Monday, January 23, 2017
Populism and Politics
In times of crisis, we lack judgment, and that is a constant reference for me… The most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler… Hitler didn't steal the power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people.
Pope Francis on growth of modern European populism, interview by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
You can look at the word “populism” and see the polite and kinder, gentler definition of the term. Webster, for example, defines the word without the connotation that has severely attached to that seemingly innocuous word: “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.” The definition presumes common man wisdom and virtues, but the definition was written well-before the world of post truth (where facts are less important than feelings behind statements), “alternative facts” and fake news. It also fails to take into consideration what history has done to populist politics.
Populism has been adopted by various political groups throughout history including American history, such as the U.S. agrarian-populist People’s Party that existed at the end of the nineteenth century. But there is a more modern, more applicable meaning to “populism.” It is a word that has been adopted by political leaders who are attempting to elicit (provoke?) the masses to support their quest for power. The kind of populism we have today, the definition with relevance for the contemporary politics, is based on two fundamental forces: fearand identity. Read those words very carefully. They are at the core of understanding contemporary populism.
The fertile soil where fear rises and a need to differentiate “us from them” is always a period of political and/or economic instability. Had the victorious Western allies after World War I not imposed crippling economic sanctions on Germany – virtually bankrupting that nation and the German people on a rather deep and personal level – Hitler wouldn’t have had a chance. Fertile soil.
Populism also rises when a government either fails to listen to the concerns of significant numbers of its own citizens or simply is unwilling or unable to implement needed solutions. Ignore the most basic fears of too many people and they will find somebody loud who expresses their pain… even if in an exaggerated version. Populism is based on simplicity, feelings, slogans and mythology, not facts. To counter populism, facts without changing the underlying feelings are not enough. Facts that contradict the feelings will be ignored.
When there is an obvious scream from enough people, if the mainstream establishment does not address these loud voices with tangible steps, history shows us that the extremists on these issues always step in and exaggerate and amplify the emotional demands of those who have been ignored. Ignoring people in pain or with fears that challenge their survival, especially as those numbers grow, is political suicide. Fanning the populist flames can get you elected. And once elected…
Democrats were really good at imposing their liberal elite values while ignoring the vast contraction of the middle class no longer able to sustain the quality of life of even their parents. What’s worse, the more those exaggerated voices generated traction, their “extreme” positions on otherwise relevant issues slowly became the norm, a rallying cry for the masses. Whipping up the emotions of increasing numbers of people moves extremists into leadership positions. Fertile soil.
You may not think that Donald Trump’s “wall with Mexico” has any validity or that it would remotely work, but that wall represents two things that his constituency finds imperative: it is unequivocal evidence that he was listening to their complaints and, whether it works or not, it is a tangible symbol that he has done something to deal with the issue. We’ll look deeper into the immigration issue below, but there has been a deep cry from a majority of Americans for immigration reform for a very long time… with no real congressional solution passed.
The other rather obvious popular frustration among Donald Trump’s constituency is the gridlock that has pretty much rendered Congress and their elected representatives a running joke. To them, all these “rules” and democratic requirements have gotten in the way of what they perceive as obvious solutions to the problems that plague them. As masses seek astrongman to implement their visions, democracy is an obvious casualty, a phenomenon we have seen all over the earth. These ignored masses want their man simple to do what it takes to implement their vision of America, and if democracy gets in the way… they’ll just look the other way.
Trump’s constituency is pretty solid among rural residents and the white working class, not just social conservatives and not just among the unemployed, based on fear. While 92% of post-WWII Americans expected to and did improve their quality of life (earning ability) over that of their parents, that number today is 50%. Trump’s constituency fears their inability to sustain their economic future, sustaining what they had (no longer “have”).
They see immigrants as taking away their jobs and saddling the social welfare and criminal justice system with costs, creating dangers along the way. That the jobs that have been lost to “Mexicans” (a term that seem to include anyone from Latin America) are based substantially on menial employment – jobs Americans simply refuse to accept (from itinerant stoop labor picking crops to working in slaughter houses) at the lowest levels of pay – just don’t ring true to Trump’s constituency who have contrary feelings. Their feelings cannot accept that statistical reality that the level of actual criminality among immigrants is significantly lower than the national average.
