I’ve been spending the last few years waiting for an American populist movement to emerge. Where is it?
In my mind, American populism rests on a single, commonly shared belief: that neither of the major political parties, either on their own, or in concert, are fit to rule my beloved homeland, the United States of America. Voting for one or the other doesn’t fix the problems faced by the bulk of the population, with both parties focused on narrow interests. Primaries and other methods of reform just seem to replace old corrupt officials with ones whose corruption hasn’t been revealed yet. It is clear that a fundamental re-thinking of politics is required.
I think there are a variety of factors that have lead to the stagnation of populism as a political force. One major factor is that the authentic Trumpism of 2015 and early 2016 got steered in two directions away from its populist roots. One vector was to re-brand the Jeb Bush style pro-business, pro-degeneracy agenda into something about American greatness. People who got caught in this mess can be readily identified by their unironic use of the “Keep America Great” slogan. The second were the people who got bamboozled into believing that the adults were secretly still in charge and were working in the background to right the ship of state became passive with regards to the actual nuts-and-bolts of popular politics.
I’m not writing today to condemn either group. I’m writing to convince people to take back the mantle of populism for themselves and to become a constituency from which candidates seek support. In doing so, I’d like to lay out a few key elements to building a successful populism in America today.
- Populist policies should better the lives of large segments of the population.
- Reject ideological conformity as a method for supporting policies.
- Acknowledge that Trump’s time has passed.
- Make others compromise to win our support or to attach their tent to ours.
I think that the purpose of politics to a populist is pretty simple: government exists to facilitate good living for its citizens. This simple question raises many questions: What is good living? Who should be citizens? What forms of facilitating good living are effective? These are questions we should be asking, and the way populists should frame thinking about politics. It is almost tautological, but it bears mentioning: populism focuses on the problems faced by big segments of the population, not the grievances of narrow interests. Most importantly, populism focuses on how changes to government policy can help alleiviate that problem. Alleiviating the problem may take the form of not subsidizing and encouraging the problem through government policy, it may take the form of subsidizing and encouraging the solution. It may even take the form of pro-actively solving the problem.
That brings me to my second key element: the rejection of ideological tests. One of my questions which I said populists should think about are: “What forms of facilitating good living are effective?”. Focusing on acheiving the ends in this question instead of blindly implementing some previously determined means is a key point for effective populism. “Because it goes against the thesis of the John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged.” is not a sufficient reason to reject a policy, nor is the converse a reason to accept a policy. On the other hand “Because it would make life harder for families with kids making $40,000 to $100,000 a year” is a sufficient reason to reject a policy. Instead of asking: “Does this conform with theory?”, ask: “What ends does this policy achieve?”, “Are those ends good for the bulk of society?”, “Is this the most effective means for achieving this desireable end?”.
The simple reason to reject this way of thinking is that most ideologies serve a specific purpose for a specific time. Twenty-first century America isn’t an eighteenth century agrarian republic, nor is it a twentieth century pre-industrial society, nor is it an interwar central European nation less than 100 years old in the midsts of economic depression and hyperinflation. Our ideas and our politics much match our country and our time, not some other country at some other time.
My third element is one that, unlike the others, is a matter of practical importance rather than an idea. Donald Trump’s time as the de facto leader of American populism has to end in order for populism to move forward. No one can deny that Trump’s 2016 primary campaign struck a strong and previously neglected vein open to populist sentiments in the United States and, in fact, around the world. However, as the primary pivoted into the general election, through Trump’s term as President, and especially through his re-election campaign, Trump took that energy for granted, and didn’t feed it and make it grow. In 2024, populists shouldn’t throw thier energy behind a 78-year old man who has already reached the limits of his capability for advancing the cause of the American people. Populism must be dynamic and encourage candidates who are capable of dreaming what their lives will be like twenty or thirty years from now, and who will fight all comers to achieve it.
Finally, unlike the Trump movement, which is willing to support basically any idea as long as it leads to the support of Trump, populism must be unyeilding in its demands for policies which better the lives of ordinary folks. A constituency doesn’t need to be 50% of voters to be influential, but it does need to be substantial in size, coherent in its central ideas, and be able to sway elections, even just primary elections, for those who make explicit appeals to it. Populist support should be hard to achieve, and demand that candidates follow through on populist promises, not just their party elite’s wishlist.
These elements together form a way of thinking about politics which I think is distinct from the way most people see politics (i.e. the horse race), and I believe helps form the basis for coherent thought about politics which can lead to both sufficient popular support to be a key constituency and encourage the types of government action which would actually do some good for the broad majority of the people in my country.