Why Doesn’t the US Have a Populist Party?

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait wrote a great article recently, Donald Trump Is Getting Serious About Populism. I don’t want to get into his whole argument about Trump; go read the article. But I was thrilled to see what he had to say on the issue of populism. Because this has been the argument that I’ve been making for a very long time. “One of the important underlying facts of American politics is that rich people tend to have more socially liberal and economically conservative beliefs than the country as a whole.” This is exactly the opposite of populism.

So Trump is getting more populist by attacking what Teddy Roosevelt might have called “the interests”: big banks, defense contractors, big oil. And Byron York, maven of conservative thinking, wrote, As Vote Nears, a More Radical Trump Emerges. As Chait noted, “The new version of Trump is less radical, not more.” The problem is that we’ve gotten so used to a government by, for, and of the rich that it seems “radical” when a politician tries to appeal to the people.

Note that when Trump was just talking about Mexican rapists, the issue that conservatives had was not on substance, but on style. In their own ways, they wanted to “build a wall.” The Republican Party has had a “secure the boarder” mantra ever since Obama got into office, despite the fact of record deportations, and, More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the US. So Trump wasn’t a radical on that issue — just coarse and low. It’s only when he starts attacking the rich that he gets the label of “radical.”

And note: the conservative movement can’t get enough of attacks on the poor. And there is a whole industry of conservative pundits like Robert Samuelson who spend most of their time attacking middle class retired people. But that’s not radical because “radical” is defined relative to what the rich as a group think.

Populism Is Popular

I’m very sympathetic to populism. There are problems with it, of course. I greatly value diversity — for its own sake, but also because it is good biologically and sociologically. In general, it is also good economically. Immigrants enrich us — or they would so long as there is a fair economic system where the fruits of the nation are shared. (And they would be with populist economic policy.) And I’m not a social conservative. Most important of all, I consider reproductive rights, in addition to other things, an economic issue. But overall, I respect populism, and would give up a fair amount in order to get its economic policies.

But what really defines populism is that it is popular. If I had no knowledge of modern American politics, I would have thought that our country would have two parties that are on either side of populism. There would be one party that was a little more economically liberal and socially conservative, and there would be another that was a little more economically conservative and socially liberal. But we don’t have that at all. We have two parties that are distinctly to the right on economic issues. And on social issues, they are all over the map.

There are many reasons for why this is. Certainly, I think a big part of it is segregation and racism. But my interest here is not in explaining the why of the matter. The fact of the matter is that we clearly don’t live in a democracy, except in a nominal sense. This is bad for us and has been so for a long time. But you can depend upon not just conservatives but the mainstream media itself claiming that any move towards a more fair economic system is “radical.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

16 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t the US Have a Populist Party?

  1. So today I got into a Facebook discussion on college and it being “free.” Which of course it won’t be but in this country no one in the media properly talks about anything. Anyway, I pointed out that if Sanders plan was enacted, it would not be free but the costs would be spread around to everyone so the costs would be lower. So naturally some dude immediately responds with “why should I pay for it if I don’t use it?” The conversation went on normally from there but I decided to ask “why” did this person think it was necessary to make it difficult for any student.

    So far all he has said is that he had to go into the military for four years and that there are “options.” He doesn’t have an answer because it is probable that he has never considered that he is seeking to make it difficult for a student to keep going to school. Or he thinks “if I did it, someone else should have to.” It is something that is immensely popular on one side because they tend to have a very self centered view of the world.


    • There’s this idea that equality is simply not having a law that says you can’t do it. Basically, conservatives believe in “meritocracy” in theory, but it comes down to: if you are poor and black and brilliant and lucky, you can do things that rich white men get without trying. It is a recipe for failure of the society — exactly what they claim their “free market” dreams are supposed to create.

      • Pretty much. Someone else chimed in that since his kid had to take out $150,000, so should everyone. I responded with “the reason we still do it is because we have realized that was a stupid way of managing our money.”

        But you know, whatever to stop “those people” from getting ahead.

        • Human life doesn’t start at conception, but inequality does. I wonder what those good anti-choice Christians think of that. Just kidding! I know: they don’t give a damn.

          • They think you are wrong because obviously every blastocyst is precious in the eyes of the Lord.

            Then they scamper away while you are trying to put your eyes back in your head after they rolled so hard they fell out.

            • It’s amazing the contortions that evangelicals have had to make for their religion to be something that requires nothing of them but so much of everyone else. I don’t even want to get started. It’s just too exhausting.

    • I actually have a soft spot for the old argument that young people should be required to contribute some service time (helping the old, homeless shelters, etc) in return for free college. But maybe we should only apply that to rich kids before we allow them to pay for tuition at Yale!

      • I’m not against mandatory government service — not as repayment for college but as a rite of citizenship.

        If so many of the power elite think that inequality is all about education (and it isn’t — not even close), they should want to provide free education. But they don’t. Because they are a bunch of hypocrites who should have all their wealth stripped from them and and then they should be placed on an island to see what kind of libertarian utopia they can build. Forgive me, I’m cranky from being sick and having to spend two days working with a right wing fanatic who think healthcare costs a lot in the US because we have insurance and people use too much of it (like other countries don’t have insurance) and isn’t aware that our doctors get paid twice the going rate. Not that that would matter, because that’s all the government’s fault too, and the solution is to get rid of the government after she’s made millions milking it. Go team!

