There are a number of definitions of populism out there that I think we need to clarify, because the term is used very loosely to describe a lot of political movements that actually don’t have a lot in common. Obviously, populism is related to popular sentiment and democracy.
One of the conventional understandings is that populism is a response to popular demands that are not sustainable. That is to say, populism satisfies popular passions in the short run but produces policies that are counterproductive or even disastrous, either fiscally or politically, in the long run.
A second view of populism is that it is politically fundamentally anti-elite. It begins with the conspiratorial view of the world that politics is controlled by elites who are operating outside of the glare of the publicity of the media, and that they are serving their own interests while pretending to serve the interests of a democratic public. More generally, it leads to a revolutionary demand to replace those elites with a different set of political actors. Indeed, those elites are usually not seen as necessarily domestic, they are linked to foreigners, to foreign conspiracies, to a lot of shadowy forces. In an age of globalization this seems very plausible to a lot of people because in fact things going on thousands of miles elsewhere in the global economy can have major impact at home.
The final definition has more to do with the political style of populism. It attacks the existing elites, it attacks the existing system, and the existing institutional structure of a society, but the attack is led by someone around whom a cult of personality is built.
During the Republican Party’s national convention, the Republican candidate said in his acceptance speech, first of all, that everything in the United States is horrible, crime is up, nobody has a job, things have been bad in the last couple of generations, etc. Then he said at the end, “I alone can fix this.” That is to say “American democracy cannot fix it, the Republican Party cannot fix it, you citizens cannot fix it. I alone, I, your leader, am necessary to fix it.”
I think that virtually every serious populist movement in history has been built around this “anti-institutionalism”. That is to say this belief that the discretionary ability of a single strong individual was necessary to overcome whatever problems exist in society. I think this is the general tenor of populist politics.
What is going on in the world more broadly is, I would say, that the democratic part of liberal democracy is rising up and attacking the liberal part. Liberal democracies are complex combinations of institutions. On one hand you have the liberal part which has to do with the law — it has to do with the rule of law, the existence of transparent rules in which power is limited in a democratic political system, and that is joined to a democratic part that operates by elections and a popular will.
There is also an important third aspect, an institutional aspect, which is the state, the institution which accumulates and uses power — and a modern state uses that power in an impersonal basis. What is characteristic of populism in general and what is going on in many parts of the world is that democratic part is creating a certain pressure and legitimacy that is directly eroding both the rule of law and the impersonal state. I think about what happened over the last decade in Argentina, and I think that this is the challenge we face here in the United States.
The President wasn’t elected by a democratic majority — in the popular vote Hilary Clinton actually got about 2.8 million votes than Donald Trump did — but he certainly won in the electoral college, and that gives him the ability to use that mandate. He constantly refers to the people as giving him the authority and the legitimacy to carry out his agenda. What that agenda has consisted of is actually in many cases trying to undermine institutions, American institutions that get in his way. It began over last summer with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is part of the Labor department and determines the official American unemployment rate. During the campaign, they say the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent. Donald Trump criticized this, saying, “No, I don’t think that’s right, the real rate is close to 40 percent. This institution is actually a partisan institution — it’s been corrupted by partisan politics, because it’s massively understating the real unemployment rate”. He’s gone on to make similar charges against the intelligence community, the Federal Reserve board, and most recently, against the entire mainstream media.
This is not the first time the United States has faced this kind of populism — it actually has a long history within the United States. In certain ways, the U.S. invented populism. Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828 — he was the first populist president of the United States. He ran against a fellow named John Quincy Adams — John Quincy Adams was part of the American elite. He went to Harvard University, his father was John Adams the second President of the United States, he was educated in Europe, he traveled and spoke several European languages. Andrew Jackson, by contrast, was a frontiersman, he didn’t have even a high school education, he was an Indian fighter, and a military hero in the war of 1812, and he was elected because at that point the United States had, for the first time in American history, given the vote to all white males. He was elected on a wave of resentment against the Harvard- and Yale-educated elites that constituted the founding generation of American democracy. Once he was elected, he said two things: I am president of the United States, I can choose who runs the government; and secondly, it doesn’t take a brilliantly educated person to run the government, almost anybody can do this. And he is the one who inaugurated a century of what would be known in American history as the spoils system, the patronage system, under which virtually every bureaucratic office in the United States was appointed by a politician as a political payoff in return for some political debt. There was no professionalism in American public service; no regular bureaucracy. The bureaucracy would change entirely all the way down to your local post office every time a new political party came in to power. The system was highly corrupt. This was a time where there were scandals in major cities, in New York, in Chicago, in Boston, and in virtually every American city which was run by a political machine.
In a sense that has always been the challenge of populism. Populism is a very crude expression of public will that does not like institutional constraints and therefore in American history in the 19th century eroded the possibility of having a modern, efficient, clean uncorrupt American state. It took about a hundred years for the United States to actually replace that system with a more modern bureaucratic one.
It is very interesting that Trump has picked Jackson as his model — the one president whose example he wants to follow — because he believes that he is leading an American revolution against the elites. Like Andrew Jackson, he is very much an American nationalist. His slogan has been “America First.” This applies to both the economy and politics. It is very interesting that he sent Steve Mnuchin, his Secretary of the Treasury to the G20 meeting, and Mnuchin completely refused to sign off on a statement criticizing protectionism, which is a remarkable shift in American economic policy. In my lifetime, we’ve not seen a similar administration that is not willing to disavow protectionism and not argue in favor of free trade.
Nationalism has become a very powerful mobilizational tool. I guess the bottom line of my story of comparative populism and the rooting of this in American history is rather more complicated than simply saying that this is an unpleasant and a potentially chauvinistic form of nationalism. Populism also represents something that is fundamentally democratic and legitimate and also represents social grievances that are legitimate.
In thinking about how to deal with populism, you have to accept the legitimacy of some of the social forces that are driving the anger that has lead people to elect populist leaders, or you are not going to deal with the underlying phenomenon.
We’ve had this long period of increasing liberal integration of the global economy led by the United States since the World War II. It’s worked very well. Global output quadrupled between 1970 and 2008, with the big crisis in the United States in 2008. People have indeed gotten richer, but not everybody has shared that wealth, and in particular, in the developed world, the working class, the people that actually make things and manufacture in industries have seen a dramatic decline in their real incomes, a collapse of their communities, and a lot of social ills such as drug abuse, and broken families. This is a group that is not well represented, and which the elites have been able to largely ignore. So populism, ultimately, is an underlying consequence of inequality. You can bemoan the institutional attacks that result from this kind of anger from populist politicians, and you can worry about the future of liberal democracy with this kind of politics, but I think that it is important to recognize that it is driven by an underlying social complaint that is real and that is legitimate. If democratic societies do not deal with it, then populism is not going to go away.
This is an excerpt from a keynote speech at “Disruption: Challenges of a New Era” conference held in March 2017 at Stanford together with Fundacion RAP. You can watch the entire speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLAngi7rzfg&t=542s