Trump bad, Trump populist, populism bad. That’s the simplistic logic that prevails among the Democratic establishment and the pundit class these days. The press is full of articles about defeating populism, which is often confused with nativism.
First, let’s deal with that conflation of terms, not by comparing Donald Trump to Geert Wilders, or Trump’s electoral victory to the Brexit, but by exploring, ever so briefly, the decidedly mixed nature and history of populism in the United States.
William Jennings Bryan and Huey P. Long, whose names are most frequently associated with the term, were hardly the finest examples of American political leadership. On the other hand, Eugene V. Debs was a populist as well as a Socialist. Thomas Jefferson, while dining on gourmet food with fine French wine, projected an appeal to the most common of his people. Supporters of Abraham Lincoln talked about the log cabin in which he was born, rather than the fine house in Springfield he occupied as a lawyer for railroads. Jefferson and Lincoln, in other words, were political populists.
Who will care for the common people?
Andrew Jackson was a populist and Dwight Eisenhower was not. Jimmy Carter was a populist, Richard Nixon not. Theodore Roosevelt was a populist, but William Howard Taft was not. The difference is that Jackson, Carter, and Roosevelt were anti-establishment figures. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Taft were the establishment, each in his time.
The Jacksons, Lincolns, and Carters managed election in times of deep dissatisfaction or anxiety among the voters. In each case, the populists’ supporters believed the established order had failed them, or was about to. Their opponents ran steady-as-we-go campaigns, much like that of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and every one of them was surprised to learn that the electorate was not interested in going steady.
Democrats now are looking back at the administration of Barack Obama and wishing they had him again. Tempting though that idea may be, with lunatics like Steve Bannon running the government, it is neither an accurate assessment of things nor a political winner. Let’s run down a partial list of what was wrong in the Obama years, because once that is understood, then the need for a sharp departure, not just from Trump, but from recent Democratic Party history, becomes clear.
A lengthy treatment, worth every moment of the reader’s time, on Obama’s betrayal of progressive principles is here. A few highlights are as follows: Obama pushed through reauthorization of the so-called Patriot Act, with all its infringements on civil liberties; he continued and considerably expanded drone warfare against civilian targets in countries with which we are not legally at war; he continued the National Security Agency’s patently illegal mass surveillance of Americans; he persecuted whistleblowers (Eric Snowden) and reporters (James Risen) with a Nixonian vengeance; he promoted and greatly expanded offshore oil drilling; he spent at historically high rates on the Pentagon and on the phony “war on drugs;” he openly offered to cut Social Security and did cut Medicare; he never tried for truly universal health insurance, and gave up immediately even on the public option; and his Justice Department never tried to prosecute the war criminals of the previous administration, let alone the Wall Street barons who crashed the world economy just before he took office.
All of this is important because Democrats need to come up with candidates who can win, and that means candidates who can mobilize their own base. This is especially true at the level of the presidential election, in which the Republicans may well nominate somebody slightly smoother than Donald Trump in three years’ time. If you think Trump will have balled things up so hopelessly that no Republican can win, then please: remember when you were saying that, even if Trump could win the popular vote, he couldn’t possibly beat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.
The establishment gave us not only the Clintons, but also Obama. These were hardly leftists, as the Republicans continually rant.They weren’t even center-left figures; they were right of center on economic issues, and they compounded the real problem, which was the deathly squeezing of the middle class.
Democrats need leadership that is genuinely progressive and nakedly populist. The history they need to turn away from is not the last four years, but the last 40, at least. They need — the country needs – leadership willing to speak the truth, part of which is this:
The problem is not that Trump, with Bannon playing Svengali, is disassembling the world order that has maintained relative stability since the Second World War. Trump is only a symptom of the top-heaviness that is destroying everything. Liberal capitalism, or at least its latest international expression, neoliberalism, has run its useful course. As it is, the important global discussions and decisions are not made on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan. They’re not even made on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, or on Downing Street or any such place where mere governors collect. They are made in the posh conference rooms and mahogany-lined bars of the glitzy hotels in Davos. The people making the decisions are not elected, but self-appointed because they feel entitled by the wealth they hold — wealth they hold because of the laws they wrote.
The honest and powerful case to be made is that corporate power has to be restrained. That’s a populist argument. It is also the truth, and it is a political winner.
The Trump-and-Brexit brand of populism makes foreigners the enemy. But that kind of politics is the symptom, not the cause, of the discontent that forms fertile soil for its growth. The cause is corporate control of life and the increasing inequality of wealth and income. The people who promote inequality, whom we call Republicans, are hardly worse than those who benefit from it and tolerate it. Those latter, we call establishment Democrats. Both tend to blame government for the problems, when government is the only instrument even potentially strong enough to combat the problems.
For the next two years, the message of progressives needs to center on Social Security and Medicare. Then it needs to be this: “You don’t like government? You’re going to have government. The question is, will it be yours, or theirs?”