        • Ha — “Survivor: Self-Reliance Island.” A new reality show. Within five minutes they’d be roasting butterball Limbaugh over a campfire. I wonder who’d win? They’re all deceptively clever but none are super-bright. My bet would be on Chris Christie. Sometimes doughy guys like that are surprisingly strong. I could see him beating Rand Paul to death with a conch shell.

          Don’t apologize for being ill. 15 years of overwork finally caught up with me this week and my back exploded. For the first time in my life, I am taking legally-prescribed painkillers, and I am sucking them down like M&Ms. They’re useless! I’d much rather have street drugs!

          Among other things (like drugs costing more here than anywhere else and doctors being overpaid), a major contributor to health-care costs are all the damn deductables/co-pays. Nobody wants to go to the doctor for a minor issue if they can help it. And then minor issues become major issues, and that costs more.

          I’m so sorry you have to listen to hate radio. That stuff doesn’t make me angry; it just makes we want to weep uncontrollably.

          • The co-pays and deductibles are all part of this conservative idea that if patients had “skin in the game” then they wouldn’t over-use healthcare. But the truth is that people aren’t overusing healthcare. It’s the same old thing. Conservatives will not look at the real problem because it would require a solution that they are ideologically opposed to.

            What I think the “rich guys on an island” would show is that our success as a civilization is not about the “winners.” It is about the network. What makes us more productive than other apes is that we have the ability to share and store information. A successful airplane designer today would be nothing without Archimedes’ work 2000 years ago. As a society, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that individuals are really important, but they aren’t. If Archimedes had never been born, another person would have come up with the same ideas. We are all in this together and we should start acting like it. But instead, we want to pretend that the rich deserve what they have as though they are better than the rest. It’s disgusting. Assuming civilization lasts that long, in hundreds of years, people will look back at this time and think that the deification of the individual was such a bizarre concept. They look back on it as we now look back on slavery. “So they thought that just because one guy was slightly better at one really minor thing, he deserved to have almost infinite wealth while other people starved to death?” Actually, they will see it as much worse than we see slavery, although as part of the same thing.

          • That is true about people refusing to see the doctor until it is too late. I have some kind of pain in my right side right where it could be anything from a simple ovarian cyst to my appendix demanding to be let out. But I don’t go to the doctor because it is just annoying, it doesn’t seem to have caused a fever, I don’t throw up and I don’t think having to spend hours on testing to be told it is something simple is worth my time or money.

            So I don’t go. And maybe one day I will find out it was a tumor and I am going to die in two months. On the bright side though, they apparently give you the good drugs then!

            • Happily, I can promise you it’s not appendicitis. That takes only a few days to go from bad to unbearable. I would try giving yourself the maximum recommended dosage of ibuprofen or naproxen (Advil or Aleve, but the generic ones are the same) for a few days. If the pain doesn’t go away, you need to have it checked out. If it does go away, you might have back pain/muscle strain yourself! You can look up exercises on the Internet to help strengthen your back muscles; anything low-impact (that doesn’t hurt) is good, like walking and yoga.

              Or, if you have marketable skills, you could move to a civilized country where health care is a right!

        • I don’t know if it will make you any happier to say this, but in Canada, people generally are subjected to less directly-bullying right-wing speech at work, even in the most conservative parts of the country. Lots of offensive anti-union talk, however, and not just from bosses.

          • Well, it was just two days. And the second day I had the radio turned off. I’m over it. Kinda. It’s good to remember that these people exist. And even more important: they think because they listen to this nonstop propaganda that they are “well informed.” But they get almost no actual information.

            Compare it to someone who reads only Frankly Curious. They would get a skewed view of the world. But they wouldn’t get any information intentionally deceptive. And they wouldn’t be told again and again that they are getting the truth here and that they can’t trust anyone else. That’s where the real danger lies. You can’t fight with a Fox News addict because the single most important thing they’ve learned is that unless they hear information from a conservative outlet, it can’t be trusted.

            The day I was there, I got to listen to Michael Savage do 2 hours on why it is clear that Scalia was murdered. It was mostly, “Scalia was interfering with Obama; what do you think happened to him?!” And note: Michael Savage lives at least part of the year in the Bay Area. I know a few people who know him. He refuses to talk politics off his show. He’s a coward. Have you ever noticed how liberal talk show hosts will take calls without a screener but conservative talk show hosts will only allow conservatives (and the occasional idiot liberals) through? It’s all about having a closed system where nothing can ever disrupt what they’ve decided to believe in. And the listeners totally fall for it.

  2. I stumbled across some Republican candidate recently who identified himself as a “Bull Moose”.

    One of my former housemates was a German exchange student. She paid no tuition, but did have to maintain a grade-point average and was only allowed to change majors once or maybe twice.

  3. Wow, had not heard Bull Moose in a heckofa long time. I joined the Moose Lodge in MN……that’s as close as I got.

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