Arthur C. Brooks wrote an op-ed for the New York Times concerning the rise of Donald Trump and populism. He then urged reform of the GOP to look a lot more like the Democratic Party by moving to the “center” on a whole host of issues.
In doing so, he made two bold, but inaccurate claims. Mr. Brooks asserted that historical populist movements were triggered by severe financial crises that resulted in protracted and uneven recoveries that exacerbated existing income and wealth disparities.
Brooks briefly examined financial crises and touched on the book “This Time is Different” which found that it normally takes about eight years for the economy to recover from financial crises like we had in 2008 because they are different from ordinary recessions (which have a typical recover of 18 months). He noted that the wealthy of US came “roaring” back after the “Great Recession of 2008. Before I get into the naivete of blaming populism on economic determinism, I want to just note that the American wealthy presumably had savings – actually money in the bank — that allowed them as an economic class to recover more quickly than the cash-strapped and credit-leveraged middle class.
In Brooks’ estimation, populist movements have historically been the result of economic determinism, which is kind of simplistic and naive and completely overlooks the American middle class’s awakening to the elitists of both major parties structuring political institutions and policies so as to oppress and plunder us. Everywhere you look, you can see evidence for this structural bias in our society.
There’s the war on terror, which never ends and is eating the economy of the nation
There’s the the multi-billion dollar federal bailout of financial institutions not just in the US, but overseas
There’s the ineffective, grossly expensive and never-ending war on drugs
There’s the pandemic of political correctness unleashed by Federal mandates and regulations that indoctrinates our kids in American colleges, universities and public schools
There is the unrestrained spying on American citizens by the US security apparatus
Brooks ignored all of these issues and opted for simplistic analysis. “The real issue is weak, uneven shared growth.” If the rich weren’t getting richer and the poor weren’t getting poorer, Brooks intimates, we wouldn’t be angry at the elites. Really? You think we’re that dumb?
Of course, some of us are that dumb because we’ve been manipulated by the mainstream media, academics and political analysts (supposed moderates on both the left and the right) who claim that populism comprises specific ideological positions and policies. Brooks referred to “populist positions on issues such as trade and immigration” and to “populists who specialize in identifying culprits: rich elites who are ripping you off; immigrants who want your job; tree trade that’s killing our nation’s competitiveness.” Brooks asserted that populist policies advocate for “some combination of increased redistribution, protectionism and restrictionism.”
Brooks sees populism as the polar opposite of classic liberalism and libertarianism.
Of course, that ignores reality. Populism is not and never has been a right-wing ideology. It is a strategy that has been used by ideological groups whose political agendas differed radically from the agenda of the ruling class. Juan and Eva Peron were left-wing populists. Ever hear of Huey Long … Father Coughlin … Fidel Castro … Huge Chavez? Then there were classical-liberal populists like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams and libertarian populists like Richard Cobden, John Bright and Ron Paul. Iceland has recently seen the dramatic rise of popularity of the Pirate Party, with an ideologically diffuse membership of libertarians, hackers, Web geeks, and anti-globalist anarchists.
Regardly of its ideological motivations, populism is always feared and hated by the political center, which is occupied by individuals and groups comprising the “moderate” left and right wing, because the “center” is invested in defending the political status quo. We see this in US elections, where they take turns operating the levers of power to distribute privilege and wealth to themselves and their cronies.
Regardless of their ideology, populist thinkers and the movements they build believe that government ought to be responsive to the people. They see that it is not and they set about exposing the “moderate” center who run the State apparatus. They point out the powerful elite whose interests are inherently opposed to the productive workers and entrepreneurs who make up the mass of the population. Extreme, emotional and embittered rhetoric captures the attention of people who are not yet fully conscious that they are being exploited. Marxists would say this rhetoric helps them to develop “class consciousness.” Inflammatory rhetoric is necessary in the US and most European countries because the mainstream media operate as privileged mouthpieces for government and corporations, spewing non-stop propaganda designed to camouflage government exploitation of the working class so as to discredit dissenting political movements.
I’ve not love of Donald Trump, but his harsh populist rhetoric strikes a responsive chord among the US electorate. That isn’t because Americans have become irrational on the subjects of economics, immigration and security in some sort of fit brought on by economic inequality, but because the Internet has snapped on a light in reality land, that has awakened Americans to the cold, hard fact that, since World War 2, we have been plundered and are being oppressed by the “moderate” American globalist political establishment. We’ve become what France was in the 1950s when Murray Rothbard wrote:
[T]here’s a lot to be bitter about: crushingly high taxes on businesses and individuals, submergence of national sovereignty in international organizations and alliances, fumbling and incompetent government, endless fighting in colonial wars. Especially taxes.
It’s tempting (and folks like Brooks succumb to the temptation) that populism will wither away once you redistribute some wealth, but that’s not likely. Populism is the only effective political strategy for radical political change. Brexit, Trump’s threat to contest the election, the growth of libertarian-like populist movements throughout Europe — these all suggest that populism is here to stay.
If we can somehow grab a microphone to be heard over the media spin, libertarians (please note the small “l”) may have cause to celebrate because for the first time in 90 years we have access to an effective strategy for rolling back the US welfare- and warfare-propped State. But we need to start by educating our neighbors as to what is really going on and what it is we actually stand for.