Populism 2016 

            (NOTE – I drafted this in 2016 before that election. I decided not to update it from the point of view of the results of the election. The general points are still as valid as they were then.)

            As I understand the American Democracy, we are a republic and a representative democracy. This means that laws and day to day decisions on running the country are made by people elected by the citizens for this purpose. 

            It differs from a pure democracy in which all these laws and decisions would be made directly by vote of citizens. 

            The elected officials make the laws and decisions and are answerable to the citizens for them. If the citizens don’t like what the officials do, they elect someone else. There are terms that the officials serve that are intended to balance the need to give them enough time for the results of their decisions to manifest and the need to be able to correct bad decisions before they do too much harm. 

            Without trying to produce a text book on civics, that how I understand it’s supposed to work. 

            Populism tends to work against this. The standard rallying cry of populist movements on all sides of the political spectrum is “take our country back”. That means from the politicians, the elected officials. 

            This sounds good, but rarely is good. The current political climate is one in which elected officials are unable to act effectively because of extreme polarization. This is both a cause and a result of populism. 

            Polarization causes populism in that the citizens see nothing being accomplished because of the gridlock and so want to make decisions themselves.  Populism causes polarization in that the distrust of the citizens for their representatives leads to their constantly second guessing them and expecting them to voice opinions and make decisions in line with the various versions of populism, which are fragmented and contradictory. Therefore the representatives become fragmented and contradictory since any attempt at mediation and compromise is viewed as betrayal. 

           So which came first? 

            In the USA, I think this all grew from betrayals of the public trust by elected officials that came to a head during the Vietnam War. That war was poorly handled on many different levels. The popular dialogue was about the rightness or wrongness of the war itself. A lesser recognized problem was how poorly it was fought on tactical and logistical levels. War is always inefficient but this one surpassed the usual. 

           The many failures of that war were exacerbated, causing deep social wounds in the American psyche, by the perceived cowardice and self-serving deceptiveness of American leaders, culminating in the impeachment of President Nixon. Whatever the truths were and are, the perception of betrayal of the citizens by their representatives injured the trust that is necessary for a republic to function. We have never recovered. 

           Today, the oddness and confusion are manifest in many ways. The current primary process produced two populist candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump, ostensibly a conservative, is a Republican who used to be a Democrat. Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, is a Democrat who for most of his life has been an independent. Their success within each of their parties derives in a large part from their lack of history with those parties. 

           So in American political terms we have two populists: an extreme rightwing conservative, Trump, and an extreme leftwing liberal, Sanders. It’s strange to me that on what is probably the single most far-reaching issue in terms of its effect on America and the world, they are in agreement. They are both protectionists, against free trade. 

           Free trade is a tough sell because its benefits are hard to demonstrate and the damage it can do is easy to demonstrate. If a shoe factory in Bangladesh (hypothetical) can produce a popular shoe, ship it to the US, and it’s in the stores all over the nation for $5 less than a manufacturer in the US can produce the same shoe, it’s easy to see the (say) 300 American jobs that will be lost. It’s not so easy to see that if a million people buy those imported shoes, 5 million dollars has been added to the pockets of American citizens. 

           This is good for our country, good for everybody except those 300 workers who lost their jobs. A trusted and sensible group of elected representatives would be able to discuss this rationally and come up with some plan to help those 300 displaced workers to find new jobs at a cost less than the 5 million dollars that has been added to the economy. 

           The argument that the workers in Bangladesh are exploited needs to be addressed, but the jobs there may be better than what they had before. It takes time to build an economy. We need world cooperation to bring job protection everywhere. If we insist on western style protections everywhere now, we risk taking away the improvements that are possible now. 

           This is never perfect, and some people will lose out. But it’s a leader’s job to make hard decisions for the greater good and then explain it to the citizens so they understand, or at least trust, that a reasonable decision has been made. Without dialogue and some degree of trust, this can’t happen. If it can’t happen, the country is poorer, the overall standard of living is lower, and citizens as a whole are worse off---all over the world. 

           This will affect the lower income classes disproportionately (five dollars saved means a lot more to them) and create a greater sense of distance between the haves and have nots. This leads to more distrust of the representatives and more confusion as representative democracy is short-circuited by “taking our country back” without any agreement as to what exactly that means. Populism cuts the legs out from under leadership while demanding more leadership. 

           This is how we get to Donald Trump. Trump is attractive because he is viewed as someone who can “get things done”. He is not overly concerned about political correctness or normal processes. He will just do it. Never mind that his solutions are fantastical. (I ignore the racist and xenophobic overtones. Those are ugly but are smokescreens to the economic issues.) 

           One of the long understood dangers of a democratic form of government is that citizens have the power to vote away their democratic form of government. I believe the people who support Trump are so tired of the gridlock, they are willing to accept a tyrant as long as they believe that tyrant will do the things they want him to do. So if Sanders is a democratic socialist, Trump is a democratic tyrannist. He wants to be elected King. 

           What about Sanders? 

