Dear media, Thanks for finally paying attention to populism! Here at this blog we’ve been writing weekly 1000-word articles about non-partisan populism for more than two years. But it’s good to have you notice this little tendency in American society. Welcome aboard! Now, might I ask that you clarify what you mean, exactly, when you throw around that word “populist”? It would really help your readers and the country in general as they and you try to make sense of what’s happening to American politics. For example:
Dear Michael Lind,
Your Politico article dated March 9, 2016, is titled “Donald Trump, the Perfect Populist.” Here you go back to Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, then forward to the modern rise of the Right, which you claim utilized “conservative populism” without quite taking the opportunity to expand to a less divisive populism. All true, well said! I respect your conclusion:
In hindsight, the various right-wing movements—the fusionist conservatism of Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan, neoconservatism, libertarianism, the religious right—appear to have been so many barnacles hitching free rides on the whale of the Jacksonian populist electorate. The whale is awakening beneath them, and now the barnacles don’t know what to do.
My problem is that I don’t feel you’ve really defined your terms, and thus someone reading your article may be struck with the misapprehension that populists (conservative and otherwise) only wish to punish the rich, or expand the safety net, or something. While that is no doubt a leading aspect of populism, it’s not the main thing. Your future articles about the topic should include the main definition of populism, so that readers are not misled. See below ALL CAPS for that definition (come on, you’ve read this far).
Dear John Cassidy,
Your New Yorker article dated March 9, 2016, is titled “Populist Triumph: Big Wins for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.” In this article, as you have been doing for months now, you review the latest primary/poll results and try to make some sense of these for your highly educated readers. Here you say that after a week in which the so-called “establishment” (another word that suffers from vague definitions) seemed to have re-asserted itself, instead the results from Michigan suggest that populism may have greater appeal in the Rust Belt than previously thought. All true. And you go on:
More broadly, it seems that Sanders’s economic populism and Trump’s authoritarian populism both resonated in a state that was hard hit by the Great Recession and its aftermath. Although the messages that the two insurgents are carrying differ wildly in most respects, and shouldn’t be compared in terms of policy content or morality, they both claim that the existing political system is broken, and that radical measures and new leaders are needed to fix it. If this message were to prove equally successful in other industrial states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, it would have big implications for the general election in addition to the primaries.
Thanks for separating “economic populism” and “authoritarian populism”! It’s a reasonable starting point. However, it’s not quite enough. If the word “populism” is going to have any meaning at all, it has to go beyond “suspicion of elites,” and in fact, it does. Please see below ALL CAPS (come on, you’ve read this far).
Dear Charles Krauthammer,
Your National Review article dated February 11, 2016, was titled “The Populism of Trump and Sanders is High Fantasy.” Actually, many have already taken you to task about this piece, so let me defend you a little bit. No less a person than President Obama felt it necessary, the other day, to tell the press that he’s not responsible for the rise of Donald Trump, and he clearly meant articles that were inspired by your work here. I find your reasoning in the first three paragraphs utterly sound – Trump and Sanders are describing the last seven years of a dysfunctional, dream-deferred America, and who has had his hands on the steering wheel during that time? And then you go on to say that Sanders’ solution is socialism and Trump’s is Trump, and neither of those has a spotless record. So far, I hardly know where to contest you.
It’s really that you’ve left something unspoken when you write:
There certainly is a crisis of confidence in the country’s institutions. But that’s hardly new. The current run of endemic distrust began with Vietnam and Watergate. Yet not in our lifetimes have the left and right populism of the Sanders and Trump variety enjoyed such massive support.
You’ve pretty much made my case for me: Sanders and Trump are clearly flawed candidates, and thus they must be tapping into something much deeper than they really represent. Either man’s plans, put into action, would indeed be problematic for the country. What you left missing was a better explanation of why on earth they would then be so popular. Please see below ALL CAPS (come on, you’ve read this far).
Dear Thomas Edsall,
God knows you’re not reading this; you don’t respond to comments or emails from anyone, though you certainly expect people to answer your emails. (“He didn’t respond to requests for comment.”) Your New York Times article dated February 24, 2016 is titled “The Trump-Sanders fantasy.” You write that “the electorates of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders overlap in four important ways,” and list them: middle- and working-class frustration, rejection of “free trade,” preservation of Social Security and Medicare, and contempt for superPACs and lobbyists and the power of big donors. But you move on to cite statistics proving the incompatibility of Trump and Sanders supporters. I wondered: aren’t these data very subjective based on the very oddball candidates that Trump and Sanders are? Couldn’t someone like a Ross Perot or perhaps a well-liked, younger celebrity (say, Will Smith) say many of the same things and conceivably unite Trump and Sanders supporters? In fairness, you addressed that when you wrote:
What might be the long-term ramifications of the populist…dynamics of this election cycle?…The establishment wings of both parties ‘will have a very hard time accommodating the blue-collar native-born American who is the core of Trump’s constituency and a vital part of Sanders’s,’ Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, wrote in reply to my email. But, Olsen observed, ‘political death has a tendency to concentrate the mind. A failure of the G.O.P. to win the presidency this cycle would force the G.O.P. to rethink its core assumptions.’
And likewise the Democrats. All good points. My problem is that you’re waving around the word “populist” without really defining it, as people often do with “establishment” and “free trade.” Can I help? It’s the next paragraph.
THE PROPER DEFINITION AND ROOT APPEAL OF POPULISM, as Michael Kazin explains in “The Populist Persuasion,” is government of, by, and for the people, which in practical terms means government of, by, and for no less than 51% (or let’s say 50% plus one) of Americans. That’s why the “popul” prefix: policies approved by the populace. (Technically, populism also means deep sympathy and help for America’s working class.) And of course let’s be very clear: that does NOT mean trampling on the rights of Jefferson’s beloved minority-opinion-holders. Rights are rights. Ten of them make up the Bill of Rights, for example.
No one’s rights are abridged no matter how Congress votes on “free trade,” Social Security, Medicare, superPACs, corporate welfare, cronyism, and Wall Street crimes. The root reason for Sanders’ and Trump’s appeal is that Americans very correctly sense that the will of the people has been or is going to be thwarted in each of these cases, to the utter detriment of middle- and working-class people looking for honest work.
Are Sanders’ and Trump’s prescriptions perfect? Heck no. But a doctor who prescribes the wrong medicine isn’t necessarily wrong about the diagnosis.
John Kass and James Suriowecki have been getting it right. Some writers get it. You four don’t. When you, who are part of the elite/establishment, write about populism as though it’s simply an assault on elites and the establishment, you sound defensive. Furthermore, attempts to undermine populism, as we saw in Michigan, tend to aggrieve populists. So get it right: populism is against democratically elected elites only when said elites behave – as in the cases of corporate welfare and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – as though rich elites matter more than the will of their constituents.
Populism isn’t perfect because the 51% aren’t perfect. Sometimes, America gets things wrong (like hating Muslims; see “rights” discussion earlier). And even if we were to somehow turn Congress into some kind of crowd-sourced vox populi, the will of the 51% would be distorted by the way questions are asked, for example when it comes to abortion and gun control. But populism is surging in America because anyone with two eyes and two ears knows perfectly well that we can do better. We may not be able to enact the will of the 51% tomorrow, but we can certainly do better than we have been doing. Trump and Sanders peddle a lot of fantasies, but they’re only effective in doing so because they get that particular reality correct.
When you start to get it correct, let me know.