I read a column in The Washington Times the other day that had me scratching my head. The topic was the already eagerly anticipated 2020 election, but what caught my attention was some of the terminology. Here are some quotes:
“... a Democratic Party that is tilting further leftward in a push toward economic-centered politics...”
“... President Trump's economic populism.”
“If Democrats are fighting for America's working families...” (quote from Elizabeth Warren)
“Her [Warren's] message of leveling the playing field for working families...” (quote from Nick Rathold)
“... the populist economic message that Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are touting.”
“... the populist message of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders...” (quote from Adam Green)
The key words here are “economic”, “working families”, and “populist”/”populism”. So let's drill down a bit, since it appears that both sides are talking about the same issues and trying to appeal to the same people on those issues – not that this would be unusual in politics, but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter. If they're in so much agreement, why is there so much opposition and hostility?
The notion that the Democratic Party is suddenly enamored of economic-centered politics is a bit startling, since that is the only issue they have ever been concerned with. Way back in the Progressive Era, it was already about fairness... leveling the playing field... redistribution of income... and so on. It was, as it remains, more about outcomes than opportunities. Pretty much every domestic policy initiative by the Democrats over the past century or more has been aimed at equality of outcomes in some way, with a socialist nirvana as the ultimate goal. “Opportunities” are only a means to an end – and if they don't result in equal outcomes, then more opportunities have to be made available, ad infinitum. I'm not sure what the Democrats would be all about if it weren't for economics – foreign policy maybe? But they seem to consider that an annoyance, and something that has to be either minimized or ignored. Even foreign policy in our time is aimed, from the Democratic perspective, at equal outcomes on a global level – if the minimum wage anywhere in the world is lower than that in, say, Australia, there's a problem, and it has to be fixed (presumably by us).
How about “working families”? Oh, right – those folks who turned out in droves to vote for Trump. The Democrats have quite openly, and explicitly, chosen to eject and ignore working families in favor of a plethora of minorities. “Working men” (and women), AKA “labor”, finally caught on, and despite the pleadings and threats from their union leadership, chose to vote not only their pocketbooks but their basic values, which the Democrats have done everything to belittle and defeat. “Labor” cannot be counted on any more, and Trump's attracting the labor vote was similar to Nixon's “Southern strategy” -- just show people what is really going on and hope the scales fall from their eyes.
And when it comes to “leveling the playing field”, well, again Trump had it figured out. Get the government (as inspired by Democrats/liberals/progressives) out of the business of harassing, punishing, and persecuting honest working people and of attacking their culture and values. The government doesn't do this to the ruling class, and it doesn't do it to the comfortable upper middle class.. and it doesn't do it to the dependent class either. But it certainly has been sticking it to the working class, and again, their eyes have been opened (for the time being at least – and hopefully for keeps).
Then we have “populism” -- oy, where to begin? I've already commented (as have any number of other talking and/or writing heads) that the 2016 campaign was, for one brief, shining moment, a struggle between two varieties of populism – one represented by Bernie Sanders and the other by Donald Trump. So... what is populism, anyway? What, if anything, did these two campaigns in common?
The paradox of populism in America is that this country was, allegedly, founded to foster and preserve individual rights – i.e., the rights of the people. And this is still a key component of our self image, our iconography, and our various secular liturgies, litanies, and memes. And yet, mysteriously, the notion of government “of, by, and for the people” keeps having to be re-asserted, as if it's a delicate and fragile thing, and easily suppressed or ignored. But why is it, seemingly, always on the defensive? After all, we have the same Constitution now that we had back in 1789. There have been no revolutions, and we have never been conquered by a foreign power. So what's the problem?
The opposing forces to the interests of the people have been seen differently at different times, but there are certain common themes. One is uncontrolled immigration – not a new topic by any means. Another is industrialization. Then we have capitalism, banks, and big business (or businesses of any size which involve management vs. labor, wages, and profits). (The current buzzwords “Wall Street” and “crony capitalism” are subsets.) And then we have – depending on one's perspective – either too many laws and regulations, or not enough, thus the perennial pendulum swing in labor law between preference for capital and preference for labor. And we also have that new bugaboo, “concentration of wealth”, which is not all that new but keeps getting renamed and redefined. (It was “concentration of wealth” that stimulated the establishment of the income tax, lest we forget, and that happened more than 100 years ago.)
Interestingly, two things which are never mentioned in polite company as being opposed to the interests of the people are personal debt and war. And yet, in terms of draining the life out of an economy and out of its citizenry, it would be hard to find two more obvious candidates. Perhaps it's because these are the two leading weapons of the Regime to enslave people and nations, and they have structured the discussion in such a way that these things never come up (or if they do, the people who bring them up are immediately labeled as nut cases).
Perhaps our discussion of populism could profit from defining precisely who “the people” are, and what the forces opposing them are alleged to be depending on one's prior political position. If we insist on using the term “populism”, we find that political movements and organizations of violently opposing sorts have each used the term, or at least not objected to being described that way. The same is true if we merely talk about “the people as opposed to _____” (select from the list of offenders above, or add your own). But if we dig down a bit, and ask precisely who these “people”, so-called, are, we can get some clarifying answers. The old populists were, of course, for the “working man”, whether on farms or in factories, not unlike the target group for the Bolsheviks. The middle class was already being viewed with suspicion (in a shout-out to the French Revolution and Marx), and the ruling class was, of course, beneath contempt and the perpetual enemy. When the New Deal rolled around things were pretty much the same, but it should be noted that, although white ethnics were part of the picture, it had yet to reach out and embrace blacks... and Hispanics were still way down the road (or across the Rio Grande). And let's not forget that the first great populist-style program of the Kennedy administration was the War on Poverty, which initially focused on, guess where, all-white Appalachia. Whites elsewhere, and blacks, had to fight to get on the A-list.
