The United States is not the only nation suffering an interruption caused by populism. Remember Brexit? And Greece, France, Italy, and just about everyone in South America? Don’t forget Ukraine, thrown into civil war by nationalist intentions.
The mariner has been looking into the phenomenon of populism, drawing from several websites on the subject, respected magazines and journals, and a book or two, particularly David Goodheart, a Brit who has received notable accolades for his book, The Road to Somewhere – the populist Revolt and the Future of politics. One may also want to read Ivan Krastev’s Democracy Disrupted: The Global Politics of Protest.
Any reader who has studied history knows that politics, economics and status quo do not want change, e.g., fossil fuel; there is comfort in a well-rooted establishment that provides a modicum of security with some guarantee of regularity. It is inevitable that folks are pushed aside to sustain the status quo. Eventually, enough citizens are dissatisfied with the growing imbalance between the benefactors of the establishment and themselves that what results is an uprising, certainly rowdy and disrespectful in nature. In fact, conflicts have often become wars and on occasion restart the entire culture, noting Denmark’s citizen rebellion that tossed out capitalism and created a socialist state.
Americans are well aware of the populist movement in the United States. Accustomed to a two party political system, a progressive, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, an advocate of change with no political experience, became the leaders of the populist movement. In the wake of the 2016 election which Donald won, the conservative populists have settled into a conservative group generally referred to as ‘the base.’
Nevertheless, many more citizens still with rebellion in their hearts remain a grumbling presence. Signs suggest there will be another storming of the Bastille in 2018.
Populist response to inequities is more common in democratic societies than in authoritative ones although authoritarian societies have more violent rebellions. The United States, known for its ‘experiment’ of self-governance and citizen freedom, has frequent populist uprisings. The first of significant note – aside from the Revolutionary War – was the Boston Tea Party. Every thirty or forty years since, populist uprisings have been the gearbox to keep governance in line. Within the experience of citizens alive today is the suffragette movement, the labor rebellion, the Great Depression, the Viet Nam war resistance, Civil Rights, and, in real time experience, the job rebellion happening today.
Populist uprisings have a singular purpose: disrupt the establishment. There is no other purpose. The present and future be damned; they are of no consequence. Logic and reason are irrelevant; populism is a battle between emotions and authority. Within a family, populism is a teenager’s rebellion against parental authority. Despite the belligerence, the crassness, the destructiveness, populism is good. It is good because it makes the establishment listen. Petty accommodation, persuasion and doubletalk will not suffice. New definitions of the social order must emerge.
The establishment will defend itself – especially in matters of money and elitism. This may go on for years; the common classes still are rebelling against monetary policies put in place in the 1980’s. Only now have a significant number of citizens felt enough is enough. Sharing wealth, having job security, feeling opportunity, and a sense of a better life ahead are disappearing at an alarming rate – all to sustain the establishment to the exclusion of the greater citizenry. The 2016 election was one of many breaking points; there are many more to come that will, sooner or later, tackle social issues, the definition of citizen rights and a settlement of economic policy in manners of governance; for example, the cost and process of campaigns and elections, minimum wage and redefinition of the term ‘job.’
Back to the populist phenomenon, it evolves from the liberal side of voters. Over decades the working class was the heart of the Democratic Party in the United States and of the Labour Party in Great Britain. In both countries, liberal party workers slowly evolved into successful groups still loyal to the liberal side but slowly became a minority to fellow party members who stayed at lower class labor jobs. It is this lower class of liberals that abandons the ‘elitist’ membership and in the midst of foment becomes populist. An example of this abandonment clearly was present in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President; Hillary represented the Establishment – the enemy – to the disdain of her own party. The majority, still left of center, flocked to a fellow revolutionary, Bernie Sanders, and left the Democratic Party quite diminished. In a populist mood, many voted for the Republican anti-establishment candidate rather than support their party – the beginning of ‘the base.’
The conservative government clings to the awkward election of Donald Trump. He is their windbreak from populists but his inadequacies are weakening his hold and may serve to lay exposed the wealth-centric philosophy of the Republican Party as the 2018 election approaches.
In Great Britain, populist surge led to a defeat of British participation in the European Union. This is a glaring, visible setback to the strength of Great Britain as a nation. The same disaffection occurred in the US and similarly has damaged the status and leadership of the nation. It is not as visible as the cleaving of Britain from the EU but the US has lost leverage in several international arenas of immediate importance.
This time around, however, populism has become international. Virtually every democratic country around the world is suffering from the same dilemma: struggling economic systems that facilitate the centralization of wealth in a few at the cost of supporting the common citizen.
Donald Trump recognized, in a simple way, that trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA and TPP had something to do with job distribution but failed in recognizing that trade agreements are the vehicles through which populism may have a voice in international change and further, trade agreements are the conveyance that will define the global future, whatever it may be.
The future cannot change too much from what populism provokes today. The chasm between have and have not, skilled and unskilled, opportunity and oppressed, will remain and likely increase. Populism can only interfere; it cannot dictate. Especially in an international marketplace, populism will be fragmented. The best populism can do is draw our attention to the misbehavior of power. It is only the gristmill, not the wheat.