           Democratic socialism tends to result in tyranny also. It just takes longer to get there. I believe Sanders is a good and sincere man. I just think he’s wrong to the extent he actually believes in socialism. It’s hard to know that for sure. When he is asked what he would do, I’ve heard him answer to the effect that he will propose things, but he’s not a tyrant, it will have to be a democratic decision. 

           The problem with this is that in order to effectively implement socialist policies---and again I don’t really know what he means by this---someone has to direct it all from the top. There is a fiction that if this is accomplished through a democratic process, it’s different from taking power in some other way. It actually isn’t. If Trump were to become president and bully his way through a term or two, the powers he acquired would be the same as if he had done it by coup, and the same is true of Sanders. 

           He wants to implement “good” policies that are “good” for the people. Great. All good leaders want to do that. But if those policies involve transferring power (money is a form of power) from the citizens to government institutions, something important is at risk. Even if everything goes according to plan—it all works, and everyone is better off—it’s not sustainable. A handful of people are running things. One day, one decade, one generation, those people won’t be “good” people. Or maybe they are, but the world changes in unexpected ways (which the world has a habit of doing), and they aren’t equipped to make good decisions in the new situation. Or they are just trying to protect their jobs. 

           Another type of issue was famously identified by Dwight Eisenhower when he warned against the military-industrial complex. This was, and is, a mutually beneficial relationship between the American military and private military equipment suppliers. They have very powerful aligned interests that have ways of corrupting the overview by elected officials. Today, that kind of situation is generalized by the newer term “deep state”. 

           The deep state most famously reared its head in the crash of 2008 when private investment firms and banks turned out to be protected by our federal government from failure and loss when absolutely everybody else was a loser. This ISN’T a normal conspiracy theory. It is a natural progression of ordinary mutually beneficial relationships between government and the private sector that are allowed to grow in unhealthy ways. 

           It’s wrong to call this a failure of capitalism. It is a known corruption of capitalism, sometimes called crony capitalism or state capitalism. This means that certain private companies are protected from the competition that is the definition of true capitalism by special relationships with the government. 

           One clear example of this is the tobacco companies. The industry is so heavily regulated and taxed that no competition—new competition that is—is possible. The major tobacco companies are a government protected cartel. The barriers in cost and regulation to a new competitor arising are insurmountable. 

           In the case of tobacco, this may be the best way to handle it. I’m not prepared to disagree. But there is a lesson here for all companies. If you grow large enough, you might be able to protect yourself from competition by aligning yourself with the government regulation of your industry. If the regulations on it—which you are able to meet without undue expense because your large cash flow allows you to hire the best lawyers and accountants—are complicated and expensive enough, they create a barrier to startups. New, small companies are bound to run afoul of some regulation or be unable to afford some fee, so they can’t get going. And, if you are really big, the government may be willing to protect you, in the name of protecting jobs, from your own mistakes and inefficiencies with a bailout if you are about to go bankrupt. 

           What a sweet deal. 

           This is how crony capitalism works. How real capitalism works is that a company must always be looking out for the competition. If it gets too big, too inflexible, some new startup will take business away from it. That company will need workers. A lot of times the jobs lost by the one company will be replaced by the new. 

           It isn’t perfect. Some people will lose. Just like the example with free trade, the benefit to society from the new and better company can provide means for the government to help those who can’t adapt quickly. Not all, not perfectly, but this allows the economy and the country to survive. Adapt or die is a law of nature, not of men and women, so it can’t be repealed. If we—as a person, as a group, as a company, as a nation—can’t adapt, we will die. 

           So the conflict isn’t between capitalism and socialism, government and private industry, democracy and tyranny. They are all intertwined. The real conflict, as it has been throughout human history, is between big and small. Big government and big industry are aligned against everyone who isn’t in their club. 

           You can’t attack one without the other. Government law needs to be powerful in order to regulate industry in ways that ensure competition and end crony capitalism. Powerful isn’t the same as big. Let’s argue about what government should do and what it shouldn’t do. I have some opinions about that, but I’m willing to listen to yours and perhaps be persuaded. First we have to get the questions right before we can have the argument. 

           The first question is who do we trust to make our laws and the day to day decisions that govern our country? We have to find those people and give them the room to do their job, even if they make mistakes along the way. We have to trust our leaders. The reason we get people who only parrot back to us what we said yesterday, is because we have demonstrated those are the only people we will elect. Let’s send a different message. 

           Above all, let’s reward politicians for talking and listening to people on the other side of issues. They represent a lot of Americans, too. All voices need to be heard through their representatives, not just in the streets or on talk radio. 

           Whether it’s Donald or Hillary or Bernie that you support, make it known that if she or he should have a change of mind about something and take you in a direction you’re not completely comfortable with, you’re willing to listen and give it a chance.  At least for a little while. Maybe your leader has new insights, new information that isn’t easily shared. Maybe a partnership has developed on a particular issue with someone on the other side. If you elect a person rather than a platform, that should be expected occasionally. If time goes by and you believe that person has lost direction, vote ‘em out. Leaders aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean they are evil either. 

           One thing is for sure. We, the people, don’t know what to do. Populism means giving up. It means our system of government has failed. 

Hugh Moffatt 
Nashville, Tennessee 
July 11, 2016