Populism goes mainstream in America

Update – 3/24, 6:32 p.m. EST:  Bloomberg Politics released the following poll results Thursday:




The survey — conducted among 1,000 U.S. adults — asked a litany of questions about policy and 2016 presidential candidates.

“Virtually every question of policy has a Republican-Democrat split,” said J. Ann Selzer, whose polling company Bloomberg commissioned. “On trade, there is unity.”

44 percent of those surveyed believe the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been “bad for the U.S. economy” — 36 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans.


While the success of “outsider” candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries may have caught some seemingly savvy political observers by surprise this election cycle, anyone who has paid attention to foreign elections — particularly in Europe — knows that the populist brand of politics espoused by Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is one that’s been on the rise since at least the turn of the century and arguably as far back as the 1970s.

Each of the aforementioned candidates call for different policy prescriptions to solve America’s problems, but the one common thread is they are all drawing support from a “grass-roots” base of voters who have noticed something fundamentally wrong with the way the federal government has performed since at least the end of the George W. Bush Administration.

Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz represent the far left and right flanks of this overlapping view that Washington is at best unprincipled, while Trump exploits a less idealistic view — the survivalist mentality.

America has fundamentally changed since the end of the Clinton years. Technological advances have transformed our ability to communicate with others, opening both the wonders and underbellies of the world up to many who never venture far from the county line.

The rise of China and other emerging countries have taken large chunks of the U.S. steel and textile industries, leaving large swaths of the country desperately under-employed; immigration from non-European and non-Christian countries.

Counter-culture trends which began in the 1960s are now mainstream and have even started to become institutionalized.

Many of these fundamental transformations had a negative effect on the indigenous economy. They were first felt in Europe, which had not benefited from the allied victory of World War II nearly as much as America. Add to this heavy immigration from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and former Soviet Union countries, and its now clear that Europe was ripe for a populist movement.

Just in the last two decades, at least nine right-wing populist parties have realized at least some political influence in Europe, among them the Swiss People’s Party, The National Front in France, The Northern League in Italy, The Party for Freedom in Netherlands and the U.K. Independence Party.

“There is a remaking of the political order, with centrist parties that have run politics over the last few decades being hallowed out and replaced by parties appealing to the fringes,” said Mark Leonard in June 2015, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The parties of the left have become representatives of public-sector workers and the creative industries, while the right represents big business and finance, and both are rather liberal in social values,” Leonard continued. “That leaves large segments of the population feeling angry and unrepresented”.

Not only have conservative populist parties won seats in European parliaments, but what some describe as “authoritarian” style politicians have been elected to prominent leadership positions. Men like Jean Marie-Le Pen in France, Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilder in Netherlands, and Matteo Salvini of Italy, have all led popular political movements in their respective countries.

In South America, Boliva’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez both led left-wing populist revolutions and were elected president of their respective countries within the past 20 years.

Now the U.S. is facing some of the world’s ills which many 20th century Americans probably thought their country was immune from. Growing income inequality and a dwindling middle-class caused by globalization, chronic drug addiction in rural areas, and a decaying infrastructure system has caused many to question not only the competence, but also the intentions of their national leaders.

Since the 1970s, real wages have not increased for 99 percent of U.S. workers, while the top one percent of income earners have seen their salaries increase 156 percent, the top .1 percent by 362 percent, during that same period of time.

On top of stagnating incomes for almost all Americans, the cost of living has sky-rocketed in relative terms. According to a report by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee, in the years between 1970 and 2009, home prices have increased 97 percent, healthcare by 50 percent, and public college by 80 percent.

Half of all U.S. jobs do not pay enough for a family of four to keep up with their bills, even if both parents are working.

With about half of the population now living paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s no surprise people are angry and fearful. A recent World Values Survey showed that American support for “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections,” has been growing since 2005.

In 2011, 44 percent of non-college graduates and 28 percent of college graduates in the U.S. said they would feel “fairly” or “very good” if the U.S. adopted a system that allowed for unconstrained executive power.

Former conservative independent presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has been warning of a political “revolution” since the 1990s and says that populism is the new ideology of the Republican Party.

“What’s different today is that the returns are in, the results are known,” Buchanan told the Washington Post in January. “Everyone sees clearly now the de-industrialization of America, the cost of blood and treasure from decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pervasive presence of illegal immigrants.”

If we can fairly say that three candidates in the presidential field have populist messages, which one’s solutions will help best to reverse America’s decline? Can Hillary Clinton defy this trend and overcome accusations that it was under her husband’s leadership when many U.S. jobs were exported to foreign countries as the result of free trade agreements like NAFTA?

No candidate is perfect, but Americans must choose their next leader carefully, lest he or she continues to take the country down the same roads which got them into the mess they find themselves today. It can and will get a lot worse with more irresponsible policy decisions.


[Washington Post] [New York Times] [Politico] [Photo courtesy oreaddaily.blogspot.com]