- - Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Despite evidence from the 2016 presidential campaign, doubts dominate about populism’s ability to win America’s ultimate prize. “It can’t happen here” is as wrong as the political establishment’s misreading of the populist movement itself. Populism’s history here and abroad argues a populist triumph could eventually occur — if not this November, then soon.

Donald Trump rode a populist insurgency to the Republican nomination; Hillary Clinton barely beat back a populist uprising for the Democratic nomination. Until recent personal allegations, Mr. Trump was running neck and neck with Mrs. Clinton. Populism has definitely overperformed in this election cycle. Yet despite undeniable success, America’s political establishment still dismisses populism’s possibility of ultimate victory.

Saying populism cannot prevail here means ignoring that it has before.

America’s most famous example was Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential victory that realigned the nation’s political system. Populism would again arise in the 1890s, not ebbing until its policy goals were largely co-opted by the two major parties.

Overseas, it has been on the rise for some time — and not just in the Third World, but across First World Europe.

Our own history shows populism is hardly un-American. Most Americans would simply say America is a democracy. “Democracy” is derived from the Greek word “demos,” meaning “the people” — specifically, the ordinary people of ancient Greece.

Since its founding, virtually all changes to America’s political system — constitutional and political party rules — have increased popular participation. Voting rights have expanded by race, gender and age. Since 1913, the Constitution’s 17th Amendment has allowed for the direct election of U.S. senators. And both Democrats and Republicans now rely almost exclusively on primary elections to choose their presidential nominees — not party leadership.

Just as populism’s political rise is no surprise, its economic impetus has also increased.

From 1946 through 2000, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grew an average of 3.3 percent annually. From 2001 through 2015, it averaged just 1.8 percent. And from 2009 through 2015, it averaged just 1.5 percent. In the last three quarters, it has grown 1.4 percent, 0.8 percent and 0.9 percent — with no growth above 2 percent since the second quarter of 2015.

Nominal unemployment is 5 percent, but it is only so low because America’s labor force participation rate — the percent of possible workers working or looking for work — is the lowest in four decades. Other than during the recent crisis, September’s rate of 62.9 percent is the lowest since October 1977 (62.4 percent).

While the scope of America’s political participation has increased over the long term, its economy has slowed markedly over a shorter but still extended period. Such a combination has produced strong reactions elsewhere; it is absurd to think it would not happen here.

However, there is no simple economic and political cause-and-effect relationship at work. The economy is an important test for political legitimacy, but hardly the only one.

The financial crisis was as unforeseen by the political establishment as the predicted recovery has been unrealized. While the economy slowed, government grew in size and scope. During the last 15 years of slow growth, government spending grew from 17.6 percent of GDP in 2001 to 21.1 percent this year. America’s national debt more than doubled over just the past eight years. Such a huge increase raises the question: Why has the establishment been unable to achieve results?

Less quantifiable benchmarks exist, too. A pervasive fear from diminished security exists at home and abroad, encompassing foreign terrorism and a domestic absence of law and order.

America’s political establishment deigns to acknowledge the cumulative effect of fear in populism’s rise, choosing to explain it as a product of naivete on the part of populism’s adherents. Instead, it is the establishment’s naivete that should be astounding.

Considering the threats, it would be surprising if a populist response did not exist. The reason is simple: Recent events have served to delegitimize America’s political leaders.

Rather than seeking to define what populism is in all its disparate elements, the obvious answer should simply be to see what it is not: the establishment.

Perhaps the political class’ delegitimization has come not from its failure to address the threats so many perceive, but from its refusal to truly acknowledge them. Such failure completes the divorce between the establishment and average Americans. This split is wider and deeper than the Washington elite understands and it extends beyond the problems of the moment. This is why the populist ascendancy will not simply vanish after one election cycle — even if the economy is fixed.

If 2016 offers one lesson it is: The establishment must come to grips with populism because populism may soon come to grip America even more firmly.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide