bernie sanders donald trump

For the last year-and-a-half, this blog has been, to the best of my knowledge, one of the only spaces to consistently discuss the nation’s current non-partisan populism. Sure, you can find lots of places that atomize or advocate for progressive values or the TEA Party, but far too rarely do you hear: Americans of all parties are fed up with the wealthiest one percent and the elite decision makers. Americans want to throw all the bums out, not just the Democrats or the Republicans. Americans want a politics that is first and foremost responsive to the majority of its citizens.

Now that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are leading in the polls, and now that corporate-friendly, media-anointed-frontrunners Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are struggling, I’ve resisted taking a victory lap. I’ve resisted saying I-told-you-so. Though I did.

And I wasn’t even going to go there this week. But then George Packer had to step into the fray. Packer is one of the most respected journalists in America, as he proved again with his recent excellent piece on radical Islam in the banlieues of Paris. What wasn’t so excellent was what he had to say in an article titled “The Populists,” one of the very few thinkpieces to make cultural observations that include both Trump and Sanders, to wit:

Populism is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions. It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems. (Trump: “Trade? We’re gonna fix it. Health care? We’re gonna fix it.”) It’s suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance. (On the stump, Sanders seldom touts his bipartisan successes as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.) Populism can have a conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent—the belief that the country, or at least its decent majority, is facing imminent ruin at the hands of a particular group of malefactors (Mexicans, billionaires, Jews, politicians).

I can’t let that just sit there. Packer is a smart guy, and there’s a risk that his audience will simply believe him. Beyond his audience, random googlers may use his article – titled “The Populists,” mind you – as some kind of last word on modern, bi-partisan populism. Well, they shouldn’t.

Populism is a stance and a rhetoric more than an ideology or a set of positions.

First, Trump and Sanders aren’t calling themselves populists, so it doesn’t make sense to hoist them by their own non-petard.

Second, Packer must not have read Michael Kazin’s “The Populist Persuasion,” or if he did, he didn’t understand it. Kazin explains that populism is sometimes a rhetorical style but also an organized political movement dedicated to the people. As it has evolved since the 19th century, populism means policies that are either approved by, or very directly dedicated to improving the lives of, more than 50% of Americans. (Ideally both approved and dedicated.) If Packer thinks the mission statement of the Democratic Party or Republican Party can be expressed this concisely, I’d like to hear him try.

But wait! You say. Everyone is ostensibly working for the 51%. You’re kidding, right? The very nature of the Senate is undemocratic, but let’s get to that reform another day. Populists, representing a majority of Americans, oppose Democratic-Republican-approved, 1%-benefitting policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the capital-gains tax exception and the hedge-fund exemptions and the various pork projects of every little constituency. Populists, representing a majority of Americans, oppose all sorts of features of the modern security state, including warrantless wire-tapping and putting more troops in the Levant.

It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems.

Not necessarily. It speaks of listening to the majority, and if the majority wants something, it advocates for that (unless said policy tramples over rights). The majority of citizens want America’s minimum wage set to $15? Advocated. The majority of citizens want Planned Parenthood to get some federal funds? Advocated. The majority of citizens want better background checks for gun buyers? Advocated. Were those answers too simple for Packer?

Of course good populists don’t want to simply soak wealthy people and corporations – the rich deserve to keep a great deal of their income, on behalf of the job creation that some of them are doing. Good populists simply want businesses and the upper class to pay taxes at a rate closer to their counterparts in other countries. That’s the opposite of a battle of good versus evil; it’s more like a battle of marginal tax increments.

It’s suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance. (On the stump, Sanders seldom touts his bipartisan successes as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.)

This is 100% true…of all political campaigns before Labor Day in an election year (in the current case, 2016). Before securing the nomination, it’s fire-up-the-base time, not here’s-how-well-I-work-with-others time. Only after Romney and Ryan became the Republican nominees did they tell us about how they’d play well once in office. And once in office, a true populist who’s not tied to a thousand fat-cat donors will have ten times the wiggle room for bargain and compromise as a Democrat or Republican. Furthermore, opposition to compromise is near-ridiculous as a smear against Sanders, who despite non-Democratic party affiliation has caucused with Democrats for decades, and against Trump, whose most famous, best-selling book is called — wait for it — “The Art of the Deal.” Come on, Packer, you know this.

Populism can have a conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent—the belief that the country, or at least its decent majority, is facing imminent ruin at the hands of a particular group of malefactors.

I could pull quotes from any current sitting Democrat that sound as though they came straight from the Elizabeth Warren playbook – blaming billionaires and Wall Street for America’s imminent ruin. I could pull quotes from any current sitting Republican blaming Democrats and liberals for our nation’s imminent ruin. So yes, populism “can have” the same “conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent” we see everywhere else, especially during the fire-up-the-base time.

Now, let’s not get it twisted: I’m not saying I support Trump or Sanders, or that either is a true populist in that he always advocates for the 51%. (Let’s take immigration as an example. 51% of Americans do not want 11 million people deported, so Trump isn’t always populist. Looking at Sanders’ immigration plan, I can safely say that 51% of Americans do not favor at least 3 of his 7 points, so Sanders isn’t always populist either.) While Trump has clearly been racist (I’ll discuss this in a future post, now that I’ve broken my silence on Trump), the idea of conflating populism with racism is, ah, well, a little racist. But Michael Kavin and others have explained all that better than I could in a short corrective column.

The larger point is that Packer is using the supposed behavior of populists as a way to cast suspicion over the behavior of Trump and Sanders, and that’s not fair or right. Packer sounds like a smug, institutional liberal Democrat (a general caricature of New Yorker writers and readers that Packer does nothing to refute) laughing at the notion that these outsider upstarts could possibly be more than flashes in the pan. He writes:

There aren’t many examples of the populist strongman in American history (Huey Long comes to mind). Our attachment to democracy, if not to its institutions and professionals, has been too firm for that.

And yet, Packer writes as though his attachment to the big-D Democratic Party exceeds his attachment to little-d democracy. Well, it shouldn’t. And Packer better settle in for a long ride. Majorities of Americans are truly, genuinely fed up with what both parties have offered in the way of the Patriot Act, the Iraq Wars, TARP, and a host of other concerns, and are seeking populist solutions that aren’t always partisan. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are political outsiders using populist themes who are currently rising in the polls, to the surprise of many. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush look a lot like more of the same-old, same-old. Perhaps Packer should google this Huey Long he mentions. Unlike just about every other politician born in the 19th century, google’s first link isn’t his wikipedia page (that’s his second), but instead his official website hueylong.com. Perhaps that will serve as Packer’s first piece of evidence that us, the “common people,” really do want something closer to what Long offered. There will be more such pieces.