Pratfalls of populism must be interrogated

Following the election of Donald Trump and the concurrent Republican takeover of Congress, many progressive voices have called for an ideological shift in the Democratic Party from a conciliatory centrism to a more forceful left-leaning populism, populism being defined by Wikipedia (Encyclopedia Britannica is for elitists) as a “political doctrine that stems from a viewpoint of struggle between the populace and a ruling faction” (Wikipedia, “Populism”).

This reformist faction has pushed for Keith Ellison’s candidacy for DNC chair and points to how Bernie Sanders’ populist stances were enthusiastically received by many of the White working class voters in the Rust Belt that ended up voting for Trump.

To hold back the conservative agenda and defeat Trump in 2020, they argue, liberals and progressives must make an even more forceful case that Trump did against the oligarchical elites that pervert the functioning of American institutions while at the same time condemning the white nativism, sexism and Islamophobia that came to characterize the Trump campaign.

With this end in mind, progressives like Bernie Sanders have stated that they are willing to cooperate with Trump on a limited set of issues pertaining to empowering the working class. Clearly, the Democratic Party has become estranged from much of the population, with 2 million fewer people voting for Hillary in 2016 than for Obama in 2012, and so an embrace of populism is necessary for the Democrats (sorry, but I don’t take the Green Party seriously) to regain the trust of the average citizen and tackle the problems facing this nation.

All the same, this is not something to be undertaken blindly. Since our nation has not directly experienced a genuine populist government since FDR, it is easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking that a Left populism would not permit the same possibilities for socio-economic disaster as its more conservative counterparts. Progressives need to make a painstaking survey of the pitfalls of populism before embarking on such a project.

For example, Latin America furnishes us with numerous instances of the mixed blessings of Left populism. In the Argentina of Perón and Kircher and the Venezuela of Chavez the same general pattern of failed populism has played out.

They embarked on massive increases in public spending and state-led growth which genuinely improved the lives of millions. However, these efforts were not sustainable as debts piled up and economic trends shifted. Venezuela’s social programs were created at a time when oil was $100 a barrel so when oil dropped to $50 dollars their country was plunged into turmoil. The inflation of the Venezuelan Bolivar is projected to be 465 percent in 2016.

Argentina’s decades of turmoil are a result of the populist legacy of Juan Perón. He concentrated power in an inner circle while claiming to be a representative of the masses, and fired state employees who protested en masse. By claiming the role of the true representative of the people, he undermined the standing of the legislature and legitimate democratic procedure. The state of economic and political weakness he left Argentina in contributed to the takeover of a military junta and renewed cycles of populist incompetence.

The last wave of Perón influenced Left populism occurred over the 2003-2007 presidency of Néstor Kirchner and the 2007-2015 presidency of his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. They pursued admirable policies such as advancing Mercosur, a Latin American common market and legalizing gay marriage, but at the same time stalled Argentina’s economic development by refusing to pay its outstanding debts.

This resulted in the shut out of Argentina from international lending markets. Without ready access to capital, the Argentinian economy could not cover the substantial increases in spending the Kirchners embarked on to cover their social programs. Ultimately the Kirchners were replaced by Mauricio Macri, a conservative who might be able to restore Argentina’s economic health.

Nevertheless, his election might mark the end of the increase in minority rights that the Kirchners promoted.

History shows that populism is a risky venture. It can polarize societies, undermine representative democracy and leave economies in shambles. Latin America is our great cautionary tale. But the USA can avoid the mistakes of Latin America by sticking to several strategies.

One, we must avoid personalist rule. In this way, Bernie was perfect.

He wasn’t an exceptionally charismatic person; it was his ideas more than anything else that got people going. Personalism risks making revolutionary projects hinge on the charisma of an individual as the embodiment of national ideals instead of going beyond that and embracing horizontal organization. If this rule is adhered to revolutionary projects, they can far outlast their initial progenitors.

Two, we must focus on the creation of new jobs and training people instead of fighting tooth and nail with highly protectionist measures to keep manufacturing in the United States. We can regulate against outsourcing to India or Mexico etc, but you can’t regulate the microchip.

The continuing process of automation will probably wipe out these jobs during our lifetime, so it would be more advisable to dramatically expand the social safety net and make education more accessible to sustain the economically displaced and prepare them for the new economy. If we do not do this then populism will become synonymous with neo-luddism: more Ted Kaczynski than Bernie.

Perhaps some radicals will scorn this vision, which I like to think of as “prudent populism,” as a “populism-lite.” Yes, it is certainly less radical, but it is a model that will be more successful in helping all people, and therein radical in deed for its sustained impact than the inflammatory words of the Kirchners of America.

One Comment

  1. Excellent article, mate. I agree completely – economic populism should be about the idea, not about any one particular person, so as to avoid a cult of personality akin to what happened with Chairman Mao. As you also brilliantly pointed out, protectionist economics is (probably) ultimately doomed to failure.

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