People on the failing side of history seldom blame themselves for their deteriorating position. Someone else must be causing it, because “I am still working as hard as ever and willing to do what generations of my family have done.” They are trying to take my life away. Unfortunately, history is simply recording societal changes. We may hate globalization, but what do you expect when we invent the super-connectivity of the Internet, container cargo ships and inexpensive jet travel? Can we pretend that such elements just plain will have no impact? Did the gun/canon impact history?
Want to rattle the status quo even more? Add artificial intelligence and robotic manufacturing to the mix, systems where the money once earned by laborers on the factory floor is now being paid to the uber-rich owners of these new-fangled machines. Trump’s working class doesn’t want it, doesn’t believe it and think that evil outside groups – from modern China (like the Chinese “hoax” of climate change), immigrant “leeches” and Islamic jihadists (who cannot be distinguished from Muslims in general, they feel) and from the inside, from inner city blacks (whom they believe cannot be distinguished from the gangs that surround them) to liberals who support an open society – are aligned against them and their goals.
Hitler blamed Jews and gypsies. Genocide has been born in this great divide. While Donald Trump isn’t remotely this extreme and is more likely to moderate this tone over time, we cannot ignore how much support he has generated from unabashedly white supremacists. His constituents will not be able to stop progress, but remember that Donald Trump is the master of blame and deflection.
This “us versus them” component appears to be an inseparable part of modern populism. A very unfortunate part of this, but for a white constituency that is based on old world, rural-Christian values, figuring out who “we are” versus who “they are” is a piece of cake. Without blame and this “us” identity component, populism simply fails. As suggested by the pope’s statements above, we’ve seen this identity issue rise fast and hard in the Netherlands, all over Eastern Europe, in the UK Brexit vote and now heavily evidenced in the election reality in France and, slightly beyond, Germany. Anti-globalism is growing in the economic fear zone – the Western world – just as globalism has become the rallying cry in the economic growth zone – Asia… led oddly by China.ss
My final observation is the historical reality that modern populist leaders share some pretty disturbing traits, rather consistently. Their personal wealth increases from their political power. They are dedicated to shutting down media critics. They are highly vindictive against political or economic rivals. They frequently ignore or manipulate legislatures or the legal systems that do not do their bidding.
Donald Trump is not letting go of his empire (his kids will run it until he returns, hardly a blind trust), even as increasing numbers of powerful economic interests seek to make new deals with his related companies. He obsessively continues to use his power to shut down critical media, most recently CNN. His and his family’s track record of revenge on political rivals (just ask Chris Christie) is legendary, and his focus on defunding or disbanding governmental bodies that aren’t dedicated to his vision has been very clear. Finally, his position of using torture – illegal under both American and international law – tells you how he stands against laws he just does not like.
The reality is that Donald Trump is the President of the United States. The above county-by-county map of Trump’s victory (from Merto.com) says a lot. Trump’s constituents are both angry and feeling very empowered. Even though his popularity numbers are plunging, millions of protestors marching will not change either of these realities. In fact, Trump’s willingness to oppose these masses who failed to elect their candidate delights his base.
Trump still has time to make his mark, and I should note that Pope Francis sent the new President his best wishes, with prayers "that your decisions will be guided by the rich spiritual and ethical values that have shaped the history of the American people and your nation's commitment to the advancement of human dignity and freedom worldwide." But during that interview with El Pais noted above, the pope said he was otherwise reserving judgement on President Donald Trump… “I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion.”
But Donald Trump’s comments are not just focused on liberal Democrats; he’s taken on even his own party in his populist sentiments. Will the GOP regulars push for their traditional agenda or kowtow to the new sheriff in town? Will the Dems find leaders who can embrace the fears of their former constituency with personally believable solutions or will they continue to focus on the old-world, liberal elite’s favored social justice issues at the expense of economic answers? The battle lines are drawn, but it is a highly divisive battle that could rapidly turn into a war… even a shooting war.
I’m Peter Dekom, and what is overwhelmingly clear is that there does not appear to be a definition of an average American anymore, just an “us” versus “them.”