for change over a status quo that no longer serves their interests does not make them racist, sexist, or xenophobic.
Many liberal voices have condemned the judgement of the great American working middle class; yet much good could result from today’s populist tumult. If Donald Trump’s team is able to pivot to find a unity of purpose between populists on the left and right, it could be ‘Katie-bar-the-door’ time for long needed reforms. If the neo-populists on the left and right succeed in advancing a dialogue that supports an inclusive American nationalism, President elect Trump’s claim to make America Great Again may turn out to be the neo-populist’s dream come true.
A new American nationalism grounded in assimilation to our shared responsibility to each other as US citizens regardless of origin could enable the US to once again provide a way to lead internationally by example rather than through blunt force. The 2016 election sharpened an increasingly divisive national focus on the politics of personal identity and grievance. The moment that individuals’ personal identity – whether color, gender, ethnicity, or religion—becomes accepted as the righteous basis for voters’ 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’s meticulously gerrymandered seats where only three Members of the House lost seats in the change election of November 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 Patrick Henry wrote Common Sense, Americans have been equally suspicious of concentrated power as well as too much democracy. The founding fathers were equally suspicious of a strong central government, aristocratic airs, and the corrupting influence of a government even temporarily quartered amidst the financiers of New York City.
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. At times this rise brings out the worst in our country, at other times the best. Either way, it uniformly frightens elites who fear that with the decline of bedrock social institutions—from the mainstream media to organized religion—populism could evolve into nativist xenophobia. Whenever the governing political elite loses contact with the center, the electoral power of populists rise. It is a sign of how far out of touch the elites on the right and left had become in the election of 2106 that we now have our first populist president since Andrew Jackson.
Far more commonly, Americans’ populist urges are co-opted or assimilated into a governing consensus of establishment parties. It is a sign of leadership failure that both the democrats and republicans proved unable or unwilling to assimilate into their own agendas the needs of the common man. Previous presidential greats showed how this can be done. Republican Teddy Roosevelt added a dose of trust-busting progressivism to make democracy safe for regulated capitalism. Democrat FDR pitched a tent so broad it could take the wind out of both Huey Long’s populist and Henry Wallace’s state socialist sails. Richard Nixon incorporated would-be opponents from both the militant McCarthy-MacArthur wing to the racist George Wallace wing to champion a “silent majority” and advanced a relatively progressive populist domestic agenda in order to pursue his international security grand strategy. Ronald Reagan twice won the presidency by building a more inclusive Republican Party that embraced hard-hats and nativists while welcoming the continuation of Nixon’s “southern strategy.” Barack Obama built a rainbow coalition highly pragmatic in tenor and aspiring to unify a nation polarized into unmistakably red and blue states. But the roots of the Obama-led economic recovery only grew deep on the coasts, where globalization and trade serve the material interests of tech firms and financiers, not in the agricultural and manufacturing homelands in between.
These conflicting legacies leave an opening for an ongoing change movement—but only if it is unified and inclusive. In hindsight, it is easy to see, if we look beyond some of the overly strident campaign rhetoric, that Sanders’ and Trump’s voters had much in common. They are deeply suspicious of concentrated power. They systematically reject both Washington and academic elites. They aspire to a renewed and inclusive idea based versus indemnity based nationalism that resists the relentless onslaught of globalization, open borders, and unchecked capital mobility.
Great national leadership requires sincere two-way communication with the common man. It requires efforts to educate and unify behind achievable common goals. It holds an obligation not to stoke dark fears nor to invite righteous tribal conflict of the zero sum, Us-versus-Them variety. It requires a humble embrace of science and facts, with an open acknowledgement of the future’s uncertainty. The risk of populism’s success lies in creating a cult of personality that has elsewhere enabled regimes in periods of decline, to trample the rights of their citizens, most commonly with open appeals to violence.
An uncoordinated and uneasy alliance between populists left and right in the US has already succeeded in dethroning the houses of Clinton and Bush. They did so by convincing a large share of the electorate that the previous public globalist economic frame has been disingenuous, essentially benefiting the 1% while leading ever increasing numbers onto the permanent dole rather than providing meaningful productive employment. This past election may be a harbinger of things to come, a bleak electoral future for the privileged Ivy Leaguers and hedge fund managers who have dominated those living outside the bipartisan globalist elite.
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 in a pluralist nation of assimilated immigrants. 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 energize a push to grow the incomes of our middle and working class economies without resorting to ever increasing income redistribution; it 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. In sum, a pragmatic neo-populism could be a substantial net plus for 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.
Allan Stam is Professor and Dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia