Populism is the political science of providing simple answers to complex questions. It flourishes in periods of profound change, with all their attendant uncertainty. For example, when a tangled skein of forces — technical, scientific, economic and cultural — transformed Western societies from primarily rural to urban and agrarian to industrial, every walk of life was altered.
Revolutions erupted around the world. Wars were waged among dying monarchies. A person could spend a career trying to explain it all, but the typical populist boiled it down to a problem of railroad barons and Jews.
We are living in another such era of profound change and uncertainty. I got a taste of the complexity when I interviewed former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen. A jumble of forces — from globalism to smartphones to fertility rates — are somehow combining to hollow out the middle class. Rising inequality, Yellen suggested, is the defining economic fact of our era.
Entire careers will be devoted in coming generations to explaining these disruptions. There are books to be written on myriad factors: the globalised workforce, the rise of automation, the acceleration of shipping, the science of supply-chain management.
Other tomes will examine the cultural changes that have resulted in smaller families. Advanced societies are rapidly ageing, with all that ageing entails: stagnating consumption, rising medical costs, slower productivity gains. Scholars will chronicle the shift from a hardware to a software economy, which uncouples economic activity from natural resources and allows wealth to pile up in a few favoured locales.
“Move fast and break things” was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s motto, but it captured a spirit widely shared by elites. In their excitement and haste, they lost touch with those whose social contracts and hopes for the future were part of what was broken
Long period of low growth
In economic terms, Yellen observed, the developed world seems to be entering a long period of low growth. Despite massive budget deficits that any Keynesian would expect to goose gross domestic product, future expansion of the US economy is projected to average less than 2 per cent per year.
This is a big deal: Growing the pie, as opposed to slicing it up, has been the key to creating America’s middle class. Slow growth is surely a contributing cause of its decline.
The outlook is even more troubled for Europe and Japan, limping along like economic zombies. And where low growth threatens the opportunity to advance — the essence of middle-class society — divisions open up along educational, religious, generational and geographical lines. Such complexity is loam for the seeds of poisonous populism.
Just as the US isn’t alone in confronting the problems of a low-growth future, president Donald Trump’s America isn’t the only home to a populist resurgence. Blaming immigrants and refugees for the economic disruption of the middle class is as popular in Berlin, Brest and Brighton as it is in Pennsylvania. (to name just one buckle on the tool belt of stymied workers). And scapegoating global elites is as essential to Brexit as it is to Trumpism.
So what’s the antidote? Complexity feeds populism; simplicity tends to cure it. The wave of populism that swept the United States in the 1920s faded on contact with moral clarity and national purpose.
Twin crises — the Great Depression and Second World War — sharply focused the minds of most Americans on clear and present dangers. But that’s some harsh medicine. Populism can also be cured through competent, responsible leadership. The rise of today’s populism cannot be blamed on demagogues alone.
A measure of responsibility belongs to an entire generation of political leaders, thought leaders and cultural leaders who blithely celebrated disruption and change without enough concern for the wreckage. “Move fast and break things” was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s motto, but it captured a spirit widely shared by elites. In their excitement and haste, they lost touch with those whose social contracts and hopes for the future were part of what was broken.
Stem the tide
Unfortunately, instead of an infusion of leadership, we appear to be in for more of the same.
Regardless of where populism rises on the political spectrum, it is inevitably fated to fail. Simple prescriptions prove inadequate to a complex world. We can shut out the immigrants — or if you prefer, we can tax the billionaires. What we can’t do is stem the tides of change. Sooner or later, they demand our attention.
— Washington Post
David James Von Drehle is a noted American author and journalist.