What trumps populism?
Halfway between Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday, we this week celebrated President’s Day.
The happenstance of a Monday holiday falling exactly at the midpoint between their birthdays drew little interest, of course, at a time when all talk seems to focus on our president and the race to challenge him.
The key question dominating political discussion appears to be whether any of the seemingly thousands of opponents he faces actually has enough charisma to seriously challenge his re-election.
Much has been made of the divisive nature of the country, with a nation more polarized than at any time since the Civil War.
Depending on who you talk to, this is entirely the incumbent’s fault, entirely the fault of his political opponents, entirely the fault of mainstream media, or entirely the fault of fractured media, including social media, that allow people to hear only opinions they agree with.
Political “spinning” having become a way of life and an actual occupation for cadres of commentators these days, we respectfully offer a different spin.
What’s happening appears to be a move toward populism, a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who think their concerns are disregarded by established elites.
Although it has twice as many letters, “populist” often is used as if it were a four-letter word by our nation’s burgeoning corps of commentators and political scientists.
But should it be? Appealing to ordinary people who feel left out is a large part of what democracy is all about. And it isn’t just President Trump who evokes populist feelings.
Whereas the president embraces populism from a conservative perspective, opponent Bernie Sanders is every bit a populist from a liberal perspective. In areas where labels like that don’t matter so much, we even see populist tendencies in local politicians like county commissioner Dianne Novak and, to an extent, Marion mayor David Mayfield.
Whether they call it draining the swamp, making America great again, or simply questioning how things have been done, all have as a primary goal of challenging the way things are.
Sometimes the challenges are bold; sometimes they’re abrasive; sometimes they’re short-sighted or meddling. Exactly which adjectives we apply to which politicians may have less to do with what the policies actually are and more to do with our personal loyalty to a political party or group of government workers.
The key thing is, all are disruptive in one sense or another. And all have been elected by voters who, despite often disagreeing on what needs to be done, clearly think what has been done in the past wasn’t good enough.
Why shouldn’t they?
Parents find it increasingly difficult to pay for education that might allow their children better lives than they have had.
Young people who do manage to pay for education — and certainly those who don’t — often find themselves forced to live at home well beyond the time at which young people used to be able to afford to set out on their own.
If they get sick, they face medical bills so huge only the most affluent can afford them.
Their employers expect loyalty but offer very little in return.
If they manage to put money away for a rainy day or retirement, returns on investments are so low inflation eats them up.
Whether progressive or traditional, their values are constantly being assailed by someone on the other side.
And the neighborhoods they worked a lifetime to become part of begin lose people and value, replacing respected neighbors with vacant homes and itinerate renters perceived to be of lower social standing.
Populism isn’t caused by politicians or media or some cruel cycle that causes it to rear its head every 50 years or so.
It’s caused by the institutions of society seeming to be beyond anyone’s control, pandering more to the concerns of the uber-wealthy, the bureaucrats, or those caught in the lowest levels of society’s safety nets.
The rest of us are all too often stuck, like forgotten middle children, in between.
We can continue to take out our frustration at the ballot box, electing candidates — nationally and locally — who stir things up to the point of haphazardly spilling the batter of public life. Or we can search for a new answer.
Some say that answer is a new political party. Others suggest the real answer is to begin attempting to understand those we don’t agree with.
If you’re one of those readers we wrote about last week, we’d recommend a book: “Don’t Label Me” by Irshad Manj. She is a lesbian and Muslim who doesn’t want to be known as such and who has found, after talking human to human to people she thought totally hated people of other religions and lifestyles that they aren’t the ignorant rednecks she thought they were.
That’s where we in the heartland have it over almost everyone else. Although we don’t live in a place known for its diversity, we’re just small enough that we still value people as individuals.
While some of us still harbor disdain for various groups as a whole, individuals within those groups are just fellow human beings, facing the same challenges we do. And so are the bureaucrats many of us think are merely feathering their nests at our expense.
If you want to eliminate all the high comedy, drama, and tragedy of ham-handed populist leaders, both locally and nationally, perhaps the best way to start is by building bridges and finding commonality among ourselves so we need not throw up our arms in disgust and vote mainly for candidates who will just stir things up.
That’s not to say that any of the politicians mentioned are people who deserve to be driven from office — or, for that matter, retained. It’s simply saying that if we want civility in government, both locally and nationally, it may very well start with civility in our own neighborhoods.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified Feb. 20, 2020