Conservatives, liberals issue joint warning: extreme populists threaten majority rule

When leading conservatives and liberals agree on what’s wrong in the country, it’s worth paying attention.

The American Enterprise Institute, which produces conservative policy proposals, and the Center for American Progress, which plays the same role for liberals, announce they “disagree vigorously” on policy, but have agreed on a jointly published report on American society.

They find we’re in serious trouble.  The problem is the threat of what they call “authoritarian populism.”

Populism has a long history of average people standing up to the elites, who try to run the country.  But when populists believe they have the right to ignore democracy’s majority rule, they become “authoritarian.”

People claiming to be “the true voice of the people” assert they can overrule the majority, threatening the “domestic tranquility” that the Constitution promises.

The report identifies three causes of the country’s populism problem:  (1) political division and unresponsive government, (2) economic inequality and (3) cultural differences and racism.

Many people find that government does not produce the change they want and many candidates have promised.  Trust in government has declined. Younger and low-income people vote much less than do older people who retain some confidence in government.

Elites dominate the political process through their campaign and lobbying spending.  Organizations representing business account for 72 percent of lobbying spending, while labor unions spend one percent of the total.  The benefits to business come at a cost to average people, the report notes.

Politicians play to their core constituencies, meaning they are less likely to compromise with those on the other side.  Politics is more about getting re-elected than about good government.  The result is that government produces fewer results, disappointing hopes for change and building distrust.

On the economy, the report suggests that discontent arises more from belief that the system is rigged against average people than from the wealth gap between the top managers and their employees.

For example, after the Great Recession a decade ago, banks got big bailouts rather than average people.  And few bankers were punished for contributing to the economic crisis.

Increased productivity and outsourcing to lower income countries cost jobs.  These days, the federal government tries to counter these trends by trying to go backwards.  Better trained workers are needed, but good programs are often lacking.  At the same time, the best educations go to the children of the elite.

The effects of this real gap between need for skilled workers and the lack of adequate training can be seen in the number of men of prime working age who are unemployed.  The level is about the same as in 1940, at the end of the Great Depression.  This leads to “anger and frustration.”

Militant populism sees the elites favoring African-Americans, immigrants and Muslims.   By the middle of this century, the majority of Americans will not be white.  Politicians, including Donald Trump, “exploit anxieties related to such demographic change.”

To be fair, some may feel that change is taking place more rapidly than they can accept, but mistakenly believe it can be halted or reversed.

“The Trump campaign took advantage of anxieties around immigration, race, and Islam, leaning into white identity politics with explicitly racist appeals,” according to the report. Though the issues are not identical, the same sentiments have arisen in Europe.  Dissident views on race and culture are troublesome when linked with political and economic discontent.

The two organizations want solutions, not just “a tepid middle-of-the-road agreement.”

The political parties must undergo realignment.  Their present and future supporters expect them to become more responsive to today’s issues and less tied to their traditional and sometimes outmoded or irrelevant platforms.

That means politics should accept some of the arguments of traditional populism.  Average people have some reasonable concerns about political control by affluent elites, promoting their own interests.  The “establishment” will have to give some ground to “outsiders.”   See Bernie Sanders.

One form of “radicalism” that’s justified is more vigorous pursuit of corruption, nailing politicians and corporate cheaters.  When people see strong action, it satisfies some of their populist instincts.

Finally, the two organizations urge a “new affirmative patriotism.”   It could appeal to both conservatives and liberals who share “deep suspicion of America’s overseas military actions; alarm about the rise of a surveillance state; mistrust of major institutions; and suspicion of global elites.”

As chief of state, the president of the United States should provide unifying patriotic leadership.  So long as President Trump limits his role only to leading his own political movement, he allows and encourages the wrong kind of populism.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.