We’ve entered a different sort of era in American politics; how long it lasts remains to be seen. It’s tempting to say it’s the era of Donald Trump, but his election to the presidency is only the most obvious and immediate example of it.
What we’re really seeing is an era of populism, in which U.S. citizens are insisting that they have a direct and meaningful voice in their governance.
That instinct’s at odds with our federal system, which isn’t a direct democracy. The founders set it up as a representative form of government, under which the common will is filtered through a series of checks and balances from the Constitution down through three independent branches of government. And that can be frustrating as heck for people who want, or see a need for, immediate change.
There are typically at least two targets for populist sentiments: bureaucracies that keep the people from getting what they need in a timely fashion, and political elites who are seen, rightly or wrongly, as hoarding power for themselves at the expense of the common people.
Populism has the advantage of engaging the people and making them feel more invested in their government (witness the high turnout for Trump in the recent election). The main disadvantage is that it can be dangerous. If you remove the safeguards, you’re more likely to rush into something that doesn’t work — and you could regret later on.
That’s why critics of populism warn that it can lead to fascism — and it has, indeed, produced demagogues such as Huey Long and Benito Mussolini. But it has also given us politicians who’ve worked within the system to improve it. It can also give the government the kick in the pants it needs to unclog the wheels of bureaucracy and effect positive change — which explains why people on both ends of the political spectrum make use of it.
The populist progressive movement of the early 20th century resulted in reforms such as California’s initiative and recall processes, which — while certainly imperfect — nonetheless gave citizens of the state a more direct involvement (and investment) in their governance. They also hold elected officials accountable, serving as a warning that, if they fail to act, the people themselves can and will.
Trump won by appealing to Americans who felt that government elites had tied their hands in a tangle of red tape. To its critics, the Affordable Care Act seemed like little more than a series of hoops they had to jump through in order to pay escalating premiums. To Hillary Clinton’s opponents, she was a candidate ordained by the Washington insiders and the mainstream media to be crowned queen of the United States, the latest member of a political dynasty that they felt offered them neither an effective voice nor a ready ear.
That doesn’t sit well with the sensibilities of Americans who like to have a voice in who their leaders are. On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders’ supporters expressed similar frustrations, feeling disenfranchised by party power brokers who seemingly had already decided to back Clinton before the primaries began. Indeed, that frustration can be traced back to 2008, when Clinton occupied a similar position and populist sentiment upset her apple cart by propelling Barack Obama to the presidency.
How can people with such disparate agendas be attracted to populism? Because the allure of populism isn’t so much about issues and ideology as it is about a demand on the part of American citizens to have their voices heard. That’s one reason Trump could get elected despite flip-flopping on the issues even more frequently than your average politicians. He said he’d listen, and his supporters found that much believable about him. It was what they needed to hear most.
The same is true on the other side. The Occupy Movement; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests; this past weekend’s women’s marches in Washington, Cambria (where more than 90 people turned out on short notice), San Luis Obispo and across the country — all are examples of people taking matters into their own hands because they believed the government had stopped listening.
What we have to come to grips with, even more than a Trump presidency or the continuing health care mess, is the realization that both sides believe the system has failed them by turning a deaf ear to their needs. Both sides are, increasingly, turning to populism as a result. There will be more angry speeches, more marches and more accusations on both sides.
A lot of Americans want to tear down what they believe is a corrupt system. But it’s a lot easier to tear something down than to find a viable system to replace it. Repealing the ACA and “kicking the bums out” of Washington aren’t the real challenges. The rubber meets the road when it comes time to build a system that actually works. That’s where populism ends and pragmatism begins. If we fail to make that transition and just keep yelling at one another in our quest to be heard, it will all be for naught, and we’ll be right back where we started.