Populism's Problems

It's not an ideology but a style of political discourse, characterized by oversimplification

click to enlarge Populism's Problems
Caleb Walsh illustration

A specter haunts our politics — the specter of populism.

Movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street thrive, Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Warren are political stars, and Donald Trump is president. In Europe, Britain votes to leave the EU, Hungary and Poland elect populist governments, and politicians like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands grow in popularity.

What explains populism's appeal? And when should we be concerned?

First, populism is not an ideology but a style of political discourse; one which equates "the people" (the silent majority, the forgotten man, "real" Americans) with virtue, and elites (political, economic, or cultural) with evil.

This Manichean view of politics as a struggle between the righteous people and a malevolent elite has distinctive left- and right-wing analogues. While Bernie Sanders talks of corrupt Wall Street bankers and corporate elites exploiting American workers, Trump lashes out at establishment politicians, media elites and government bureaucrats for abusing entrepreneurs and ignoring real Americans.

Second, populism is not new. Many past leaders embraced populist themes. Thomas Jefferson touted a yeoman's democracy, Andrew Jackson ran on the "people's ticket," and during the Gilded Age, William Jennings Bryan excoriated both corrupt political and business elites.

While Franklin Roosevelt's attack on "organized money" and pursuit of redistributive programs in the 1930s became the template for today's left-wing populism, Ronald Reagan's anti-government rhetoric and attack on cultural elites beginning in the 1960s embodied today's right-wing populism.

Third, although populism is not new, it's not a permanent feature of our politics. Populists emerge during periods of major social or economic change, like those that accompanied industrialization in the Gilded Age, the economic dislocations of the Great Depression, or the cultural transformations in the 1960s.

At its heart, populism is an appeal to losers; an explanation for why some people feel they are on the losing end of economic and cultural changes. If you are working harder than ever, but struggling to make ends meet at a low-wage job, it's because greedy CEOs exploit workers or corrupt politicians sign bad trade deals. If you feel your cultural beliefs are under assault and unpopular, it's because media elites are foisting their cultural agenda on you.

Populists are not necessarily wrong, they just oversimplify problems. Rather than recognize the complexity of major economic and cultural shifts, populists reduce them to the machinations of evil elites. Hence their appeal; providing simple answers to complicated challenges.

But simplistic solutions rarely work. Populist proposals to abandon trade alliances, build border walls or gut environmental regulations, for example, will not restore well-paying manufacturing jobs that once supported middle-class families. In fact, the U.S. manufactures more today than ever. Manufacturing output is at a 50-year high, while manufacturing-related employment is at a 50-year low. Technology and automation — not evil CEOs or politicians — are primarily to blame.

It's actually a good thing that we can produce more today with less labor — that's how wealth is created. The challenge is equitably distributing that wealth, and changing the way we think about a society that no longer requires everyone to be employed full-time. This is a very real, but very complicated challenge, and vilifying elites distracts us from discussing real solutions to it.

The other danger populism poses is that it posits a moral clarity in majority will, which puts it at odds with democratic pluralism. While populists exalt majoritarian preferences, pluralists seek to protect minority rights. When populist leaders embrace non-pluralistic ideas like nativism, racism or authoritarianism, they give these a sheen of democratic legitimacy by equating them with the will of the majority, and delegitimize opposition to them as elites imposing "political correctness."

Not all populist politicians are simpletons or undemocratic, but even when they hold nuanced views, their supporters usually do not. Supporters hear only simplistic solutions and vilification of evil elites. This poisons our political discourse, making it hard to focus on the real challenges and even harder to strike the compromises necessary to address them.

And that is the specter that haunts our politics today. ♦

Cornell W. Clayton is the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

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