So far, so good. It seemed that everyone calling themselves a populist, or preaching in favor of “the people”, was in basic agreement as to who “the people” were. One group that was more or less ignored in all of the discussions was white Southerners – and that was the basis for the “aha!” moment for Nixon. (He really ought to get credit for one of the greatest political coups of the 20th Century – right up there with Trump's victory.) He found a group that had been left out of the political process on the national level; it was a large group, and worth courting. And thus was created the great divide/bifurcation/schism of “the people” for political purposes. (It's worth noting that there had never been anything like solidarity between the white and black working classes, or between the white and Hispanic agricultural workers, but those differences didn't have any discernible impact on mainstream politics of the populist variety – unless you include 1960s folk singers, of course.)
Even more remarkable, all of a sudden there was a subset of “the people” who were actually loyal (albeit newly so, and probably not without some misgivings) to the Republican Party. But that's not the same as saying they were “conservative” in the William F. Buckley sense... and they were certainly not libertarian in the Ron Paul sense... and the Tea Party had yet to manifest itself as a semi-organized force. Despite all of this, the phenomenon of card-carrying “people” being Republicans, or at least voting that way, was revolutionary. Suddenly the party of country clubs, business, Wall Street, and the bourgeoisie had to make room for the (relatively) unwashed – and yet it was the key to success, not only for Nixon but also for Reagan and Bush II (Bush I having basically ridden in on Reagan's coattails and stayed for a while), and now for Trump.
The consequence of all of this was that the meaning of “the people”, and of populism, became totally contingent on who was using the terms, and to what purpose. Having written off the white working class, the Democrats' definition of “the people” was limited to minorities – albeit enough of them to constitute a majority. The Republicans, on the other hand, gradually morphed into champions of “the people” of different sorts – white, mostly working class but lower middle class as well (assuming there's even a difference any longer), and basically anyone with a grievance against the liberals/Democrats/progressives and their “people”. So “the people” were divided (so much for “e pluribus unum"!) into camps, grievance groups, voting blocs, and gangs.
And yet the perennial struggle persisted – that of “the people” vs. anything that oppresses them, either intentionally or accidentally, with new issues added on a regular basis. For the Democrats, it was post-Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts “residual racism”, as well as anyone held responsible for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, and later on came to include pro-lifers, “homophobes”, anyone opposed to open borders, and a host of other real or imagined enemies. For the Republicans, the new villains included government programs which eroded, or directly attacked, gun ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion, as well as excessive taxation and the regulatory burden. Add ObamaCare and you have a perfect formula for a political (mostly) civil war, which the 2016 election certainly was, and which its outcome continues to be. And yet this civil war, just like the original one, is “people vs. people” as much as the government or ruling elite vs. the people. People on both sides consider themselves to be more real... more genuine... more representative of American values... more entitled to be heard... etc. You could stand up at a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren rally and ask every “real American” to raise their hand, and I daresay more of those in the room would. Try it at a Trump rally and you'll get the same result.
So yes, the great divide – or the most recent great divide – in American politics is between “the people” on one side and “the people” on the other. “Economic populism” sounds like something the Democrats would be all in favor of, and yet it's attributed to Trump. Is this because he's an insincere, hypocritical demagogue who only pretends to favor the people's interests? But the same can be said for pretty much any leading Democrat at least since World War II. “Economic-centered politics” could be a characteristic of the Trump administration, but no – the Democrats seem to have a monopoly on that particular semantic nuance. And as far as leveling the playing field, well... has anyone asked, recently, when affirmative action is going to cease as a government policy? The answer, of course, is never, since even if we did somehow manage to equalize outcomes there would still be the question of reparations, and when reparations cease is a totally political question, since there is no possible objective criterion for when enough is enough. (Another way of putting this is, at what point can blacks be considered to have been “paid back” for slavery? From the karmic point of view, the answer really is “never”. Politically, it's debatable, but the debate has yet to occur.)
I guess what I'm trying to do here is not only clarify the meaning of words, but point out the forces behind their non-clarification. After all, if everyone's a populist, no one's a populist, right? The term loses all meaning. If everyone is equally for “the people” then that term cancels out and we'd better start looking for some new descriptors. And as for “leveling the playing field”, no one really wants to do that, do they, any more than anyone wants truly “equal rights”. That would be bad politics. What people want is preferences... advantages... whether enshrined in law or as a side benefit of other laws, regulations, or the economy in general.
Again, we are up against human nature – not only that of individuals, but of groups, parties, factions, what have you. Everyone wants an “edge”. It's not enough to just go out and seek one's fortune in the world and its many and varied marketplaces. You have to have that ID card that lets you in the door ahead of the rabble and the undeserving (not to mention the "deplorables"). Combine this with the ebb and flow of politics and the cynical manipulation of words and of people, and you have what we have now – a state of perpetual war that in its sheer intractability is not unlike that which our foreign policy has fostered. One could point out the massive waste of human and other resources that all of this entails, but that would seem wonkish compared to the unstoppable energy and self-centeredness that is a part of fallen human nature.