In political messaging, the definition of populism is almost always associated with the left, at least in the circles which I’ve been apart. In reality, however, associations of populism with the left by those on the right is a deceptive and intellectually abusive practice.
Here is the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition:
1.a. A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.
- The movement organized around this philosophy.
- Populism The philosophy of the Populist Party.
For the American Heritage Dictionary definition:
populism. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved November 2 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/populism
The definition of populism is actually rather ambiguous, coving many major historical political movements, such as:
The American and French revolutions
The Arab Spring
English civil wars involving Oliver Cromwell
Of course the idea of an uprising in the ant farm is a pretty scary thing to the political class, and it’s easy to see why associations with extremes of communism or fascism float around in political messaging. You’re a populist? Why, you’re on the same plane as Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler. It’s really very sad.
There’s an interesting exchange in the comments section of this Nick Rowe post between commenter Bob, apparently British and a follower of Corbyn, and commenter Tel, apparently a quite libertarian Australian, where Tel accuses Bob of being a socialist or communist, with Bob becoming insulted and accusing Tel of being a capitalist pig. It obviously was not an effective conversation.
The importance of the conversation, though, is that it highlights a huge misunderstanding. Bob, in reality, is neither a socialist nor a communist. Bob is, as they called them in Cromwell’s time, a “leveler,” and it applied those who grew tired of the privileged class through right of heredity being entitled to land, commerce, and many other things from which average people were barred, and thought it right to level the privileged to equal the stature of everyone else, but were generally liberal in nature.
I don’t necessarily agree with their policy proposals, viewing them as from a “freedom for me, but not for thee” philosophy, from which there can never be any redemption. Sure, in Cromwell’s time there was quite an excess of abuse of resources by the privileged and in the historical sense I am somewhat sympathetic to it. But I doubt its relevance after 300 years and liberalization of both politics and the economy.
To the point, however, the overthrow of the feudal system was an overall positive for the human condition. And even in the case of Cromwell and the levelers who were players in the centuries-long battle to overthrow that system, I do not view them as extreme. It simply wouldn’t happened if populism were indeed a dirty word.
To the meat of my argument, however, I find the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s meteoric rise on the political scene fascinating from the historical perspective. It is, at least in my point of view, entirely populist in nature, and it defies the generally accepted modern view of the meaning of the word populism. His supporters are generally working and small business people. They want a healthy jobs and business outlook. They want attainable aspirations toward a better future. There is no mention of government handouts. They don’t want them, and they don’t particularly want to pay for the handouts promised by the political class thus far. They want a fair shake in life without being judged or crapped on by the elites and politically connected cronies who use public policy to benefit themselves by stacking the deck against everyone else. Tossing out more government programs to satisfy the ants in the ant farm, like tossing a bone to a dog, as the elites have done for the past century simply does not work with these people. There is blood in the political water; even if Trump fails in all his aspirations the message will be heard.
I’d like to thank TravisV for handing out a healthy dose of criticism on my last post that touched on my interpretation of what I hear Trump saying because it points out my need for better clarity.
Throughout history, many revolutions and uprisings have occurred that started with aspirations of casting off the yoke of tyranny. Many of them failed by being put down. Many of them went terribly wrong, like the French and Iranian revolutions. The Arab Spring generally failed, ushering in more death and destruction than it cured as secular dictatorships were replaced with theocratic ones. Very few, like the American Revolution, were successful. But that success did not come easy, and the settling of the new America into a nation, a cohesive political unit, was a very long and messy political and, on occasion, physical process. Even still the cohesion requires maintenance. Without it, we would eventually devolve into bullets instead of ballots.
Just because most revolutions fail and those that do not usually go wrong does not mean their base tenants are not worthy of support or intellectual sympathies. Simply put, politics is a messy but necessary endeavor that, in the case of revolution, includes some items of specificity that are objectionable. In the case of the current political movement in the US, for me, that objectionable item is the fixation on immigration, and the undignified and irresponsible manner in which it is debated. But in my view, that does not mean the entire movement is unworthy of support.
Milton Friedman supported Pinnochet simply because it was less bad than the alternative of the leftist democratic tyranny that would result from those who don’t know what it is to be liberal. The point here is that the choices are never clear cut, or black and white as we’d like them to be. Over the last 8 years or so, I have become painfully aware of the need for a political reboot. The ant farm can’t keep taking the constant stream of doo doo that we had no say in creating rolling down the hill, destroying the fruits of a lifetime of labor that were attained despite having the deck stacked in every possible way against us with taxes and regulations, absurd licensing schemes, and so on.
Milton Friedman’s approach was one viewing the choices between possibilities as which way are we better off. I prefer that approach. And I believe that I am better off, if push comes to shove, supporting the populist movement rather than rejecting it.