And what can be done about it?
Although Trump is the most obvious noisemaker, today’s political arena is driven by populism. Populists believe in their own virtue—and that they are being mistreated by a small circle of elites. Added to that belief is the view that “if we work together, we can overthrow those elites.”
But not just the above, a large number of issues keep surfacing, making understanding the noise more difficult. For example, there’s no doubt that Hilary Clinton is the recipient of latent sexism and wounded male (the old white men) prerogatives. In a recent phone conversation, my brother (79 years old) commented that he didn’t know what to do about the election. He wouldn’t vote for Trump, but couldn’t vote for “a woman.” I decided, based on years of experience, not to go there. I just grunted. My brother is reflective of the toxic triad of populism: anti-pluralism (“a woman”?), denial of complexity (“all you need to do is. . . “), and a crooked version of representation (“all politicians are liars”).
So how can we understand all this?
Although there are a lot of confusing issues built into today’s political confusion, Andres Velasco, former finance minister of Chile and now at Columbia, summarizes the most informative insight this history/political science major has picked up on for some time.
Velasco believes that neither bad economics, nor taxation (or jobs or income inequality) drives populism. Instead, he argues that populism today—and historically—is about representation: who gets to speak for the people and how.
Abraham Lincoln’s comment that government is by the people, for the people and of the people is an exalted claim. But elections inevitably fall short of these claims. “Voting in an election every four years for candidates chosen by party machines is not exactly what Lincoln’s loft words call to mind.”
What to do?
Here, Velasco has three smart suggestions that flow directly out of his definition of populism. Though straightforward, none is simple. But when we’re in a situation like this, simplicity won’t work to resolve the problems. And it will take time. But over time, Democrats took strong action in the ‘sixties to resolve their problems, and the Republicans need to resolve theirs. In short, we need a strong Republican party just as much as we need a strong Democratic party.
First, acknowledge complexity. This is a tough rhetorical sell, but it’s necessary. It may well be that being treated like babies is worse than being lied to. If we take time to interact, people know the world is complex, even the homeless would acknowledge that. The reality of complexity needs to be drummed into people minds. Those of us who’ve had challenging jobs have not the slightest difficulty understanding complexity. That reality needs to be emphasized in politics again and again and again.
Treat diversity of views and identities as a moral issue, not an economic or technocratic problem. Americans, historically have a superb record of getting along. Sure, there are spikes when the economy goes sour and people get frightened for their jobs, but that’s not the norm. It can be inspiring that historically we do a far better job of assimilation than Europe or Asia. Our politicians need to make a strong case for pluralistic democracy.
Third, defend—and update—representation. Americans love to gripe about government and somebody else’s representatives. Technology can be used to present other choices, and not to reinforce Reagan’s grossly misunderstood dictum that “government is the problem, not the solution.” That’s nonsense. But most people are wallowing in ignorance about the values of government. They don’t think about their streets, their schools, their town or city’s entire infrastructure as valued governmental contributions. You see that ignorance when the elderly are fearful of “taking away their Medicare,” and not understanding that Medicare is a government policy.
Clearly these issues will never entirely go away, but they can be modified significantly with persuasive challenges and extensive use of technology and media.
Velasco summarizes his recommendations this way: These measures alone will not ensure that all of democracy’s broken promises are fulfilled. But we cannot expect a single set of simple actions to solve a complex problem. Nor can we believe that we alone can fix it.
If we believed that, we would be populists. For the sake of democracy, that is precisely what we should not be.