After the results came in from 2016’s first Presidential primary, in New Hampshire, whereby Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump each walloped their closest rivals by 20 percentage points, mainstream reporters, made to place Sanders and Trump in the same headline, have been very belatedly finding commonalities between them. “Voter anger” and “outsiders” and “populism” have been declared triumphant.
“Mainstream media” is an easy term to define: go to the homepage of realclearpolitics.com and look at all the linked sites. “Populism,” however, is harder. Some writers use it as a synonym for “progressivism,” others “grass-roots frustration,” others “nativism bordering on racism.” In many ways, I don’t blame these paid journalists for their confusion. After all, there’s no site dedicated to explaining or atomizing populism…well, except this one. So listen up, ye who would influence opinion, before your next ineffective Trump-takedown article.
Yes, populism is skeptical of elites and the wealthiest one-percent, particularly those with a poor track record involving decisions that have hurt the rest of us – and post-2008, that’s pretty much all of them. But that’s not the only thing populism is about. I was struck by Eli Shapiro in Dailywire writing about things that Sanders and Trump agree on, and then concluding, “So why are Trump and Sanders soaring? Because they both represent a reaction to the corruption and entitlement culture of Washington D.C. – and both of those reactions are anti-democratic.”
Actually, the Trump/Sanders reactions are better described as anti-republican, lower-case-R. In a republic, our elected representatives are charged with making judgment calls about the will of the people. In a more democratic society, the will of the people would have a shorter path to becoming law. People are embracing Trump and Sanders because our republican mechanisms have utterly failed. Our Senators, Congressmen, and President, charged with enforcing the will of the people, have in most cases coddled a percentage of it that can charitably be described as less than 50% of it.
You might think that Shapiro’s examples would prove his “anti-democratic” point. He cites Trump and Sanders’ problematic opposition to 1) special interests/lobbyists, 2) “free trade,” 3) Obamacare, 4) cuts in Social Security/Medicare, 5) the war in Iraq despite a stated desire for a “strong military.” I can see why Shapiro might feel that Trump and Sanders’ positions oppose Washington D.C.’s actual votes. But in terms of what people actually want, it’s laughable that Shapiro would think that majorities of Americans would object to Trump or Sanders on any of these points, considering our very clearly stated preferences in polls. To read him you’d think Trump or Sanders had come out in favor of Sharia law.
And it’s not just Shapiro: his type of lazy thinking can be seen all over the pundit spectrum, which consistently (almost conveniently) misunderstands populism. As anyone who has read Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion knows, populism is not primarily a pitchfork-wielding mob against elites; proper Huey Long-inspired populism emerges from a desire to stop the will of the 51% being thwarted. This week, many realclearpolitics-linked writers have made the point that Americans “feel their country has been taken away from them” on their way to making some kind of incendiary point about nativism; for an Ivy League-educated journalist sitting in a cushy midtown New York office, that’s a lot easier than writing that majorities of Americans rightly feel that their country HAS been taken away from them, not by Muslims or Mexicans, but by a wealthy elite that has prioritized their own tax breaks over EVERY other kind of reform, including the five areas Shapiro mentions, as well as any kind of attention from Wall Street or Capitol Hill to creating sustainable middle-class and working-class jobs.
This is right around the point where the mainstream media responds that the rule of the 51% will destroy the rights of the 49% or other minorities (by which they really mean the richest 1%). But Huey Long never advocated abridging rights. Rights are rights, whether we mean same-sex marriage or gun ownership or free speech or whatever. But many, even most, policies do not fall under the category of rights. Shapiro’s five areas are good examples: is anyone claiming that we would be abridging anyone’s rights by reforming Citizens United, free trade policies, Obamacare, or our foreign policy? The very notion is absurd. Instead, we would be bringing our country in line with what the majority of people want – without hurting its minorities in the slightest. That’s populism, a restoration of democracy when the democratically elected representatives have forgotten about it, combined with a deep empathy for the working class that built this country.
Two days ago, John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker, “It is possible that Tuesday night will turn out to have represented the crest of the populist wave.” If Cassidy turns out to be right in 2016, it’s because Sanders and Trump are both rather imperfect messengers; Sanders is an avowed socialist, almost anti-religious (by political standards), and five years older than any person ever elected President; Trump is a demagogue who shoots from the hip and pits groups of people against each other. Considering those imperfections, the Democrats and Republicans should think long and hard about how these two men got this far. Or perhaps simply think Long, and be very grateful that there’s no modern Huey Long, a Southerner who might have united the country’s populist impulses without promoting their own personality as some kind of magic wand in Washington, without promoting unrealistic plans that no one will ever pay for (like free college for everyone, or a wall between the U.S. and Mexico).
Where Cassidy is wrong is to suggest that if, say, Hillary Clinton earns the Democratic nomination, then the left-wing populists will fade as they did 75 years ago, after Huey Long’s assassination. No, I’m here to tell you what the mainstream media won’t (and keeps getting wrong about Trump): the current bi-partisan populist wave is bigger than two or three candidates. Sure, that wave may or may not put a President in the White House in 2016, but it’s not going away until America’s elites begin looking beyond their own short-term interests – until they begin noticing the 51% again. The left-wing Cassidys and right-wing Shapiros are clearly in for some more surprises.